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Recounting Righteous Acts in Times of Hopelessness

After the attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand in March, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern vowed never to mention the name of the terrorist responsible for those horrific actions. “Speak the names of those who were lost, rather than the name of the man who took them,” she told her parliamentary colleagues. “He may have sought notoriety, but we in New Zealand will give him nothing. Not even his name.” Hearing this, I was reminded of the Bible verse, Proverbs 10:7—“The remembrance of the righteous is a blessing, but the name of the wicked will rot.”
April 24 commemorates the start of the Armenian Genocide in the Ottoman Empire. We know the names of the government and local leaders who orchestrated the deadly deportations and massacres because it is important for our understanding of the attitudes, motives and actions that lead to the genocide. There were also thousands of members of the Special Organization, the gendarmerie, vigilante groups and others who carried out the wicked deeds. Most of their names are not known. Like Prime Minister Ardern said, we don’t need to know them. They have rotted away, as is just. Instead, we remember the victims of the genocide and the survivors.
In the last few years there has been a growing movement to include the righteous in the remembrance of tragedies. The term ‘righteous’ became part of our parlance following the Holocaust when Jews began to identify non-Jews who aided Jews during the terror of the Nazi regime as righteous people.
As I was researching for my book, Grit and Grace in a World Gone Mad: Humanitarianism in Talas, Turkey 1908-1923, I came across many examples of righteous people who helped Ottoman Armenians during this period of terror. The righteous were of different ethnicities and nationalities, but they all had one thing in common: a deep-seated streak of humanity.
In some cases, as with North American missionaries stationed in Turkey, there was a sense of friendship and compassion mixed with religious duty. For humanitarian aid workers, who were not allowed in the country until the Ottoman government fell, it was part of their innate and professional desire to rehabilitate and reconstruct communities in need. Some of the righteous were friends and neighbors of Armenians. There were even government officials and military personnel who believed that the Ottoman government’s policies were illegal, immoral and vile. All of these people took whatever actions within their power in order to help.
As research into this period of history continues, the list of righteous people grows. Some of their names are familiar, such as American Ambassador Henry Morgenthau, who was one of the first international leaders to sound the alarm on the world stage; Norwegian nurse Bodil Biørn and German military lieutenant Armin Wegner, who took photographs as evidence of the terror and its aftermath; and Danish missionary Marie Jacobsen, who worked tirelessly to alleviate pain and suffering.
Others are not so well-known, and some will remain anonymous forever; it’s important to honor them and their acts of kindness as well. I discovered the following instrumental people back when I was working on my book.
While we don’t necessarily know their names, we do know of the righteous of groups like the Trebizond Area Turks and the Greeks. In the summer of 1915 almost 6,000 Armenians had been deported from Trebizond (Trabzon) though 500 or so escaped into the woods, caves and dens of the nearby mountains. In the spring of 1916 when the Allies temporarily occupied the area, a missionary recorded that “God had sent modern ‘Obadiahs,’ in the shape of some kind-hearted Turks, and some Greek men, but mostly Greek women, who, during the storms of the winter, had secretly come to the city to get help and then to bake and carry bread to the hiding places in the woods, week by week for all these ten months.”
There were also Turks and Greeks who aided Armenians in the small village of Tavlusun, three miles northeast of Talas where several hundred of them lived all together. They were mainly farmers and animal breeders, though a few were artisan plasterers. When the gendarmes came to begin deportations, the entire village banded together as one. The Turks and Greeks declared that if the Armenians went, they would go, too. In the end, no one left the village except the gendarmes.
As shown in the instances above, these stories also remind us that there were Turks, both groups and individuals, who were committed to saving Armenians from the atrocities of their government. In 1916 when Armenians were being rounded up for deportation in the Talas region, an Armenian nurse, some of her children and two little grandchildren were hidden in the house of a Turk in a nearby village. He had been her patient in the Talas hospital, suffering from a serious scalp wound. He had never forgotten the kindness and caring of the nurse, and was now in the position of demonstrating his regard for her. When he judged it safe to travel, he secretly escorted them all to Talas to the home of the woman’s other daughter.
