Akçam Lectures on Publication Project of Genocide Survivor Stories in Aleppo Rescue House

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By Aram Arkun

Mirror-Spectator Staff

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — On January 13, Dr. Taner Akçam, Kaloosdian-Mugar Chair in Modern Armenian History and Genocide Studies at Clark University, presented a talk at Holy Trinity Armenian Church titled, “Giving Voice to the Voiceless: Armenian Genocide Survivors and the Aleppo Rescue House of the League of Nations.”

The Knights and Daughters of Vartan and the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) were cosponsors of the well-attended dinner and lecture with Akçam, and Knights of Vartan Ararat Lodge No. 1 Commander Hagop (Jack) Kouyoumjian and Marc Mamigonian, director of academic affairs of NAASR introduced the program.

Akçam presented information about the efforts of the League of Nations to rescue Armenian Genocide survivors from Muslim households in the period between 1922 and 1930. The archives of the League in Geneva, Switzerland, contain notebooks with 1,664 surveys of survivors, primarily women and children, admitted to a rescue house in Aleppo run by the Danish missionary Karen Jeppe from 1922. These surveys, in English, describe the origins of the survivors, the story of their survival and information about their experiences after arrival in the house. They often include their passport-size photographs. They gradually are being placed on-line at www.armenocide.net as a unique resource for the study of the Armenian Genocide.

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Surviving young boys and girls often were placed in orphanages or taken into Muslim households. Young girls and newly widowed women were forcibly married to Muslim men as part of an assimilatory state policy, while others were raped, kidnapped, and exploited as servants or sex slaves.

Akcam 7. Akcam at left shows a photo of the Aleppo Rescue Home registry notebooksAkçam in his lecture with slides provided some background to this process and related specific stories preserved in the League’s archives. He pointed out that there were no precise figures on the numbers of Islamicized women and children, but writer Zabel Yesayan, the German Protestant missionary and Orientalist Johannes Lepsius, and the British scholar Arnold Toynbee all gave an estimate of around 200,000, while the Armenian National Union of Beirut in 1919 wrote that around 150,000 were in the regions of Cilicia, Mesopotamia and Syria as far south as the Suez Canal.

Rescue efforts began by Armenians and non-Armenians during the war in areas occupied by Allied troops, and continued after the war. Only a few incomplete figures exist on the numbers who were rescued, but a large number remained in Muslim hands. The Allied forces after the war in the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres included an article proclaiming that forced conversions were invalid and that the Ottoman government was obligated to return forcibly converted Armenian women and children to their families through a League of Nations commission.

In 1921 the Commission of Inquiry for the Protection of Women and Children in the Near East was formed by the League of Nations. Composed of three people, it set up two rescue or care homes, one in Istanbul and one in Aleppo.

Akcam 3-Karen Jeppe Archive-Pictures SLAVE MARKET NEWS-1Karen Jeppe, the Danish member of the commission who ran the Aleppo home, declared that she wanted “to leave no stone unturned and to make sure that at least within Syrian territory no Christians are detained among Moslems without their own free consent, and that the opportunity of returning to their people has been offered to every one of them.” A number of Armenian organizations and international relief groups also worked towards the same end.

In Jeppe’s house, the newly-arrived Armenian women and children were first given medical treatments, given haircut and baths, photographed and then had their experiences recorded by the staff. They were housed in dormitories and given education (in Western Armenian, Arabic, religion, math and singing) and vocational training so that they could begin new lives.

Bases to help locate captive Armenians and help in their escape through the use of stealth, bribery and negotiation were established in Rakka, Der Zor, Ras ul Ain (Ras al-Ayn) and Haseki. Jeppe, the League and the French occupiers of the region were against the use of force in this process, but sometimes local Muslims resisted and used violence.

Fundraising was conducted abroad to support these efforts. One method was through the publication of the stories of the released captives in magazines such as the Slave Market News (1924-36) together with photos designed to be shocking to readers, such as that of Armenian girls tattooed by their captors.

In the five-year-period of operations to 1927, Jeppe wrote that 1,600 captives had been freed in the Syrian area, of whom 1,400 had entered the home. While the official League of Nations effort in Aleppo ended in 1927 due to lack of funding, political support and public interest, Jeppe kept her rescue home working, with limited resources, until World War II. In the decade after World War II, the remnants of the Danish operations around Aleppo were closed down, and many of their buildings and assets handed over to Armenian associations.

In addition to giving an illustrated lecture, Akçam showed a short documentary made in 1926 entitled Karen Jeppe about relief efforts.

Akçam said that he, Dicle Bilgin Akar, and Danish historian Matthias Bjørnlund have begun a project to translate and publish the Aleppo documents in modern Turkish. Selected stories will be published as a book, while all documents will be posted on the Internet. The Knights of Vartan Fund for Armenian Studies and NAASR have provided a grant to support this project, which will bring selected stories to the Turkish reader as a book and publish them all online. The goal is to help Turkish readers in Turkey to learn more about the Armenian Genocide. Further funds are being solicited to allow this project to continue.

Akcam 5. Yeghsa closeup photo-4As a surprise bonus for attendees of the event, author and actor Eric Bogosian, who happened to be in the audience, briefly spoke about his forthcoming book, Operation Nemesis. It is a nonfiction work about the assassinations of Young Turk leaders who bore responsibility for the Armenian Genocide. The book will be released in April. Bogosian’s presence at the event was noted by the Boston Globe in a short piece by Stephen Kurkjian on January 15.