On the 90th Anniversary of ADL: Prof. Parounag Tovmassian, a True Leader, Still Inspires, 20 Years after His Death


By Hagop Vartivarian

BEIRUT — While still a 27-year-old youth, Armenian Democratic Liberal (ADL) Party member Parounag Tovmassian intended to found an organ for the ADL in Beirut. It was not possible to provide national leadership in Armenian Diasporan communities without a press, especially in a community like that of Lebanon, where the heart of the Armenian Diaspora still beat. The plan to have a newspaper was developed by ADL leader Mihran Damadian. However, the hero of Sasoun’s shank, broken during his years of revolutionary activity, became inflamed again, and the decay of the bone advanced, leaving him an invalid. The plan failed.

This time Tovmassian took on the initiative for its publication. He unceasingly applied to Cairo, to ADLer Vahan Tekeyan, to come and set the foundation of the new paper. More than simply asking, he actually pleaded that Tekeyan should give the newspaper the correct ideological orientation.

Finally Tovmassian received the following letter from Tekeyan: “As the situation has become a little more certain, I am able to declare that my presence there for two months is not impossible, on condition that Zartonk will be published by me. Although I desire it, I am afraid that it will not be of any use to once more advise you to weigh well the consequences of your decision. To start and stop quickly is a death blow for the future — under the best of circumstances, it would be possible to succeed.”

Bringing Zartonk to Life in Beirut

Vahan Tekeyan came to Beirut in the summer of 1937. They began the publication of Zartonk, renting two dark and damp rooms as its editorial headquarters.

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Parounag Tovmassian thus revealed his value as a true leader, and today behold — it has been 75 years that the daily newspaper Zartonk, the official mouthpiece of the ADL, has been published. The Armenian national public life he led was not an easy one. At each retreat, he took on new energy. Providence became his guide on the national path. There was every reason to abandon the difficult unfinished work that he himself had chosen and remained comfortable with in his life at the university as a respected lecturer. He truly had no need to enter the prickly and dangerous Armenian national arena, where one’s very life remained uncertain and might end by a fratricidal bullet.

However, as a true leader, he did not give way and continued to work until his advanced years. After World War II, he turned into a symbol of the ADL.

He did not have any offspring, but the daily newspaper Zartonk, which he himself brought to life, remained his adopted child. Not one day was it stopped — our newspaper entered our homes every day together with the rays of the morning’s dawn.

Vahan Tekeyan had erred at least once, when he wrote “To start and stop quickly is a death blow for the future…” Tovmassian, a teacher of mathematics, had done his calculation correctly.

Orphanage Life on the Sands of Antelias

He was born in 1910 in the village of Göldagh in the province of Bursa. After the Armenian Genocide, he ended up exiled to Saint Garabed Monastery of Gesarea (Kayseri). As a result of the continual fighting due to the Kemalist or Turkish Nationalist movement, he was transferred to the American orphanage in Antelias (today in Lebanon). He received his secondary education there, after which he was accepted by Beirut’s American University, like some other of his orphan friends who had shared the same fate. In 1932 he had graduated with a bachelor of science degree.

From 1932 to 1934, he worked as a teacher at the Melkonian Educational Institute of Cyprus, from which he went to the Brummana English school. Then from 1937 to 1957 he taught mathematics and physics at the American University of Beirut (AUB) and for several years he ran the second division of the university. During his years at Melkonian and AUB he had a large number of prepared and knowledgeable students. He got a majority of them to become members in the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) and Hay Yeridasartats Engeragtsutiun (Armenian Youth Association, or AYA). Those who had broad Armenian national and political interests were encouraged by him to join the ranks of the ADL. The ADL’s ranks, to this day, are replete with university graduates and people who are intelligent through broad international horizons. This tradition arose through Parounag Tovmassian’s continued efforts and consistent plan to attract educated youth to the party.

Tovmassian played an important role in the arrangement of the will for the construction of the building of the Hovagimian- Manoogian School, together with Kevork Chatalbashian. He played a similar role in the construction of other AGBU schools, especially the Vahan Tekeyan one.

