Mimi Malayan

Great-Granddaughter Wants to Give Diana Apcar Her Due

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SAN FRANCISCO — For many of us, delving into history is interesting, but when that history involves a family member, it is that much more intimate as well as intimidating.

Mimi Malayan, the great-granddaughter of Diana Apgar, has made a film about her famous relative, which she hopes will restore her rightful place in history as a faithful servant of the Armenian people as well as a trailblazing diplomat.

Malayan’s documentary, “The Stateless Diplomat: Diana Apcar’s Life,” brings attention to the countless selfless gestures of Apcar during her fascinating lifetime which coincided with many historic events, including the Armenian Genocide, World War I, the Bolshevik revolution in Russia and the creation of an independent Armenia.

Connecting with her great-grandmother’s legacy humbled Malayan. The filmmaker said she had not realized the full range of her great-grandmother’s efforts to help refugees of the Armenian Genocide.

“The depth of her commitment and energy were overwhelming. She committed her life to his cause, helping Armenians however she could,” Malayan said.

Mimi Malayan

In addition, she said, later as an ambassador for the First Republic in Japan, Apcar served a government whose legacy was not embraced by Soviet historians.

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Malayan complained, however, that few remember her now.

“Armenian society is very patriarchal and I don’t know if women are given their due,” she said.

“There is a bias to tell men’s stories. It wasn’t included in history. There was no information, no resources,” Malayan said. “Doing research on her is not all that easy.”

Lucky for Malayan, Apcar was a keen correspondent, regularly writing to David Starr Jordan, the founding president of Stanford University. Her letters to Jordan are at the Stanford archives.

Poster from “The Stateless Diplomat”

In addition, as a manager at the American Red Cross, in charge of the Vladivostok, Russia and Harbin, China, branches, and later as regular correspondent with the United Nations’ Geneva office, her letters can be found in even more archives.

  • Life in the Far East

Diana (née Gayane) Agabeg was born in Rangoon, Burma (now Yangon, Myanmar) in 1859, to a family that hailed from New Julfa, Persia. She grew up in Calcutta and 1889 married a fellow New Julfa descendant, Michael Apcar. The couple moved to Japan fairly soon after their wedding, where he had established a business. The couple had six children but only three — Lionel, Diana and Vanick — survived. Michael Apcar died early as a result of an accident, leaving Diana alone to raise the children, as well as resuscitate the business, which he had managed to get in so much debt that during the birth of her sixth and last child, creditors were removing furniture from the Apcar home.

Apcar had lived a comfortable life, born into a successful family, but her heart and mind were dedicated to her suffering fellow Armenians halfway around the world.

When asked about the depth of her empathy, Malayan said, “she was born with it.” She referred to Apcar’s first book, Susan. “I interpret it to be autobiographical. She was growing up in India, but she was different from the girls who wanted pretty dresses and to attend balls. She was drawn to a suffering animal or a child that was ignored.”

Apcar, the author of nine books, wrote letters frequently in support of peace and against imperialism. She was not alone in those sentiments, Malayan said. There were several organizations dedicated to peace and opposing imperialism was part of that movement.

On Malayan’s website, we read, “Diana’s goal was set: her people needed her, and she committed her passion and idealism to their cause. She wrote a book a year, appealed to peace societies and sent her articles to major European and American newspapers, pleading her case: Armenians’ right for “security of life and property on the soil of their own country.” She corresponded with Stanford University founder David Starr Jordan, President of Columbia University, Nicholas M. Butler, US Secretary of State Robert Lansing, and dozens of others — journalists, missionaries, politicians.”

She was initially spurred into action because of the Adana Massacres in 1909. “It drew her into becoming an activist. She was so horrified by that event,” Malayan said. Not only was she horrified, but the deeper she read about the events, it became clear to her that without intervention, a bigger calamity would befall the Armenians living on their historic lands. Of course, she was right.

She felt her need to help others was a calling from God.

But first, Apcar had to educate herself to rescue her husband’s business, while taking care of her family and campaigning for justice for Armenian refugees.