In July 1915 the Ottoman government, aware that some Turks had been helping their Armenian friends, decreed that from now on “if any Muslim protect a Christian, first his house shall be burned, then the Christian killed before his eyes, and then his family and then himself.” This still left one safe way to help, and that was to convince Armenians to convert to Islam. The druggist in Talas, an Armenian, was a popular man, and listened for months to the pleading of his Turkish friends to convert to save his life. Over and over again he refused, but in the end it was a combination of an order from a powerful administrator and begging from his family members that convinced him to convert. He regretted the decision but was grateful for the well-meaning intentions of his friends.
There were also righteous people in positions of power who worked to save Armenians. When news of the deportations reached a Bedouin sheikh near Aleppo, he immediately went to the home of his Armenian friend in Aintab (Gaziantep) to see how he could help. He discovered the man and his wife had been killed, and their children were alone and desperate. He took all five of them—three boys and two girls—home with him to be part of his family. When the local kaimakam (governor) tried to kidnap the girls, the sheikh and his brother fought him off. For the rest of his life, the sheikh carried the scars of four bullet holes to mark his heroic actions. After the war, in conjunction with the order in Turkey for all Armenian women and children to be released, Emir Feisal ordered the same for Arab households. At first, no one wanted them to go. The children refused to leave the sheikh because they loved him, and he and his family loved them in return. Eventually, though reluctantly, he persuaded them to accept the order, but insisted on accompanying them to Aleppo to ensure they would be safe and well-cared for. As he and the children tearfully drove away, the whole village “ran beside the car shouting farewells and weeping.”
There was more than one government official who risked the security of his personal and occupational livelihood to save Armenians. The governor of Basra and three other officials in Miintefak, Midyat, and Bafra were murdered for their opposition to the deportation policies of the Ottoman government; about twenty other local officials were fired for refusing to comply.
Just before several gendarmes were to deport eight Armenian employees of the Talas Boys’ Boarding School to the desert, their route was mysteriously changed by a government official. Rather than travel along the northeastern route through Sivas, where so many Armenian men had been ambushed and murdered by Special Organization forces, they were to travel south through Eregli (Erekli), where the dangers were less. The German Consul later reported that the former teachers all arrived at their destination intact.
In addition to those heroic figures whose names remain anonymous, there are many other righteous people whose names were recorded in history and should be remembered. Below are some of the stories of these people, ranging from government officials to ordinary, compassionate individuals, that can also be found in Grit and Grace in a World Gone Mad: Humanitarianism in Talas, Turkey 1908-1923.
When almost fifty Armenians in Zeitoon (Süleymanlı) were accused of being part of a pro-Russian armed revolt and were arrested by the local kaimakam, Jelal, the governor of Aleppo, investigated the incident, which was within his jurisdiction. He determined there was no revolt and released those who were not charged. To punish him for his efforts, the Ottoman government removed Zeitoon from his authority. He saw the government’s attitude and policies against Armenians as “a misfortune for his fatherland,” and he begged German Consul Walter Rossler to persuade the German ambassador to “counteract this trend.” His suggestion of erecting protective shelters for the deportees was rejected, and he was removed from his position and transferred to Konya because of his views.
Halil Rami Bey, a Kurd, was the new governor of Malatia in 1919. James Barton, Chairman of the American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief, noted that one of Halil Rami’s “first proclamations after his arrival was to the effect that all Armenians should come personally to him if they had a grievance that was not receiving adequate attention” and that he was committed to the restoration of the country.
During the deportations, the Turkish mayor of Cesarea, Rifat Bey, appealed to the governor for his friend and treasurer of the municipality, Garabed Kasakian, to be allowed to remain at his job. Permission was granted. Rifat Bey had made the appeal for Kasakian’s extended family, which included siblings, nieces and nephews.
Huseyin Nesimi, kaimakam of Lice, contributed by delayinged deportations and arranging fake marriages for Armenian women in an effort to protect them. He was called to account by the governor of Diarbekir, and on the way to see him was murdered on his way to see him by a brigand. Sabit Es Suveydi, the 25-year-old deputy kaimakam of Beshiri, was also killed after he refused to participate in the Diarbekir deportations.
Omer Efendi, a Turkish trader in Keskin, a village near Talas, received a smuggled message from his friend and fellow trader, Tateos Minassian. Minassian washad been rounded up while on business in Angora (Ankara), and was taken as was now part of a deportation convoy headed for the desert. He needed help. Omer managed to extract Minassian and hide him in his house. He also found a hiding place in the village for Minassian’s wife and children. At tremendous risk to himself, he hid the family for three years until the war was over.