One year (1947), together with his position in the university, he taught in Beirut’s AGBU Hovagimian- Manoogian Secondary School for Boys in order to place the school on a solid foundation. This zeal by the school’s founders was rewarded in later years by its Armenian national activities outside of the school and the educational level it achieved.

For a time, he served as secretary of AUB’s Nerses Gulbenkian Scholarship Committee. He met the needs of Armenian university students for scholarships by recommending many of the outstanding students to Armenian and non-Armenian organizations. He became the most trusted educational individual in the university. It was not possible to apply to him and be turned away empty-handed. He did what was possible, knowing well that in the future the healthy leadership of our organizations would come from those educational institutions. He was not wrong — the evidence is the more than 1,000 university graduates who today have taken on leadership roles from the homeland to the distant corners of the diaspora. They all pronounce in gratitude the name of their — and my — professor. He remained the sole professor, and in this fashion each of us greeted him, whether in public life, among the state leadership of the homeland, in the Armenian-populated quarters of Beirut, or in the meeting halls of our clubs. While he may not have been a lecturer or teacher to many others, he remained our respected professor.

In recognition of his 25 years of educational, pedagogic labor and social service in Lebanon, the Lebanese government bestowed upon him in 1957 the gold medal of merit in the first degree.

Public Life in the AGBU

He very early on became a member of the greatest Armenian philanthropic organization, the AGBU, while he taught in Cyprus. Lebanon began to grow in importance in the Middle East gradually, especially because of the country’s enterprising people and its economic and political opportunities. The Lebanese Armenians had greater opportunities to set roots in that country, with conditions being more favorable than in neighboring countries.

Gradually, the focus of Armenian national life began to fix upon Beirut, and in 1945 Tovmassian, foreseeing the importance of the growing Lebanese-Armenian community, persuaded the AGBU Center in Cairo to bestow upon Lebanon a separate AGBU Regional Committee. From 1948 to 1972, that is, for a full 24 years, he held the position of secretary of that committee. With his typical refinement and communicability, he found a common language with the Lebanese-Armenian upper class, and succeeded in assembling large numbers of individuals to meet urgent AGBU and Armenian national and church responsibilities. He even impelled them through his advice to become donors. He became one of the founders of the AYA, for whose central executive he served as secretary from 1940 to 1953. Though he had become the chief moving force of the AGBU, Tovmassian strove to work silently, often behind the scenes, with that political understanding that the AGBU could better attain popularity and wider circles with a non-political party figure. His diplomacy was to be found right there, and it was his constant companion throughout his national and political service.

He knew that the contributions of the respected ADL members, Vahan M. Kiurkjian, Mikayel Natanian, Dr. Nazaret Daghavarian and Mgrdich Antranigian, in the foundation of the AGBU were exceptional and irreplaceable. Assembled around Noubar Pasha, these intellectuals were establishing a new beginning in the firmament of Armenian national life through the birth of the AGBU. And with this knowledge, Tovmassian showed the same enterprise for the AGBU and AYA of Lebanon. He maintained this principled approach at every stage and period. In particular his relationship with Alex Manoogian, president for life of the AGBU, remained warm, and the entire AGBU and the ADL benefited from it. This close collaboration of our pair of organizations — organizations sharing the same fate which filled each other’s deficiencies and completed one another, with the weakness of one becoming that of the other — through triumphant implementation turned into a providential blessing for our people. Without a doubt, Tovmassian’s role in that ideological worldview was a blessing.

In one letter, Manoogian characterized Tovmassian as follows: “Armenian life in the Middle East bears the beneficial imprint of Prof. Parounag Tovmassian’s person and his thoughts dedicated to the nation. After the Armenian Genocide, when Armenians in that part of the world began the extensive work of restoration, they needed a prudent but courageous leadership, immense sacrifice and unlimited energy. Tovmassian became one of those Armenians who in an unbending fashion presented all this to their people.”

