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Survivor of Ethnic Cleansing

Despite Genocide, Aristotle Onassis,
Hollywood and cheesecake, he's
still the 'Professor of Work.'


Help is on the way

North Coast residents assist in relief of displaced people

[photo of Jacob Tsitrian looking at photo albums]ETHNIC CLEANSING. The men killed. Refugees, mostly women and children, fleeing with what little they can carry. It must all sound horribly familiar to Jacob Tsitrian, 81, a survivor of the genocide of Armenians following World War I.

Now he is a Humboldt County resident, known for the luscious cheesecakes and other delights he makes and sells through local outlets, including the North Coast Co-Op. But when Turks killed his father and elderly grandfather, Jacob was only a baby. His mother and blind grandmother escaped with Jacob and his sister. Rescued by a Greek ship, the family started a new life in the tiny town of Kalamata, Greece.

The young mother took whatever work she could find - laundry, cleaning, sewing with the hand-cranked machine she somehow managed to bring from the old country.

But Jacob soon learned to make his own way. "I became a professor of work," he explains.

[photo of Tsitrian with cheesecake]Tsitrian's life of labor is impressive by any measure - years worked (about 70 so far), miles covered or variety of jobs mastered.

Tsitrian fell into his first job at the age of 11 after quitting school to escape the beatings administered by his teacher. He began hanging around the slaughter-house and found he could earn a penny now and then by fetching coffee for the butcher.

"Back then, a penny would buy two big oranges," Tsitrian recalls.

One day the butcher gave young Jacob the tripe (stomach) and forelegs of a lamb. These "undesirable" bits were a treat for the Tsitrians, ordinarily able to afford meat once a month at best. Jacob's mother made soup more soup than the family could eat. Nothing could be wasted, so Jacob was sent to sell the leftovers at a nearby gambling house.

"I had only two bowls and no way to wash them. The third man had to wait until the first two had finished. But they loved it. They gave me two drachmas all profit. Enough to buy bread for two weeks."

After that, Tsitrian never missed the twice-weekly butchering days at the slaughterhouse. He sold his mother's soup in all of the half-dozen gambling houses. "Now I had four bowls no waiting."

Despite the success of the soup business, Jacob was thrilled when the town leather tanner asked him if he wanted to work. "No one had ever offered me a job before."

The thrill dimmed a bit when the tanner spelled out the job description. "You take this bucket and these tongs and collect dog droppings," the tanner instructed, explaining that he used the stuff in the tanning process.

"I had never heard of such a thing," Tsitrian says. "But he promised to pay five drachmas for every full bucket. My mother could not earn five drachmas for a full days work!"

With Tsitrian's two jobs, the family now "lived great" in the young boy's view. They all lived in one room, and Jacob had no shoes, but now they had meat all the time and money for other food. This was all Jacob knew about where the money went. His mother would tell him only that they were poor and must save in case she could no longer work.

Tsitrian learned where much of the money had gone when his big sister turned 16 and married. At the wedding, Jacob's mother pulled from her skirt a gold chain strung with gold coins and placed it around her daughter's neck as the young bride's dowry.

"All the guests were stunned," Tsitrian said, his expression making it clear that no one was more stunned than he.

"Never in my life have I cried so hard that I was cheated. They bought me some toys, but I was 13 - too old for toys."

Feeling estranged from his family, Tsitrian ran away, walking three days to Athens, the first big city he had ever seen.

For a while he worked as the Athenian 1930s version of a box boy. He would rent a big basket, then follow behind a woman as she shopped in the open markets, placing her purchases in the basket. Tsitrian carried her groceries to her home for a small tip.

[photo of Tsitrian in Perry Mason episode]For a short time he supplemented this income with a stint in show biz. Seeing him on the street, a director said he would like Jacob to appear in a play - if Jacob could cry on cue. Tsitrian did a rare thing for him - he admitted he did not know whether he could do the job. So the director slapped him across the face. "There," the director said with satisfaction, "now you know how to cry." During the run of the play, any time it looked like Jacob might not produce tears, the director would raise a threatening hand and the little actor would cry as required.

