|Vahan Cheraz in scout uniform|
Armenians had an important role in the development of sports in the last years of the Ottoman Empire. Among those pioneers was Vahan Cheraz, who later became one of the founding members of the scout movement of the Armenian General Union of Physical Education (Հայ Մարմնակրթական Ընդհանուր Միութիւն), better known by its initials as Homenetmen (Հ.Մ.Ը.Մ.).
Cheraz was born in Constantinople on August 16, 1886. His father Kaspar, a lawyer, was brother of a famous writer and public figure, Minas Cheraz (1852-1929), who had been a member of the Armenian delegation to the Congress of Berlin in 1878, accompanying Khrimian Hayrig.
He first studied at the French religious school of St. Benoit, in the neighborhood of Pera (Beyoglu). In 1901 he went to London, where he lived with his uncle Minas and studied for four years. He returned to Constantinople in 1905 and graduated from the Getronagan Armenian School in 1906. In 1905 Shavarsh Krisian, a pioneer of Armenian sports, had founded the first Armenian soccer team, Baltalimanı (many such teams would be named after Armenian districts). Upon his return, Cheraz had brought a soccer ball and founded a soccer team with the students of the Getronagan School, which was called “Santral” (Central, the French translation of the school’s name). In 1906 he founded another team called Proti. In 1908 both teams merged into the “Tork” team (named after a pagan Armenian god of strength), under his leadership. By 1911 the number of Armenian soccer teams had become 65.
Meanwhile, he worked from 1906-1911 as an inspector at the Constantinople port. He served in the Ottoman army from 1911-1912, and then he left the capital for Europe. He left for Paris and worked for an antiquarian until 1914. He later moved to Marseilles, where his uncle lived, and after the beginning of World War I, he traveled to Tiflis, where he enrolled in the first battalion of Armenian volunteers, under the command of Antranik, and fought in Persia from 1915-1916. After the dissolution of the volunteer groups, Cheraz went to work in the orphanages of the Russian Union of Cities, in Sarikamish and Erzerum, until 1917.
When the October Revolution broke out in November 1917, the Russian troops withdrew from the Caucasian front. Cheraz returned to military service as a member of Antranik’s reorganized battalion and fought in the front in 1917-1918, and later in Persia and Zangezur in 1918-1919.
He became seriously ill at the beginning of 1919 and, after almost two months of illness, he went to Constantinople in search of medical treatment. He recovered and became scout head of the recently founded Homenetmen. At the same time, he worked as a translator for the British general headquarters, since Constantinople was under Allied occupation from 1919-1922.
Upon the invitation of the government of the Republic of Armenia, Homenetmen was officially invited to share their knowledge and expertise in sports and scouting. The Executive Committee sent three members, Vahan Cheraz, Dikran Khoyan (later pastor of St. Stephen Church in Boston and Soorp Khatch Church in Washington), and Onnig Yazmajian to Yerevan. Their successful efforts were short-lived. After the establishment of the Soviet regime, Homenetmen was banned in the country.
In September 1920 the Armenian-Turkish war started, and Cheraz enlisted in the Armenian army. Later, he participated in the February 1921 uprising against the Soviet regime and settled in Alexandropol (later Leninakan, now Gumri). From 1921-1924 he worked for the Near East Relief (known in Armenia as Amerkom, abbreviation for Amerikian komite, “American Committee”) in different capacities, including head of the scouting branch in Alexandropol.
He married a survivor of the Armenian Genocide, Vartanush Antreasian, whose first husband, a school principal had been burned alive, along with his students. Cheraz’s tragedy started a few days after his marriage, in November 1924, when he was arrested by the NKVD (predecessor of the KGB) on trumped-up charges of being a spy for England and the United States. He was sentenced to three years of exile in Siberia, but freed after five months thanks to an amnesty. He returned to Armenia, but could not find work, and after a short stint again at the Near East Relief, he remained unemployed.
He was arrested again, in September 1927, along with other Armenian employees of the Near East Relief, and imprisoned in Tiflis. He was charged with spying and being a member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation. He denied both charges, since he had never belonged to a political party. However, the interrogator came to the following “conclusion”: “to recognize [Cheraz] as an element socially dangerous and extremely suspicious in espionage.” On January 9, 1928, he was sentenced to death. Days later, before parting ways with his cellmates, he told them: “Farewell, friends. I know why they are taking me. It doesn’t matter, let them eat my head. But be sure that victory is ours. Don’t despair, remain always brave. Long live free Armenia, long live the Armenian people. Don’t forget me.” He left behind his wife and a one-year-old daughter. His wife Vartanush would be killed in the prison of Gumri during the Stalinist purges of 1937, at the age of 42, falsely accused of being an A.R.F. member and holding meetings of activists at her home, but, essentially, for having been Cheraz’s wife and having a brother abroad. Their ten-year-old orphaned daughter was adopted by her uncle Vartkes Antreasian, who changed her last name, fearing persecution. Buragn Antreasian-Cheraz currently lives in Yerevan.
Today, a street in Gumri and a sports school are named after Vahan Cheraz. A plaque on the front of the city’s Tumanian library says: “Vahan Cheraz, founder of the scout movement in Armenia, lived in this house from 1925-1927."