City of Orphans by Nora Nercessian
Armenian orphans of the Near East Foundations orphanage in Alexandrapol

City of Orphans by Nora Nercessian: Book Review


By Aram Arkun, Mirror-Spectator Staff

The destruction of the Armenian Genocide manifested itself in countless ways. One was the huge number of children left orphaned. The largest orphanage in the world at that time was created as a result. In 2016, after nearly a century, Nora N. Nercessian published the first monographic study of this orphanage: The City of Orphans: Relief Workers, Commissars and the “Builders of the New Armenia,” Alexandropol/Leninakan 1919-1931, [Publ.: Hollis, New Hampshire].

This fittingly massive volume of 613 large-size pages includes, in addition to the text, a bibliography, endnotes, an incomplete but long list of the orphans in Alexandropol including over 11,500 names, with their places and dates of birth, and an incomplete listing of the American and Armenian employees of the orphanage. As a bonus, Nercessian has published for the first time the diary of an anonymous American female relief worker who was in Armenia from April 1919 to May 1920. The original manuscript is in the collection of the Genocide Museum and Institute in Armenia.

An influx of orphans into Eastern Armenia
Orphanage in 1919

The book opens with the transformation of the Russian military barracks in Alexandropol into an orphanage in 1919 after a seven-month Turkish occupation of the city. An influx of orphans into Eastern Armenia had begun in late 1914 and accelerated over the following years. After World War I, the newborn and beleaguered Republic of Armenia, without the means to take care of all the refugees and orphans who had flooded into its territory, signed an agreement with the American Committee for Relief in the Near East (ACRNE, renamed Near East Relief in August 1919) allowing the latter to care for Armenia’s orphans starting on May 1, 1919. By 1920, it was decided to concentrate the Armenian orphans primarily in Alexandropol because of the availability of the former Russian barracks, convenient railroad access and a successful receiving hospital already set up.

Nercessian writes, “a special effort has been made in the present volume to bring into a single narrative context the voices of American relief workers and administrators, Armenian teachers and managers, and, the orphans themselves.” Indeed, she successfully switches back and forth between these sources to give a broad view of various aspects of life in the orphanage.

She presents the tug of war between the financially impoverished governments of Armenia forced to surrender the upbringing of their orphans to a foreign organization but still desiring as much control as possible over the content of the education the children would be given. The Near East Relief (NER) wanted to produce youth in the American mold, with minimal interference, whereas the Republic of Armenia was concerned about the Armenian nature of their upbringing, as well as problems in the attitude of particular teachers. In turn, the Soviet regime had ideological differences with the Americans. Disagreements between the NER administrators and the government of the Republic of Armenia, and its Soviet successor, are presented through documents and memoirs.

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In early November 1920, Turkish forces occupied Alexandropol, and stayed until April 22, 1921. Nercessian cites various accounts describing the terrible conditions of the Turkish occupation of the district, which included murder, rape, torture and looting on a large scale.

NER moved its staff from Alexandropol to Kars less than a month after the Turkish occupation due to difficulties with local Bolshevik Armenians under Turkish influence, and left behind over 10,000 orphans with only 2 months’ supplies. The Soviet Armenian authorities however demonstrated goodwill toward NER and persuaded its personnel to return by offering many guarantees and incentives. The orphans living in Alexandropol endured a high death toll and faced starvation until emergency supplies arrived.

The author goes on to describe the expansion of NER activities after its return in 1921 to Alexandropol due in large part, she concludes, to the moderate leadership of the new Armenian Revolutionary Committee led by Aleksandr Myasnikyan (A. Martuni), who expressed his appreciation and gratitude for the work done by NER. Myasnikyan was focused on reconstruction, and wrote dramatically in November 1921 in Khorhrdayin Hayastan, according to Nercessian, that Soviet Armenia “has acquired an army of one hundred thousand orphans and skeleton-shaped children. Our country is a piece of the earth housing orphans and refugees. It is a pervasive hell of woes, tears and sufferings” which the working people of Armenia will transform into a place worthy of “human existence.”

