Friday, August 31, 2012

Death of General Antranig - August 31, 1927

From Armenia to Argentina, there are statues, memorials, streets, metro stations, even a highway section (in Connecticut) which remember General Antranig’s name. Perhaps the most recognizable Armenian hero of the twentieth century, he was highlighted in 1920 by The Literary Digest as "Armenia's Robin Hood, Garibaldi, and Washington, all in one. He is the ideal patriot of whom broadside ballads are published, and whose name inspires songs sung by the Armenian at his workbench, by the Armenian housewife at her tasks, by their children at play.”

Antranig Ozanian was born on February 25, 1865, in the city of Shabin-Karahisar, in the vilayet of Trebizonda. He was the son of a carpenter, Toros; his mother Mariam died when he was one-year-old. He married at the age of 17, but his wife died a year later, after giving birth to their son, who also died days later.

He was 23 when he joined the revolutionary groups of the Social Democratic Hunchakian Party (founded in 1887), and became a party member in 1891. In 1894 Antranig left the Hunchakian Party and joined the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (founded in 1890). The next year he met the fedayee commander Aghpiur Serop and joined his group. After Serop’s death in 1899, Antranig became the leader of fedayee groups of Vaspurakan and Taron in Western Armenian. His first mission was to capture and kill Beshara Khalil, a Kurdish soldier of the Ottoman Hamidiye regiments and tribal chief who had murdered Aghpiur Serop and was notorious for his atrocities against the Armenian population. 

Antranig’s most famous battles were the battle of the Monastery of Holy Apostles in Mush (1901) and the second resistance of Sasun in 1904. In November 1901, Antranig barricaded himself in the Monastery of Holy Apostles in Mush with 30 fedayees, including the famed Kevork Chavush, and some ten peasants. The well-fortified monastery was besieged by five Turkish battalions with a total of 1,200 men. After a nineteen-day resistance and causing substantial losses to the Turkish army, the group was able to leave the monastery and flee in small groups. Antranig gained legendary stature among Armenians after breaking through the siege. In 1924 he would write in his memoirs that “it was necessary to show to the Turkish and Kurdish peoples that an Armenian can take a gun, that an Armenian heart can fight and protect his rights.” 

He participated in the second insurrection of Sasun in 1904. He was pressed by Armenian leaders to allow temporary peace in the region. He moved to the Caucasus through Iran and then traveled to Europe, where he was engaged in advocacy in support of the national liberation struggle. In 1906 he published a book of military tactics in Geneva. In 1907 he settled in Bulgaria. During the fourth Congress of the A.R.F. (Vienna, 1907), Antranig announced his decision to leave the party due to his disagreement about the establishment of cooperation with the Young Turks. 

He participated in the First Balkan War of 1912-1913 within the Bulgarian army, together with Karekin Nzhdeh and a detachment of 273 Armenian volunteers. Antranig was honored with the Order of Bravery for his heroic participation in the war. 

During World War I, Antranig returned to the ranks of the A.R.F. and participated in the Caucasus Campaign as head of the first Armenian volunteer battalion, which helped lift the siege of Van on May 6, 1915. He participated in twenty different offensives where he gained fame due to his courage and his tactics to defeat the Ottoman forces. The Russian authorities made him a Major General in 1918 and decorated him five times for bravery. 

After the disbandment of the six volunteer battalions in 1916, Antranig resigned his commission and departed from the front. He left the ranks of the A.R.F. for the second time in 1917 and organized the First Congress of Western Armenians; he also published the newspaper Hayastan in Tiflis in 1917-1918, with writer Vahan Totovents as its editor.

After the Russian army left the Caucasus following the Revolution, Armenian forces were created in a rush to try to fill the vacuum against the Turkish offense. In March-April 1918, Antranig was the head of a provisional government created in the areas of Western Armenia formerly occupied by the Russians. His military leadership allowed the Armenian surviving population to escape to Eastern Armenia. 

After the foundation of the Republic of Armenia in May 1918, Antranig fought along volunteer units against the Ottoman army. In July of the same year, he arrived in Zanguezur, in the south, to participate in the inter-ethnic warfare between Armenians and the local Turkish population. He also tried several times to seize Shushi, the most important city of Karabagh, but was prevented by British troops in the area. 

In April 1919, Antranig arrived in Holy Etchmiadzin. His 5,000-strong division had dwindled to 1,350 soldiers. As a result of disagreements with the government of the Republic and British diplomatic machinations in the Caucasus, Antranig disbanded his division and handed over his belongings and weapons to Kevork V, Catholicos of All Armenians. In late 1919 he led a delegation to the United States to lobby in support of an American mandate. He was saluted as “the George Washington of Armenians.” 

