Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Birth of Maria Jacobsen (November 6, 1882)

Maria Jacobsen in Lebanon and Karen Jeppe in Syria. Two Danish missionaries among several colleagues who became surrogate mothers to the Armenian orphans who had survived the genocide, selflessly offering their entire life to them. In the meantime, they also became living testimony of what had happened in 1915.

Jacobsen was born in the town of Siim (central Denmark) on November 6, 1882. During her childhood, she lived in the town of Horsens, on the eastern coast of the country, with her parents. She learned about the Hamidian massacres (1895-1896) from the Danish media. Feminist activist Jessie Penn-Lewis, coming to Denmark from England in 1898, helped form the Women’s Missionary Workers (KMA; Danish: Kvindelige Missions Arbejdere ) two years later. The new organization supported Armenian orphans sheltered in German orphanages of Mush, Van, Marash, and Kharpert. After completing nursing courses, Maria Jacobsen became a member of KMA in 1906. She left for Kharpert the next year, at the age of twenty-five, as a missionary. She was appointed as director of a small hospital there, and in a short time she learned Armenian in order to communicate with local people. She started writing her 600-page valuable diary in September 1907 and would continue it for the next twelve years.

Jacobsen stated in an entry about the deportation of Armenians (June 26, 1915) that, “It is quite obvious that the purpose of their departure is the extermination of the Armenian people.” She added that what could have been done in 1895 was impossible twenty years later: “The Turks know very well about the war raging in Europe, and that the Christian nations are too busy to take care of Armenians, so they take advantage of the times to destroy their ‘enemies.’” Her diary mainly describes the deportation and exile of the Armenians of Kharpert, and scenes of murders perpetrated by the Turks from 1915-1919: “These poor people did not look like humans any more, not even animals could be found in this state, people would be merciful and kill them.” She reported that the Turkish authorities demanded to hand over the orphans from the American missionaries, but many of them were killed when this happened. During this period, Jacobsen adopted three children.

After World War I, with the support of Near East Relief workers, Maria Jacobsen gathered more than 3,600 Armenian wandering orphans, most of them suffering from infectious diseases and reduced to skeletons. In 1919 she left the Ottoman Empire after contracting typhus from the orphans. After going to Denmark, she was invited to visit the United States, where she had public lectures about the massacres and raised money for the orphans. She tried to go back to Kharpert in 1920-1921, but she was not allowed to enter the Ottoman Empire. She subsequently went to Lebanon, where she continued her activities.

In July 1922 she settled in Zouk Michail which was between the cities of Byblos and Beirut (this was the first orphanage of K.M.A.) with 208 children from Cilicia. They later moved to Saida. In 1928 K.M.A. acquired the building of the Armenian orphanage of Jbeil from the American Near East Relief, establishing the Danish orphanage “Birds’ Nest.” By its status “Birds’ Nest” was more like a school than an orphanage. The same subjects of public schools of Lebanon were taught, along with different crafts.

The Armenian orphans referred to Maria Jacobsen as “Mama Jacobsen.” She often read the Bible to the orphans in Armenian. Her humanitarian activities were deservedly acknowledged by her homeland. She was awarded the golden medal of the Danish Kingdom in 1950, becoming the first woman in the country who earned that highest state award. She was granted the Gold Medal of Honor by the Lebanese government in 1954 for her service and dedication to the Armenian community.

Maria Jacobsen died on April 6, 1960, and, according to her will, she was buried in the courtyard of the Birds' Nest. Her diary, which she had secretly smuggled out of the Ottoman Empire, was translated into Armenian and published in Danish original and Armenian translation in 1979. An English translation was published in 2001. Her bust was inaugurated in California in 2016 and a kindergarten in the town of Ijevan (Armenia) bears her name.