Twenty-five years before Oskar Schindler would save the lives of more than a thousand Jews from Nazi Germany, Cemil Kunneh protected hundreds of Armenians from genocide. Robert Fisk tells his story
At the height of the war, he was a loyal servant of his brutal government, producing equipment for his country’s army – but at great risk to his own life, he saved hundreds of men and women doomed for mass extermination by employing them in his military factories. And in 1915 – long before the bravery of a man whom every reader is already thinking of – Armenia’s Oskar Schindler proved that good could still exist amid hatred and terror.
He was a quarter of a century before his time. But Ottoman naval lieutenant Cemil Kunneh was worthy of Schindler’s title. He was a patriotic and decorated hero from Turkey’s Balkan wars. Yet as his Turkish masters proceeded with the Armenian Holocaust – the deliberate mass annihilation by Turkey of a million and a half Christian Armenians at the height of the First World War – Kunneh sheltered hundreds of these terrified civilians, men and women, some of them half-starved and en route to the death marches on which they were intended to perish.
One of those he saved was a 22-year-old Armenian woman, Dikranuhi Gulizian, a prominent Protestant clergyman’s daughter who lost her father and sister in the genocide. Lt Kunneh met her during the Armenian deportations – and married her. You might think the story of Cemil and Dikranuhi – and it is she who, more than a century ago, encouraged him to save her people – would long ago have been turned into a movie to rival Schindler’s List, at the least a book to stand alongside the original work, Schindler’s Ark.
Indeed, in any other part of the world, you might imagine that modern-day Turkey would posthumously honour its war hero, Lt Kunneh – a “Good Turk” to parallel the “Good Germans” who saved Jews from their Holocaust before and during the Second World War. The Ottoman Committee of Union and Progress ordered that those Turks who “protected Armenians in violation of government decisions be executed in front of their residence and their houses burned”. So Lt Kunneh was a very courageous man.
But this extraordinary saga of courage and hope has been ignored by a Turkish government, which still forlornly insists – against academic research and world parliaments – that the Armenian genocide is a fiction. There are no books about this extraordinary Turkish-Armenian couple, no films, no television series. Zilch.
And if it wasn’t for the persistent, earnest work of a young Kurdish academic called Umit Kurt, who continues to research the history of the old Armenian-Turkish city of Aintab (now Gaziantep) – Dikranuhi’s home town – and who has unearthed this incredible story, it would be unknown today. Kurt fully understands the historical parallels with Schindler, the German industrialist and senior Nazi military intelligence officer (and member of the Nazi party) who saved around 1,200 Jews in the Second World War.
Umit Kurt is Polonsky fellow at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute and a lecturer at the University of Tel Aviv. He has written not only about the victims of the Armenian genocide but of the lives of the 1915 killers. And now of one particular saviour. An academic paper only, it should be read by millions.
Cemil Kunneh was born in Aleppo – how newly relevant all these names have become – in 1892. His mother was Kurdish but his father – who came from a largely Kurdish village in Afrin, now occupied by Turkey’s undisciplined militia, the remnants of the old Free Syria Army – may well have been an Arab. Cemil and Dikranuhi would eventually have four children to whom they gave both Arabic and Armenian names – Bahri (Antranig), Maazaz (Anahid), Meziet (Diana) and Nader (Noubar).
While he was saving all these people, he was also taking advantage of their labour. Survivors were picked with the rational decision-making process of a military bureaucrat
Kunneh enrolled in the Istanbul naval academy and graduated as a lieutenant in 1910. At this time, Turkey still maintained good relations with Britain, and he later studied engineering at the John Thornycroft motor factory in Basingstoke; two years later, Kunneh was fighting for his country in the Balkans. The original Thornycroft was a naval engineer and by the start of the First World War – in which Turkey was allied to Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire – Cemil Kunneh was manager of a maritime workshop on Urfa, building military transport vessels for Turkish troops on the Euphrates river. Just as, 25 years later, Oskar Schindler was manufacturing arms for the Wehrmacht.
Although he was under orders from the Turkish Seventh Army and the Ottoman state owned the shipyard, Kunneh assisted as many Armenians as he could to avoid the deportations. Some he came across were en route to their deaths in the Syrian desert – they had to cross the Euphrates river along with Turkish military convoys travelling to Syria and Palestine – when Kunneh signed them up to work as labourers and craftsmen in the shipyard. Deportees from the largely Armenian city of Aintab were saved by setting up tents along the river with their families. Kunneh, according to Kurt’s research, was able to distribute food, clothing and medication. He helped orphans and Armenian women who had been sold at slave markets.
We know some of the names of those whom Kunneh rescued. They include Hagop Muradian, Aintab’s most famous photographer who in 1918, after the genocide, belonged to a prominent Armenian Protestant congregation in Aleppo. There are photographs taken in Aintab after the war when, for a short period, French and French-led Armenian units vainly defended the town from Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s army. Some of these pictures were taken by – and signed by – Muradian. In Kunneh’s shipyard in 1915, local pharmacist Soghomon Arevian was saved, and teacher Hagop Kalemkerian. Umit Kurt has other names of Armenians who found salvation working in the blacksmiths section of the yard, working the bellows in the workshop, operating as stonemasons, painters and clothiers: ‘Kunneh’s List’.
His wife-to-be Dikranuhi Gulizian was deported from Aintab towards Karkamis on 1 August 1915 with her mother and younger sister. Her sister, in Kurt’s words was “unable to endure the inhumane practices during the deportation” and died. Her father Der Garabed Gulizian was sent to Hama – in present day Syria, another town with a more recent and bloody reputation – but died in a further death march.
As justice at last – but alas, only briefly – closed in on a few Turkish perpetrators of the genocide in 1918, surviving Armenians wrote to their patriarch in Istanbul and to the British and French occupation authorities, explaining how Kunneh had saved their lives and must be protected from any arrest. He was still, of course, an officer in the Turkish Seventh Army. Kunneh had, the Armenians said, also helped capture British and Russian soldiers who had been made prisoners-of-war by the Turks.
Kunneh would later become a resident of Aleppo and a fierce opponent of the French mandate of Syria after the First World War; he was subsequently imprisoned as a Syrian rebel. He even wrote a book about French injustice in Syria and about his time incarcerated by the French in an Aleppo prison. He died in 1967, and some of those Armenians he rescued from death sent messages of condolence to be read when his wife Dikrahuni died long after him in 1986, at the age of 93. She was the last of the Armenian women who had married Arabs during the genocide – some of them less happily than Dikrahuni.
“The era around the 1915 Armenian deportation and the genocide brims with tales of Muslim Kurds, Arabs and Turks who saved and protected Armenians,” Umit Kurt says. “It was a kind of resistance that these Muslims assumed.” Other Turkish officials who refused to participate in the Armenian genocide were dismissed; on at least two occasions, they were executed.
But Kurt’s short thesis on Armenia’s Schindler does contain a hint that his personality – like Schindler’s – had its own conflicts. “While he was saving all these people,” Kurt writes, “he was also taking advantage of their labour. Those survivors were picked through the rational decision-making process of a military bureaucrat. [But] whatever his ultimate [sic] motives, Cemil Kunneh took his righteous place in Aintab Armenians’ historical memory.” One of the speakers at Dikrahuni’s funeral in Aleppo stated at her graveside that “the Armenian people do not forget their sincere friends. We respectfully remember this couple.”
Featured Image: A French warship rescues Armenian refugees fleeing from the massacre of their people by Turkish forces ( The Life Picture Collection/Getty )