He married again in Paris in 1922, with Boghos Nubar Pasha as best man. Antranig and his wife, Nevarte Kurkjian, settled in Fresno, California, where a young William Saroyan met him and later described the meeting in his short story “Antranik of Armenia” (Inhale and Exhale, 1936). He passed away near Chico, in northern California, on August 31, 1927, of a heart attack. His remains were moved to the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris in early 1928. They were set to be buried in Armenia, according to his desire, but Soviet authorities refused entry. His body was eventually returned to Armenia in 2000 and was reburied at the Yerablur Military Cemetery.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Death of Franz Werfel - August 26, 1945

Writer Franz Werfel (1890-1945) had no Armenian connections whatsoever, and probably he was little known among Armenians until his novel The Forty Days of Musa Dagh turned him into a world celebrity at the age of 43. 

Born in Prague, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to a wealthy Jewish family, Werfel was educated in a Catholic school. He published his first book of poetry in 1911. During World War I, Werfel served in the Austro-Hungarian Army on the Russian front as a telephone operator. In 1917, he left the army and moved to Vienna, where he fell in love with Alma Mahler, widow of composer Gustav Mahler and wife of architect Walter Gropius. Mahler divorced in 1920, but she refused to marry Werfel for the next nine years. Meanwhile, the latter became one of the well-established German and Austrian writers by the end of the 1920s. 

In the winter of 1930, Werfel and Alma Mahler made a trip to the Middle East. In Aleppo, they met a group of Armenian children working in a carpet factory. He was told that they were orphans. On his way in Lebanon, he heard the story of the seven villages of Musa Dagh. The plot for a future novel started to thicken in his mind.

During the next two years and a half, the writer researched feverishly to write a novel that would become the most popular literary text about the Armenian genocide. The story of how the 5,000 villagers living in seven villages in the southern corner of Cilicia had defied the Turkish order of deportation captured Werfel imagination. The 53 days of resistance and final rescue by French ships on the “Mount of Moses” (Musa Dagh) took a Biblical resonance with the use of the 40 days that would parallel the 40 years that the Jews spent in the desert before arriving in the Promised Land. Many other symbolisms and parallel may be found in a novel that was said at the time to have foreseen the destiny of the Jews in Europe.

It was 1933, and Werfel’s books were among the ones burned by Nazi students. The publication of the novel in November 1933 led to its prohibition three months later in Germany by Turkish pressure; the book was also forbidden and condemned in Turkey.

Meanwhile, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh became a worldwide success and translations into English and French soon were published. Hollywood’s Metro Goldwyn Mayer bought the rights to the movie, but Turkish pressure on the U.S. State Department had that project shelved, as well as several other attempts in the following years. Werfel was triumphantly received by Armenians in France and in the United States during a trip to both countries in 1935-1936.

In 1938, the writer and his wife left Vienna after the Nazi occupation of Austria and settled in France. But the defeat of France to Germany in 1940 and the Nazi occupation forced them to narrowly escape to the United States. Werfel died in Los Angeles in 1945 and was buried there. By the initiative of Armenian American historian and educator Vartan Gregorian, Werfel’s remains were returned to Vienna and reburied in 1975. 

The Forty Days of Musa Dagh was translated into English by Geoffrey Dunlop in 1934 and became an immediate best-seller in the United States, with several reprints over the decades. However, the translation was not faithful to the German original, as Haigaz Kazarian had already discovered in 1951 in an article translated in 1963 in the Armenian Review. The equivalent of ninety pages of text had been excised by Dunlop. The recent publication of the unabridged English version of the novel (Boston, 2012), with the missing text restored by James Reidel, allows Anglo-American readers to savor this classic at a time when literary works on the Armenian genocide are quite fashionable.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Birth of Shushanik Kurghinian - August 18, 1876

Quite a neglected name in the literary canon, Shushanik Kurghinian was one of the earliest figures of Armenian feminist literature. Shushanik Popoljian was born in Alexandropol (today Gyumri) into a poor family. She wrote in her autobiography, “Sometimes father would bring his shoe-repair ‘workstation’ home, in order to save money, and I would work for him demanding my wages, every single kopeck. Mother, being raised in a traditional household, would reprove of my ‘ill behavior toward my parent,’ blaming those harmful books for corrupting me.”

She first studied at an all-girls school. In 1893, at the age of 17, she organized the first female faction of the Social Democratic Hnchakian Party (founded in 1887). She was twenty-one when she married Arshak Kurghinian, a businessman and a member of the socialist underground in the Caucasus. She published her first poem in 1899 in the monthly Taraz. Her activities against the Russian czar blacklisted her. In 1903 she escaped to Rostov-on-Don, in the northern Caucasus, with her two children, while her husband stayed in Alexandropol. Living in utmost hardship and poverty, Shushanik Kurghinian immersed herself in the Russian revolutionary milieu and some of her most powerfully charged poetry was written from1907–1909, during the years of her affiliation with Rostov's proletarian underground. 

