Dr. Nora Nercessian

Nercessian Presents City of Orphans at Daughters of Vartan Event at Holy Trinity Church


CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Dr. Nora Nercessian gave a talk illustrated with slides about her book, The City of Orphans, at an event organized by Arpie Lodge of the Daughters of Vartan on May 4. Cosponsors included the hosting Holy Trinity Armenian Church, the Armenian International Women’s Association (AIWA), National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR), Tekeyan Cultural Association, and the Armenian Mirror-Spectator.

Anahid Mardiros, Dirouhie of Arpie Lodge, welcomed guests and praised Nercessian’s efforts at making the voice of the orphan survivors of the Armenian Genocide, silent for so many years, heard once more, and shedding light on the efforts of the Near East Relief organization in aiding the orphans. She recognized and thanked representatives from the sponsoring organizations.

Ani Ross Grubb then extended greetings on behalf of Holy Trinity Armenian Church, and later handled the microphone during the question and answer session.

Marc Mamigonian, director of academic affairs of NAASR introduced Nercessian, pointing out that she has a distinguished background in academia. Assistant Professor in the Department of Fine Arts in Harvard, Visiting Professor at Boston College, Assistant Professor at the University of Puget Sound at Washington State, and Assistant Dean and then Associate Dean of Administration at Harvard Medical School from 1987 to 2004, she is the recipient of various prestigious fellowships and medals. She was the author of several books prior to The City of Orphans.

Nercessian has not restricted her activities to academia. She founded in 1992 and subsequently became co-director of the Center for Women’s Reproductive Health, at the Erebuni Medical Center in Yerevan, and in the same period became the founder of the first soup kitchen in Yerevan for the vulnerable, elderly and children.

Nercessian started her talk by explaining the origins of her book. She was asked by a friend in Yerevan in the summer of 2012 whether she might be interested in writing about the Gyumri (Alexandrapol) orphanage. Though she had never heard of it, and it was at a great remove from her own academic specialty of the European Middle Ages, she said that it struck a nerve, as her father and uncle had grown up in orphanages in Lebanon.

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Ultimately, this led Nercessian to plough through thousands of pages of primary sources and learn about the intersection of philanthropy, human nature and political interests affecting the Gyumri orphanage. This was an institution which drew the attention of prominent American, European and Soviet politicians and journalists who often traveled long distances to visit. Nercessian in her lecture explored why the orphanage received such great attention.

She began by describing the physical setup of the orphanage in former Tsarist Russian military installations which held 25,000 Armenian orphans primarily from Mush, Sasoun, Erzeroum and Van across the Ottoman border in the spring of 1919. The orphanages were run by the American Near East Relief (NER) organization, which signed an agreement with the Republic of Armenia for this purpose.

NER intended to concentrate the care of Armenian orphans at one site for economies of scale. A Turkish military occupation beginning in November 1920 interrupted its work for six months and stole most of the supplies of the orphanage as well as the resources of the surrounding city. During the occupation, Nercessian related, 34,000 of the province’s population died of starvation, 50,000 were raped and 8,000 enslaved.

By April 1921, the country was in desolation and under Soviet rule. The Tsarist military post now came to be known as the city of orphans, but for every orphan inside, two remained out on the streets. NER invested over $25 million (more $250 million in current values) in this centerpiece for its philanthropic work.

It was believed that these children, unlike those in the Balkans or the Middle East, would join Armenian society after they left the orphanage. Nercessian spoke of the unusual working relationship between the Soviet authorities and the NER during a period where there were no official American diplomatic relations with the Soviets. She also depicted the struggle between the NER authorities and the Soviets over the type of upbringing the children would be given, American or Soviet.

Some time after Armenia entered the Transcaucasian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic in 1922, and could no longer make independent decisions, the privileges given to NER began to be reviewed and curtailed. By the end of June 1929 NER ended orphan care, and left Armenia institutionally by the spring of 1931.

An effort by the Soviet authorities to erase the memory of NER’s orphanage work ensued, and for decades former orphanages had to keep their experiences private. US newspapers fell silent too. It was only after the fall of the Soviet regime that memories reemerged, Nercessian declared. Descendants of orphans in Gyumri, particularly numerous, had many stories to tell and even kept photographs and souvenirs. Nercessian interviewed a number of these people. Some Armenian orphans, including those who later served in the Soviet army, came back occasionally to visit the site of the orphanage.

She concluded by noting that a Russian base in Gyumri today uses some of the buildings still standing from Tsarist times, and the respite from military use did not last much more than a decade.

The audience asked many questions after the formal talk, allowing Nercessian to expand on many points, such as the nature of the largely Armenian staff of the orphanage, where supplies came from (initially the US, and later locally), how orphans were treated (good and bad), and broader issues concerning the Armenian Genocide and US attitudes.

For more information on the book, see the review in the March 11, issue of the Mirror.

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