Myasnikyan’s successor Sergei Lukashin (Srapiyonyan) in 1922 continued his policies. NER staff and visitors were impressed by the hardworking and modest Soviet Armenian leaders.

Disagreements of course continued between the two parties on certain issues. The Soviets did not want NER to teach morality or ethics and wanted to supervise the education given by NER to orphans so that the youngsters would eventually transition into useful Soviet socialist citizens. Though as one Soviet Armenian liaison observed, the NER orphanages almost constituted a “state within a state” because of the size of their operations, slowly NER’s sovereignty was diminished. A thorny issue was that some of the NER Armenian employees were anti-Soviet in their politics, and enjoyed a certain degree of American protection thanks to their jobs. This issue came to a head a few years later. In the summer of 1927, 28 Armenian NER employees and teachers at the Alexandropol Polygon were arrested, accused of conducting anti-Soviet activity and association with the Armenian Revolutionary Federation.

Nercessian provides excerpts from various reports of clergy, Armenian government officials and NER officials, along with orphan and teacher or employee accounts on daily life and education in the orphanages. Sports, cultural activities and entertainment supplemented the primarily vocational training and school curriculum. A special school for blind orphans was established in 1922.

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“Character building” was one of the important goals of NER. As Nercessian puts it, “the horrors of months and years of survival under perilous conditions, dislocation from their ancestral homes, and the loss of all that they held dear, had not only traumatized the children but had developed in them undesirable character traits. Those undesirable traits needed to be erased and the children would have to be re-educated with a code of ethics that would transform them into worthy citizens” (p. 234). Moral restraint was being taught, but this led to disputes with the Soviet authorities. The government of the first Republic of Armenia worried that the orphans would not have a uniquely Armenian identity or traditions, while the Soviets focused on political doctrine.

The NER wanted apostles of Western values, but the Soviets looked for future soviet citizens working to build a socialist and progressive society. Nercessian devotes an entire chapter to glimpses of what orphans later remembered about attempts to mold their character. The tools used were order and discipline, religious and ethical instruction, and special punishments, which Nercessian characterizes as often becoming physical and emotional abuse.

Nercessian devoted a chapter to the extensive publicity, through photo shoots and films, prepared by NER for US consumption, much of it at Alexandropol. Unfortunately, most of the films have not survived to the present, though it can be hoped that one day some fragments at least may resurface. Nercessian reproduces many photographs of the orphanage. For some reason, a number of these images are fuzzy. It is not clear whether this is due to the limitations of the originals or the quality of the reproductive process, but perhaps they can be enhanced through technology in a future edition.

The penultimate three chapters of Nercessian’s book describe the downsizing and closure of the Alexandropol orphanages. Families whose situation improved were able to reclaim their children from the orphanages and some orphans escaped, while orphans reaching the age of 16 or 17 generally were discharged. In the early 1920s, NER placed children with families in villages. The Armenian government was concerned about the increasing pace of NER downsizing, and feared that without sufficient employment or social support, the released orphans would lead to homelessness, crime, prostitution, and exploitation. A joint Liquidation Committee with government and NER representatives was formed in May 1925 to supervise the process. Whereas by the winter of 1923, according to NER statistics, there were still some 17,000 in the orphanages, by February 1925, that number had dropped to 11,000, and by January 1, 1926, only 8,234 orphans remained, according to the Commissariat of Enlightenment. Approximately 1,600 were left by the summer of 1928.

The conflict between the goals of the government and NER continued over the role of the outplaced orphans. The NER wrote that the orphan would disseminate the ideals learnt at the orphanage, so that “western ideals” would get “under the skin of the Near East,” while the government in a report characterized the children as “an extremely useful category” for the greater glory of socialism. The government thought the orphans should be turned into village Communists, as they were already used to collective life and could see to many of their own needs. They also represented free labor for the state.