She managed to clandestinely publish her first collection of 43 poems, Ringing of the Dawn, assisted by Alexander Miasnikian, the future leader of the communist party in Soviet Armenia. Her second forthcoming volume, however, was rejected by the censors and never released. Her poetry brought out the most silenced voices and raised such issues as the unjust social conditions that forced poor women to lives of prostitution and exploitation. Kurghinian used poetry to promote feminist ideals, envisioning a social revolution through women’s struggle for equal rights and emancipation. 

She continued to write and participate in social projects, but her fragile health became an issue. She moved back to Alexandropol in 1921, a year after the sovietization of Armenia. She traveled to Kharkov and Moscow in 1925 for medical treatment, but returned home disappointed. After the earthquake of Leninakan (the name of Alexandropol from 1924-1990) in 1926, she settled in Yerevan. She died the next year at the age of fifty-one. 

During the Soviet era, Kurghinian’s poetry was used only for socialist propaganda, thus undermining the artistic merit of this writer and activist. Her feminist works were marginalized. As Victoria Rowe writes in A History of Armenian Women’s Writing, 1880-1922, “Soviet literary criticism ignored the gender specific aspects of Kurghinian’s works because they posited that socialist society would eliminate women’s problems, and any specific addressing of women’s issues was condemned as ‘bourgeois’.” Her works have started to be seen under a new light over the past few years.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Birth of Siamanto - August 15, 1878

In the constellation of intellectuals that were victims of the Armenian genocide, Siamanto occupied a place at the top. He was one of the shining stars of Armenian modern poetry together with Taniel Varoujan. 

Siamanto’s birthplace, Akn, was a city on the shores of the Euphrates River, in the vilayet of Kharpert. It was remarkable for its troubadours, inspired by the natural beauty of its surroundings. It was also noted for the frequent migration of its Armenian inhabitants. Many contemporaries of Siamanto were born there or had their family roots in the city, such as writers Arpiar Arpiarian, Arshag Tchobanian, Minas Tcheraz, Misak Medzarentz and Krikor Zohrab. 

Born Adom Yarjanian, the future poet lived in Akn until 1891. He attended the Nersessian School. Its principal, Bishop Karekin Servantzdiantz, a folklorist and writer, encouraged him to develop his poetic talent. He gave him the pen name Siamanto, from the hero of one of his tales. 

Siamanto came from a middle-upper-class family. They moved to Constantinople, where he graduated from the Berberian School in 1896. The massacres ordered by Sultan Abdul Hamid II were in full fledge. When the bloody wave reached Constantinople, Siamanto, like many other Armenians, fled the city and the country. He ended up in Egypt.

He moved to Paris in 1897 and enrolled in the Sorbonne to pursue studies in literature for the next three years. He did menial jobs to sustain himself. He developed close ties with well-known Armenian personalities in and outside Paris. In 1898, his first published poem, “Vision of Death,” made an impact among literary circles. In Geneva (Switzerland), he developed close ties with the newspaper of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, Droshak. He became a member of the party and his poetry nurtured from news of the massacres and revolutionary actions. 

He published his first slim volume of poetry, Heroically, in 1902. Struggle for liberation was one of the main themes of his writing, which he developed in a collection of poems, Sons of Armenia, published in three cycles (1905, 1906, and 1908). Here he made a transition from mystical symbolism to a realistic depiction of the Armenian plight. His collection Torches of Agony and Hope (1907) showed him in a more lyrical and evocative vein. 

In 1904, Siamanto fell ill with pneumonia, but he was able to fully recover, although his health was always delicate. He lived in Paris, Zurich, and Geneva for the next four years, until he returned to Constantinople after the Ottoman Revolution of 1908, which promised freedom and equality to all. The Adana massacres of 1909, however, showed that the cycle of violence had not ended. The bloodshed deeply affected Siamanto, who published his new book, Bloody News from My Friend (1909), as a reaction to the massacre. 

In 1909-1910, he lived in Boston, where he was an editor at the Hairenik newspaper. He published a book of twelve poems, called Invitation to the Homeland, to launch a campaign for the return of the thousands of Armenians who migrated to America during the years of tyranny. He also published the first volume of his Complete Works in 1910. He returned to Constantinople and in 1912 he wrote the poem Saint Mesrob, dedicated to the 1500th anniversary of the creation of the Armenian alphabet (at the time, the date of the creation of the alphabet was thought to be 412), which was celebrated with great enthusiasm by Armenians all over the world. A few months later, he traveled to Eastern Armenia and the Caucasus accompanying the coffin of Simon Zavarian, one of the founders of the A.R.F. (1866-1913). 

