Friday, August 26, 2016

Death of Roupen Sevag (August 26, 1915)

Two of the most gifted poets of their generation, Taniel Varoujan and Roupen Sevag, were almost the same age (Varoujan was a year older), and were friends in life and in death.

Roupen Chilingirian was born in Silivri, a city in Eastern Thrace (European Turkey) 37 miles from Constantinople, on February 28, 1885. He belonged to a well-to-do family, and had two sisters and three brothers. He studied at the local Askanazian School and then went to the American lyceum of Bardizag from 1899-1901. Then he entered the renowned Berberian School of Scutari, in Constantinople, which he graduated with highest grades in 1905. Reteos Berberian, a famous pedagogue and founding director of the school, noticed his interest in science. He advised him to go to Switzerland and pursue a career in medicine. Thus, he entered the medical school of the University of Lausanne, where he studied for the next six years. 

In 1905 the medical student published his first poem in the newspaper “Masis.” Two years later, he adopted the pseudonym Roupen Sevag (sevag = “black eyes”) and published his first piece in prose.
In the same year (1907) he met Helene (Jannie) Apell, a seventeen-year-old student at the girls’ lyceum of Lausanne, who was from an influential German military family. They fell in love, but they had to overcome the resistance of both of their families. Finally, they married in Lausanne in 1910, while the religious ceremony was held in the Armenian Church of Paris. 

Sevag published prolifically in the period between 1908-1914 in newspapers and literary journals of Constantinople and Smyrna, as well as in the publications of the Mekhitarist Fathers of Venice. During a vacation in Constantinople, he founded the short-lived newspaper Surhantag (1908) with a group of friends. He was also involved in political activities, and became a member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation. In 1910 he published his first book of poetry, The Red Book, where the echoes of the Adana massacres of 1909 were noticeable. He planned to gather many other lyrical and patriotic poems in three more books, but this would never happen.

From 1911-1914 Sevag worked as an assistant physici
an at a hospital and a clinic in Lausanne. His medical experience would lead him to publish a series of fine short stories under the general title of Pages from the Doctor’s Journal, which would be posthumously published. His poetry and prose made him well-known in Armenian literary circles.
He settled with his wife and their two-year old son Levon, in Constantinople in May 1914. Their daughter Shamiram would be born a few months later. He was conscripted in November 1914, when the Ottoman Empire entered World War I, and began to serve as a military physician in Chanakkale and Istanbul. After the roundup of April 24, 1915, he was arrested on June 22 and exiled to Chankiri, where he arrived six days later. His wife, supported by her parents in Switzerland, started a frantic round of correspondence and interviews with the German embassy and the Ottoman authorities to secure his liberation. Efforts by the family and the embassy, which were a matter of discussion between Germany and the Ottoman government from July-August 1915, would be fruitless.

When in Cankiri, Sevag continued his medical activities. He cured the daughter of a Turkish chete (bandit), Arabaji Ismail. The latter asked him to save himself by converting to Islam and marrying his daughter, but Sevag refused the offer.

On August 26, 1915, Roupen Sevag, Taniel Varoujan, and three other prisoners who had been victims of the roundup by sheer chance were dispatched to Ayash. Six hours away from Cankiri, in a place called Tuney, a group of Kurdish bandits organized by the local secretary of the Committee of Union and Progress, Oghuz, savagely killed the five unfortunate prisoners. Documentation from the Ottoman Interior Ministry, recently published by historian Taner Akcam, shows that Talaat Pasha himself was involved, if not the killing itself, but the subsequent release of the criminals and the care for their welfare. 

The efforts of Janni Chilingirian-Apell to save her husband had not been welcome either by the Ottoman government or, more importantly, the German embassy. On September 11 the Interior Ministry conveyed information about the murder to the embassy and suggested that Sevag’s widow be sent to Germany with her children. They actually left for Switzerland. She continued to pursue justice, but to no avail. Her final letter to the Germany embassy from Lausanne, on November 27, 1915, contained a strongly-worded appeal for the crimes that were committed against Armenians and her husband: “Try to save whatever you can save by using the most definite resolve. If you do not make use of every possibility within your possession, the blood of innocent women, children, the sickly, and the elderly will ascend to the heavens and damn Germany.” Her anger against the betrayal of her country was so deep that she would refuse to teach her children a word of German, and she would keep and pass Roupen Sevag’s memory to them until her death in 1967. Levon Chilingirian passed away at the age of 93, in 2005, and Shamiram Folco-Sevag is still alive at the ripe age of 102. 

In 1942 the editor of the journal Sovetakan Grakanutiun of Yerevan, Rouben Zarian, published three poems of an eighteen-year-old unknown poet, Paruyr Ghazarian. In memory of Roupen Sevag, he decided to use his last name and create a pseudonym for the promising poet. The career of one of the luminaries of Soviet Armenian poetry, Paruyr Sevak (1924-1971), had started.

In the 1980s Roupen Sevag’s nephew, Hovhannes Chilingirian, founded the Roupen Sevag house-museum in Nice (France), which was moved to Holy Etchmiadzin in 2013. A school was named after Sevag in Yerevan (1995). 

Previous entries in “This Week in Armenian History” are on the Prelacy’s web site (