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The Christchurch couple who founded an orphanage in the wake of the Armenian Genocide


OPINION: Today, Antelias is just another suburb of Beirut, the sprawling capital of Lebanon. But in 1922, it was a serene seaside town surrounded by rolling hills verdant with orange trees and olive orchards. And it was here in this little village that two Kiwis established and ran a place of safety in a region plagued by grief and destitution.

Between 1915 and 1923, under the cover of the First World War and its bloody aftermath, at least one million Armenians, an ethnic and religious minority of the Ottoman Empire, were exterminated by a brutal regime – the very same regime Anzac soldiers were battling to defeat at Gallipoli.

Killing squads swept through Anatolia butchering Armenian men and boys. The regime organised mass deportations – death marches – for the remaining women and children down to the Syrian deserts where concentration camps awaited them.

The “Australasian Orphanage” in Antelias, today part of Lebanon. Left to right is Reverend Cresswell, an Australian minister touring the orphanage, Lydia Knudsen from Christchurch, Hilda King, and John Knudsen.

Other Armenians were subject to mass sexual violence and slavery, or were forced to convert from Christianity to Islam.

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The world knew about these crimes, now known as the Armenian Genocide, commemorated on April 24. New Zealand newspapers, alongside the British and American press, covered the genocide extensively. New Zealanders knew about the atrocities perpetrated by the Ottomans. And even before the First World War had ended, they began to donate money, goods, and clothes to an unprecedented international relief effort for Armenians.

The largest aid organisation was Near East Relief, formed in New York in 1915. NER quickly spread its branches across the globe, working to provide succour and comfort to an entire people whittled down to the very marrow of their being. It established orphanages, aid stations, and safe houses throughout the Ottoman Empire to care for survivors – many of whom were orphaned children.

One of these places of refuge was at Antelias, in Lebanon. It was built from the ground up and overseen by John Knudsen and his wife Lydia.

John Henry Knudsen was born in Christchurch in 1890 to a Norwegian father and a New Zealand mother. His future wife Lydia Helen Davison was born six years later to Scottish émigrés. John attended Christ’s College, and worked for a time as a clerk at a brewing company before being called up to serve in the Canterbury Regiment in 1917.

He spent his war on the Western Front, and was demobilised in Egypt in 1919, where his mother, Margaret, had been working as a British Red Cross volunteer since 1916.

Inspired by his mother’s charitable example, John joined the American Red Cross, then Near East Relief. His accounting skills proved useful, and he was eventually appointed as NER’s assistant-director for the Syria-Palestine area. During this time, he met Lydia and they were married in June 1920 in Cairo, on the other side of the world.

The Middle East was a dangerous place in the First World War’s aftermath, and John often risked his life for his work.

In 1922, he and Lydia were chosen to supervise the building of a new orphanage for parentless Armenian children at Antelias. When they arrived, hundreds of Armenian boys were already on-site, and the kids built the entire facility from the ruins of an old paper mill.

In December 1922, an American NER campaigner named Loyal Lincoln Wirt arrived in Beirut after touring Australia and New Zealand, where he succeeded in setting up NER relief committees in every major city.

He suggested to the Knudsens that the new orphanage at Antelias could be supplied by donations exclusively from these trans-Tasman committees, and suggested the name “Australasian Orphanage”. The idea stuck.

From 1922 until 1925, the Knudsens and the Australasian Orphanage cared for thousands of Armenian boys and girls. Almost every tin of food, item of clothing, and bag of money was shipped to Antelias from New Zealand and Australia. At its height, the roll call was 1700 children.

They were taught regular school subjects like history, arithmetic, and languages, alongside more practical skills like carpentry, baking, blacksmithing, and tailoring – a way to give the kids a new start in life.

The story of the Knudsens and the Australasian Orphanage is but one of many powerful examples of New Zealand’s connection to Armenians and the Armenian Genocide. Anzac soldiers captured at Gallipoli witnessed the genocide, while others gave their lives defending survivors.

This story has largely slipped from New Zealanders’ memory because of modern Turkey’s vociferous campaign to deny the Armenian Genocide and bury its memory alongside the bodies of the more than one million Armenians.

And because of the close Anzac “special relationship”, successive New Zealand governments have refused to acknowledge these connections, or indeed the genocide itself.

But the deep and profound bonds formed at the Australasian Orphanage between New Zealand and the Armenian people remains alive in spirit and memory.

We must continue to honour that memory, no matter what our powerful friends say.

Maria Armoudian is a senior lecturer in politics and international relations at the University of Auckland. James Robins is a critic and columnist who is working on a book detailing the connections between Anzac and the Armenian Genocide. 

 – Stuff


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