International missionaries, educators and caretakers make up a large number of the unsung saviors of Armenians during the genocide. Now is a good time to hear their stories and be grateful for their sacrifices and for all the lives they saved.
Karen Marie Petersen, a member of the Danish Kvindelige Missions Arbejdere (Women Missionary Workers), had been living in Mezreh and Harput (Elâzığ) since 1909. She bore witness to the deportations and the aftermath of the massacres, and recorded the testimonies of survivors. As the director of the Emaus orphanage, she cared for as many children as possible, including “rescue women” after the war. Eventually, she adopted an Armenian orphan, and named her Hope. Along with a handful of other women who had stayed at their posts throughout the “dreadful time,” she was exhausted by 1919. When she heard relief workers were on their way, she wrote, “Would it be possible for me to buy from your supplies stuff for dresses and underclothing for the children? They are almost in a worse condition than the children outside. I have been so ashamed to have them going around in rags! . . . Please come soon!”
American teacher Ethel Putney was in the first group of international aid workers who established a refugee camp in Port Said, Egypt in 1915. Within months, she was joined by Mary Kinney, former missionary from Adabazar (Adapazarı), who set up and supervised workshops for Armenian women. Lilian Cole Sewny also joined them to contribute her considerable nursing skills. Before the war, Cole Sewny worked in the Talas hospital; she later moved to Sivas where she met and married Levon Sewny, the mission’s Armenian doctor. He died in 1914 of typhus, but she stayed and did all she could to help.
Charlotte Willard, American principal of the Girls’ Boarding School, and YWCA secretary (field worker) Frances Gage sprang into action when gendarmes entered the mission’s compound in Marsovan (Merzifon) and removed sixty-three Armenian women and girls for deportation. They asked to accompany the deportees and appealed to the local authorities and were denied both times. It took three days before they were given written permission to travel. Meanwhile, they gathered all the money they could find, swift horses, a couple of wagons, an interpreter and a faithful Circassian servant. It took two days before they caught up with the convoy, and only two-thirds of the girls were left. Twenty-one girls had been separated from the group and sent on another route. Willard and Gage negotiated for days with the Turkish guards, using persuasion, argument “and the judicious application of large sums of money” to finally return to Marsovan with the remaining forty-two Armenians.
American missionary Susan Wealthy Orvis was a member of the Talas team, who answered the call to establish a refugee centre in Alexandropol (Gyumri) in 1917. She traveled more than 7,000 miles with seven other relief workers in the middle of the Russian revolution to do so. Her companions were Rev. Ernest Partridge, Rev. Theodore Elmer, Rev. Walter James, Carl and Ruth Compton, and Henry H. and Irma White. Orvis organized a milk program to feed 300 babies in the area and turned a decrepit old barracks into a functioning hospital, before being forced to flee a day ahead of the advancing Ottoman and German armies. She was one of the first to return to Talas after the war and, with her Talas colleagues, saved 3,000 Armenian and Greek orphans when Christians were expelled from Turkey in December 1922.
Some of the names of the righteous are known while some remain anonymous. Collectively, their actions stand to remind us that in the midst of great wickedness, there is still goodness in the world. When times are dark, it is especially important to remember and honor that.

Sweet is the Memory of the Righteous
Our days will soon depart, and death will close
The changes of each life, our joys our woes;
The graceless tyrant then no more can harm!
‘Tis actions pious will the good embalm.
Torn from its stem and withered on the ground,
The flower amidst its fragrance oft is found;
So sweet will be the memory of his name—
Who saved his neighbour from the burning flame;
Rescued in furious storms from whelming waves,
Or snatched the poisonous cup mid yawning graves;
Who when deep guilt was pointing to despair,
Its victim urged death’s horrors all to date;
Exhibited a Saviour’s lovely face—
By faith, on earth, in heaven a resting place.
Who led to life, to bliss; to Christ the way;
Sweet, sweet will be to him eternal day.
A gentler passage leads him to the tomb,
His sacred memory wafts the sweet perfume.
– J.H.
Published in New Zealander, Volume 7, Issue 549, 19 July 1851 (courtesy of the National Library of New Zealand)
Wendy Elliott


Armenian Weekly

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