A National Figure in Life of Church

He was a member of the National General Assemblies of the Cilician See’s dioceses, as well as, from 1944 to 1954, the National Central Executive. He enjoyed a warm relationship with the late Catholicos Karekin I Hovsepiants. In 1945, when he married Anzhel from the well-known Tateossian family of Palestine, through the mediation of one of the members of the Jerusalem brotherhood, Archbishop Yeghishe (later Patriarch Yeghishe Derderian), the catholicos himself was present, an exceptional gift for a newlywed couple — and a rare circumstance for a catholicos.

His service to the church was not limited to Antelias. After the church crisis, in 1957, he became one of the chief figures fighting in defense of the Mother See. No matter how much the See of Sis historically is worthy of all respect for us Cilicians, Holy Echmiadzin remains the “holiest of the holies.” Sad fratricidal interpolitical party murders followed the church incidents and like many others, Tovmassian was wounded by one of the other side’s street fighters. Those men vainly boasting of carrying out an act of bravery were defended by their chiefs.

Despite the betrayals, threats and persecution directed against him, he unwaveringly and without retreating preserved his belief in patriotic principles, bravely always standing on the side of the motherland and Holy Echmiadzin, convinced that they remain the sole guarantee of the continued existence of the Diasporan Armenians.

He had many, many occasions to be together with Catholicos Vazgen I. In the agitated diaspora, the Patriarch of All Armenians had Tovmassian as a faithful and close advisor. Vazken I was not wrong in his choice. And a tradition of amiable relations continues until today between the Mother See and the ADL. Surely those good relations will continue henceforth, as long as the issue of our church union is not resolved, as long as the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) wishes to keep Antelias under its influence.

Catholicos Vazgen I, appreciating Tovmassian’s fruitful national, ecclesiastical and public activity and the dedication that he evidenced with respect to the Mother See, awarded him the St. Krikor the Illuminator Medal with a special patriarchal encyclical in 1982. We read in the encyclical, among other things, these words of appreciation: “We wholeheartedly greet in particular your constantly alert spirit dedicated to the homeland, which characterizes your personality, and is the ideological motivating force for your zeal and unrelenting labor.”

One of Founders of Tekeyan Cultural Association

In the 1930s, proposals were made at the ADL General Representative Assemblies to form a cultural organization at the side of the ADL independent in structure but sharing the same democratic liberal principles. The birth of the Tekeyan Cultural Association (TCA) became one of the most important achievements of the post-war period of the ADL. The Hnchagians had the “Nor Serount [New Generation]” founded in the 1920s, the ARFers had “Hamazkayin Hay Grtagan yev Mshagoutayin [Pan-national Armenian Educational and Cultural]” founded in the 1930s, but the ADLers did not have a similar organization. In 1946 permission was received from Lebanon’s Interior Affairs Ministry to form the TCA with its own program and bylaws.

The founders’ committee in January of that year included lawyer Hratchia Setrakian (chairman), Hagop Tavitian (secretary), Hampartzoum Berberian (treasurer) and members Tovmassian, Barkev Barsoumian, Dr. Hovsep Yozgatian and Kersam Aharonian. After a short time, Tovmassian became chairman and for a long period the founder’s committee also included ADL members Kasbar Menag, Haigashen Ouzounian and Zaven Gosdanian.

This association, which had its branches in nearly every organized Armenian community, turned into a blessing. Thanks to its extensive social, literary and cultural work, hundreds of youths joined the ranks of the ADL.

Tekeyan turned into a bridge connecting Armenia to the diaspora. Writers, artists and scholars of the homeland came to the diaspora and familiarized themselves with the Armenian communities abroad. Kohar Kasbarian, Sylva Gaboudigian, the State Academic Song and Dance Ensemble under the leadership of Tatoul Altounian, the Sundukian Academic Theater led by Vartan Ajemian and many other groups and artists came and filled our halls. Our teary-eyed homesick people became more Armenian, and loving Armenia more, swore to remain Armenian and live like Armenians.

A decade after its founding, he established in 1956, Shirag, TCA’s monthly publication of art and culture, under the editorship of ADL member Zareh Melkonian. Tovmassian also became one of the founders of the literary periodical, Ani, whose editor was Vahe Vahian. Tovmassian’s idealist initiative played a role in the strengthening and expansion of the TCA.

(Specially translated into English for the Mirror-Spectator.)

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