An illustration from the film depicting the nervous breakdown Apcar suffered

According to Malayan, it was “hard work and establishing a reputation as a responsible entrepreneur” which led her to be a success in business.

She added, “That reputation was one reason she was so successful in gaining asylum for refugees.”

The refugees for whom she vouched and whose fare she paid through her own resources as well as raising money, made their way from Vladivostok to Yokohama and then on to the US. As long as that route seems, Malayan said it was the most direct one for many refugees from the Armenian Genocide.

“The Japanese government was not accepting of the refugees. It was truly Diana’s name and reputation that gave them the authority to come to Japan. It is just immeasurable,” Malayan noted. “Where would they have been without that?”

Malayan said she puts the number of people saved from the Armenian Genocide through Apcar’s efforts conservatively at 600, but Melanie Mesropian, a young woman from Armenia who was getting her PhD in Japan with her thesis on Apcar, puts the number at closer to 2,500.

The number 600 is arrived at by going through ship manifests. “The search needs to go beyond what I have done,” Malayan said. At the very least, then, if 600 arrived in the US through Apcar’s efforts, then she is responsible for the survival of thousands. Yet, she is not remembered as someone who has saved as many.

She died in 1937 in Yokohama.; her children eventually left Japan for the US.

Bringing Diana Apcar to the World

Malayan was born in San Francisco but lived all over the world, as her father, a designer of hydroelectric plants, took jobs in Holland, France, Germany, as well as all over Asia and South America.

“San Francisco was always home, especially as grandma was here,” she said.

She attended George Washington University and lived on the East Coast for a decade before getting married and moving around the country, including Chicago, Detroit, Atlantic City and Atlanta. She came back to San Francisco full time in 1983.

She recently retired as a landscape architect.

Malayan knew growing up that her great-grandmother was special. However, she did not think about collecting material on her or trying to bring more attention to her.

That all changed when Mesropian contacted Malayan and came to San Francisco for a visit.

“Her research is all in Japanese and it is about to be published as a book,” Malayan said.

The two women were put in touch through Grant Pogosyan, Armenia’s longtime ambassador to Japan.

Apcar was consumed by her feelings of obligation and dedication to her people.

One stroke of luck was finding the papers kept by Lionel Galstaun, a nephew of Apcar and an uncle of Malayan. “At the time of his death, there was a lot of material in the closet, everything that pertained to Diana.”

Among those papers was a manuscript by Apcar that had not yet been published. Lucille Apcar, Diana’s granddaughter, helped publish the book of short stories, titled 1000 Tales, in 2004.

Once she got involved with her great-grandmother’s story, Malayan recalled, she got a “haunting feeling” that there was so much more about her that had to be revealed. She started to delve into the research in earnest in 2010 and by 2012 decided that the best way to bring attention to her grandmother was through making a documentary. “The largest audience can be gained through the visual medium,” she said in a recent interview.

She met filmmaker Arthur Muradyan in San Francisco and worked with him to put together a storyline, which she later developed and expanded.

“We needed to tell much more than the interviews could provide,” she noted. After much thinking and weighing options, they decided to include graphics to amplify the words. The result was the black-and-white animation resembling a Japanese scroll by digital artist Lu Ke.

“The Stateless Diplomat,” was shown at the Toronto Pomegranate Film Festival in November 2018, as well as at the San Francisco Public Library on April 24, 2019. It will be shown on July 21 at the New Hope Festival in Pennsylvania.

The documentary won two awards at the Pomegranate Film Festival:  Audience Choice Award for Best Documentary and Honorable Mention for Documentary Feature.

And her story is not yet finished.

“Having spent time with Melanie, we need to pursue more research on Diana,” Malayan said.

Malayan said that she grew up knowing there was a towering figure in her family, but, she said, she did not realize the “extent of accomplishments. It always went beyond what I assumed. It is mind boggling. I am overwhelmed.”

To see a list of Apcar’s books, or to find out more about the film or Apcar herself, visit www.dianaapcar.org.

 

 

 

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