In the ill-fated night of April 23-24, he was rounded up by the Turkish authorities, sent to exile in Ayash with many other intellectuals, and from there, months later, to death and to immortality.  

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Death of Joseph Emin - August 2, 1809

The small Armenian community of India became one of the protagonists of the second half of the eighteenth century. The “group of Madras” introduced the ideas of the Enlightenment in the Armenian realm, while an Armenian from Calcutta, Joseph (Hovsep) Emin, engaged in political projects in Armenia proper.

Emin was born in Hamadan (Persia) in 1726. He moved to Calcutta in 1744 to join his merchant father. Seven years later, against the wishes of his family, he left for London. After four years of hardship and misery, deprived from any financial assistance from his family, he met the famous British philosopher Edmund Burke (1729-1797), who took him under his wings. He later entered the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich, and after a year of studies, he enlisted as a volunteer in the British and Prussian armies during the seven-year war (1756-1763) against France. 

In 1759, Joseph Emin traveled to Holy Etchmiadzin to motivate the Catholicos towards the idea of liberating Armenia. But his expectations were not met and he returned to London. Two years later, he went to Russia and obtained a letter of recommendation from Russian Imperial Chancellor, Count Vorontsov, which he presented to King Erekle II of Georgia in 1763. Emin’s goal was to engage the Georgian king in a joint Armenian-Georgian project to liberate Armenia from Persian and Ottoman rule. The king was initially interested, but in the end dismissed Emin’s project and ordered him to leave the country. Emin went to the Northern Caucasus and was able to reach Karabagh and Zanguezur, but hopes of liberation were pinned to any possible help by the Georgian king. After being ordered to leave Georgia for a second time, he returned to India, but his hopes of getting financial assistance from Armenian merchants there were dashed by clerical opposition.

Emin, disillusioned, remained in India for the rest of his life. In 1792, he published his memoirs, Life and Adventures of Joseph Emin, an Armenian, in London. He passed away in 1809 and was buried in the courtyard of Kolkatta’s (Calcutta) Holy Nazareth Armenian Church. His memoirs were reprinted in 1918 by his great, great grand-daughter, Amy Apcar, and translated into Armenian in 1958 by an Armenian American intellectual that old New Yorkers may remember, Hagop Kashmanian (1886-1968).

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Founding of the Writers Union of Armenia - August 1-5, 1934

After the establishment of the Soviet regime, various literary societies existed in Armenia for short periods of time. The Writers Union of Armenia, as a component of the all-Soviet Writers Union, was founded along with the latter during the first Congress of Soviet Armenian Writers, held in Yerevan on August 1-5, 1934.

The first president of the Writers Union was literary critic Drastamat Ter-Simonyan, and its secretaries, poet Vahram Alazan and critics Harutiun Mkrtchyan. The advisors were: Alexander Shirvanzade, Yeghishe Charents, Axel Bakunts, Azat Vshtuni, Derenik Demirjian, Mkrtich Janan, Stepan Zorian, Gurguen Mahari, Norayr Dabaghian, Nayiri Zarian and Hajie Jendi. Four of the thirteen members of the board died during the Stalinist purges of 1937-1938 (Ter-Simonyan, Charents, Bakunts, and Janan) and four others were deported to Siberia and returned more than fifteen years later (Mahari, Alazan, Mkrtchyan, and Tapaghian).

The second Congress of Soviet Armenian Writers was held in 1946 and elected poet Avetik Isahakian as president (1946-1957). The position of president was eliminated afterwards. Critic Eduard Topchyan was elected first secretary of the Union in 1959 and held his position until 1976. He was succeeded by novelist Vardgues Petrosyan (1976-1988), who in 1986 was elected president. However, at the onset of Mikhail Gorbachov’s “perestroika” (restructuring) in Armenia, he was replaced by poet Hrachya Hovhannisian during an extraordinary congress of the board of the Union in January 1988.

Another poet, Vahagn Davtian, became president of the Writers Union from 1990-1994. He was followed by poet Razmik Davoyan (1994-1996) and novelist Hrand Matevosyan (1996-2001). The current president is translator and journalist Levon Ananyan, who was elected in 2001.

The Writers Union, which is directed by a Board of Trustees (51 members) and an Executive Board (19 members), has its headquarters at the Writers’House (3 Marshal Baghramyan Avenue, Yerevan). Currently the Writers Union has 368 members from Armenia, 43 members from Artsakh (Karabagh), and 83 members from seventeen countries of the Diaspora (including 22 members from the United States), making a total of 494 members.

The Writers Union of Armenia building in central Yerevan.