But most of the time being a box boy was too tame for a young teen, so Jacob headed to Athen's port of Piraeus. He knew nothing of boats, but life on a tug looked a bit easier than life on a fishing boat, so he asked a tug boat captain for work. The captain, known as "Aristo," hired him to swab the decks and help with the lines. He earned five drachmas a day, enough to get by. It was even enough to buy cigarettes. Unfortunately, Aristo had a habit of bumming smokes from Tsitrian and rarely returning the favor. Tsitrian remembered this when Aristo made a name and a few bucks for himself in shipping during World War II. His full name? Aristotle Onassis.

When Tsitrian heard about the job of sponge diving, he left Aristo's tug and moved on to try this new occupation.

"I could swim a bit. I didn't know that swimming wasn't anything like sponge diving."

[photo of Tsitrian in 1959 as diver]After a few months apprenticing with the sponge divers of Kalimnos, Tsitrian was ready to don the heavy diving suit and try it himself.

"The first time I was not sure I'd come up alive or dead."

He was also not sure he'd come up with any sponges. Underwater, sponges looked different and it took him a moment to recognize them. "Down there, there was no one to ask," he grins. He was pleased to find he brought up a pile of sponges equal to the haul of the other divers.

He kept the diving job for about a year but called it quits when he realized "I had made more money collecting dog droppings."

The call of money became a shout when Tsitrian overheard a café customer say it was possible to earn one hundred drachmas a day on the tobacco farms around Salonika. With three friends, he traveled to that region and found the stories were true. He also learned the reason for the astounding pay the work was back- breaking, stoop labor.

Tsitrian lucked out, however, landing the comparatively "easy" job of water carrier. With two donkeys, he hauled buckets of water from the creek to the workers. For this, he earned the same pay as the field hands 100 drachmas a day. In Tsitrian's words, "Now we're talking money."

He sent some of his new wealth home to his mother, his anger from the wedding incident having finally subsided.

Tsitrian's "curriculum" expanded. He learned to drive and began mixing his farm labor with mechanical work on cars and tractors. Though not yet 20, "by now I can do anything, " Tsitrian declared, "I am a professor of work."

But then in 1939 war came again. "I could never forget what Greece did for me - opened the doors to save our lives. I was never a Greek citizen, but I enrolled in the Greek Army to repay the debt."

And repay it he did. Tsitrian was wounded 13 times, was taken prisoner three times and escaped that many times.

In 1954, he came to the United States.

[map of Eastern Europe]

"I came to American for the freedom. After the war, everyone talked about America," he said.

So the "professor" continued to work at various jobs in New York, Florida, and Southern California. For eight years he appeared in films as cowboys and gangsters. "What else could I play with this face?," he asked, breaking into a most ungangsterish smile.

Eventually, his career in the food world "just happened." He started out washing dishes in a hotel and ended up owning a restaurant.

As a gourmet chef, Tsitrian has always prided himself on using only the best ingredients.

"Even as a young boy, I was an aristocrat of food. We were the poorest of the community, but I never could tolerate food that was burned or soggy. I had good taste."

His restaurant in Southern California was doing well when health problems caused by the smog forced him to move. First he went to Willits, but many of his customers faded away with the logging industry. Again he moved, opening The Generous Armenian in Eureka.

Now he has closed the restaurant to focus on his wholesale food business. Though in his 80s, he shows no signs of slowing down. He bakes about 40 cheesecakes a week for the North Coast Co-Op, Eureka Natural Foods, the Doubletree Hotel and other area restaurants. Occasionally he even drives to Redding to deliver some to a market there.

He said he's always developing new food items, but his most intriguing product is the ancient rose petal jam. The recipe was passed down from his "grandmother's grandmother's grandmother." For hundreds of years, his family made the delicacy to sell to pashas all over Turkey.