Many children were sent outside of Armenia, to Georgia, Azerbaijan, the Northern Caucasus and the Black Sea Region, in the period up to 1929. During a two-year period, 1,844 children were sent north. If the children could not do the work expected of them, they would be sent back to the NER. Often the orphans were sent to refugees from Turkish Armenia.

Some were sent to the cooper mines in Ghapan, and others even to join an army orchestra in Karakilisa. In 1929 the government decided to ask the NER to stop relocating children to Abkhazia because of the high incidence of malaria there.

Simultaneous with the discharge of orphans, the NER reduced its payroll by hiring older orphans to replace local teachers. In 1926 it turned over various posts to the government, and, due to an urgent request by the military, returned the Severski barracks to the use of the latter by October 15, 1926. The NER was planning to turn over more posts to the government in 1926, and all operations in Alexandropol were to be concentrated at the Polygon post by July 1927. The focus of NER activities was changing to education rather than relief and orphan aid.

All relief activities ended on June 30, 1930. Negotiations between the government and NER for establishing some sort of permanent educational NER facility in Armenia failed. The victory of the Stalnist faction in Moscow led NER to decline to pursue a consultancy role in the Caucasus. The last three Americans left in 1931. Many local NER Armenian employees were arrested and imprisoned or exiled to Siberia.

The last chapter of the book, “Apocrypha,” discusses how the memory of the NER intervention could not be discussed freely in Armenia in the Stalinist era but had to be held by individuals until the collapse of the Soviet Union. Afterwards, memoirs and articles by the adult orphans emerged.

This is a difficult book to read because of the pathos as well as the large amount of detailed information provided. There are many moving anecdotes scattered in the pages of the text. For example, Nercessian explains that it was found necessary to institute a program to teach the orphans how to play, as they would otherwise simply “sit about with a look of despair upon their faces, with no interest in their companions.”

Near East Relief official Barclay Acheson is quoted telling the story of a 12-year-old boy who carried his heavy camera on Acheson’s tour. When Acheson tried to thank him by offering to give him any of his personal “treasures” as a gift — a jackknife, gold pencil, steel tape etc., he replied that he wanted none of them. Instead, with trembling lips and tear-filled eyes, “He says that all he wants is to be loved” (p233).

Nercessian usefully synthesizes information from a variety of sources. However, her cautious approach in a few instances leads her to provide conflicting accounts without giving her assessment as to which one appears correct.

For example, according to various New East Relief reports, the NER started the first school for blind children in Armenia in the summer of 1922, and Pauline Jordan fashioned the first textbooks in braille ever to be made in Armenian. Yet a blind orphan, Zvart Murdyan, reports that the blind Armenian composer and ethnomusicologist Nikoghayos Tigranyan had in 1922 adapted the braille technique to the Armenian alphabet, and had opened a school for the blind in Alexandropol in 1921. He had asked the NER to allow him to organize a school for the blind at the NER orphanage. Nercessian does not comment on the validity of her varied sources but only notes that Muradyan’s testimony “adds a perspective that differs somewhat from NER accounts” (p. 173).

Nercessian writes about Col. William N. Haskell, appointed as Interallied High Commissioner for Armenia and Director General of ACRNE’s Caucasus Branch, and his stay in Yerevan. It may be pertinent to note that according to Rev. H. W. Harcourt, representative of the Lord Mayor’s Fund, a British charity, he systematically sold to the Azerbaijani government food supplies donated in the West for Armenia.

There are occasional minor typographic errors in the volume (e.g. “wandered” instead of “wondered,” p. 249) which can be easily corrected in a future edition. Furthermore, if finances permitted, an expanded volume (or if not, a digital one), an index would be quite useful.

Overall, Nercessian has created a very useful study on a topic which has been neglected. It is an excellent resource for understanding the pitfalls and positive elements of international philanthropy, as well as the way the Armenian Genocide left its imprint on young survivors.


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