Tsitrian's mother taught him the secret and now he makes it from roses he grows himself. Recently he sold some to the White House or, as Tsitrian says, "to that Casanova."

Tsitrian is unsure whether President Clinton is doing the right thing in a long-standing "mess" that has engrossed much of the Balkan region. However, he does agree that the cycle of violence that has changed the players and plagued the area needs to end somewhere.

"Why should they kill each other?" he said. The senseless nature of the war spears his heart when he hears of the massacres in Kosovo. And now, NATO officials fear they've identified mass grave sites from satellite pictures, the Associated Press reported this week.

"Let's put it this way. I was there," he said of the Yugoslavian battle. "I know it looks exactly like what the Turks did to the Armenians."


1. Jacob Tsitrian looks over pictures unveiling his life as a survivor. (Photo by Brandi Easter)

2. Tsitrian in kitchen with his cheesecake. (Photo by Brandi Easter)

3. Tsitrian as an oil company diver in Equador in 1959. (Photo courtesy of Jacob Tsitrian)

4. Tsitrian played an attorney in an episode of Perry Mason. His one line was "I don't think we have a chance." (Photo courtesy of Jacob Tsitrian)

Help is on the way

One North Coast businesswoman need only remember her trip as a tourist several years ago to a Nazi death camp to spark her support for displaced ethnic Albanians.

"I feel terrible about what's going on," said Barbara Groom of the Lost Coast Brewery. "Ethnic cleansing there's no reason for this."

Groom equated Nazi leader Adolph Hitler's movement and extermination of the Jews during the Holocaust from 1939-45 with the crisis in the Balkans, deemed the most massive displacement seen in Europe in half a century.

"And these (ethnic Albanians) didn't even have time to pack a suitcase," she said of Serbian leader's Slobodan Milosevic's crackdown that began 14 months ago.

In the last few weeks since the NATO bombing campaign began, nearly half a million Kosovars have fled or were driven out of their homeland by Serbian forces, the Associated Press reported.

Ethnic Albanians made up 90 percent of the 2 million pre-war populace of Kosovo, a province in the main republic in Yugoslavia. To escape atrocities, many have fled south to neighboring Macedonia and Albania.

Groom said the desperation from news reports prompted her to put out cans on her brewery bar counter to collect cash donations from her customers that will be delivered to the Humboldt County Chapter of the American Red Cross.

The Red Cross will use the collective monetary aid to buy food, medicines and tents among other supplies overseas.

Other efforts are underway locally. An employee from the Safeway in Arcata is trying to receive clearance from her corporation to accept donations from the grocer's customers. Employees have already made donations.

At Humboldt State University in Arcata, Tiffany Lee-Youngren, a student who started the local charter of Amnesty International three years ago, passes a jar around in her classes and at a table in the quad at noon to collect donations for the refugees.

Groom, hoping her customers will chip in more for the relief effort than nickels and dimes, said she realizes it's hard for Americans to understand the importance of helping others halfway across the world. Many don't know what the conflict is about much less where exactly it is, she said.

But North Coast residents will probably come through.

"Humboldt County has a history of being generous in times like these," Red Cross chapter Executive Director John Gladding said. The local chapter's Hurricane Mitch humanitarian effort received donations long after the major storm ravaged Central America.

The American Red Cross has been involved in the Balkans conflict since 1993, providing 40 working delegates and $35 million worth of emergency humanitarian assistance to those in need, a Red Cross statement read.

Prior to the launch of NATO air strikes in Yugoslavia, the American Red Cross was working with the Yugoslavian Red Cross to feed more than 60,000 seniors, mainly refugees from the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Financial contributions are accepted by the North Coast chapter of the American Red Cross, c/o International Response Fund/Kosovo Refugees, P.O. Box 3402, Eureka, 95502-3402 and at 800-HELPNOW or en Español at 800-257-7575.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has also administered a help hotline issuing a list of agencies that callers may donate Kosovo relief funds to 800-872-4373.

by Susan Wood


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