The Coded Message from the Orphans in Second Corinthians, 1:8-11


By Charles N. Mazadoorian

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

The photograph above of a scriptural message formation which was taken in the Greek City of Corinth in 1923 has always fascinated me. The words “Second Corinthians” and the numerical reference “1:8:11” were formed by the Armenian children who were being cared for by the Near East Relief Foundation at an orphanage site in Corinth. My mother remembers being in the formation for the photograph although she does not remember of which letter or numeral she was a part. It appears that the children were arranged at the foot of a steep hill or mountain so that the photographer was able to look down upon them and get far enough away to take in the whole formation. Perhaps he even had a wide-angle lens.

This photograph of course was not the only such photo taken at Near East Relief orphanages throughout the region. These photographs were likely used for many purposes, including fundraising, brochures and acknowledgement and letters of thanks to those in America who so generously contributed and raised money for the orphans and Genocide survivors. One such photograph simply displayed a very straightforward message from the orphans spelling out the words “America We Thank You.”

The picture shown here was also likely intended to express the appreciation of everyone who worked on behalf of the Near East Foundation in the Middle East, as well as and especially of the children to themselves, to their benefactors in the western world. Significantly, it also sought to express a spirit of gratitude and hope and to seek further prayers for the orphans and thanks to God. It was believed, perhaps somewhat naively, that those receiving the message on the card were mostly Christian and familiar with the New Testament. Hence the use of a scriptural reference as a message from the Armenian orphans to those people in the western world, and in particular America, who had contributed to the financial and spiritual support of the Near East Relief.

It was a unique and appropriate — indeed brilliant — idea for the Near East Relief Foundation leaders to have these orphans and survivors form the letters and numerals of this particular scriptural reference. It was a photograph intended to send a message in code, so to speak; a code not in the sense of being a secret but, in the sense of using that scriptural reference as a shorthand method of saying something as powerful and as moving as only the great Apostle Paul himself could say it. What follows is my favorite version of Paul’s words. It is based for the most part upon a translation found in The New Testament in Modern English by J.B. Phillips. However, I have also added some words here and there to paraphrase the translation. Although this particular combination of paraphrase and translation was not available in 1923 ( The King James version was and still is the most universally read English translation), it does nonetheless accurately and powerfully convey the spirit of the message in the photograph.

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

“We should like you our brothers and sisters to know something of what happened to us in Asia, something of what we went through. At that time we were completely overwhelmed by the terrible course of events which befell us. The burden of our hopelessness was more than we could bear. We even despaired of life itself. We told ourselves that this was surely the end for us. Yet, in looking back now, we believe that we had this experience of coming to the end of our rope that we might learn to trust not in ourselves but in God who can raise the dead. For indeed we were as good as dead. It was God who delivered us from imminent death and it is he who still protects us. Further we trust him to keep us safe in the future. And here, you can join in and help by praying for us so that the good that is done to us in answer to many prayers will mean ultimately that many will thank God for our preservation.”

These words from Paul’s second letter to the young church in Corinth give a remarkably accurate account of what the whole Armenian nation went through in 1915. I don’t believe it could have been expressed in any better way. And what more appropriate place from which to send this message than from the Greek port city of Corinth itself. Could it have been more than a touching coincidence that Corinth was one of the stops on the evacuation route of Armenian orphans from Turkey to Europe and Armenia?

In a larger sense, it was a message from all Armenians who survived the Genocide. By all the laws of man and nature, no Armenian should have survived that brutal slaughter. If they were not directly killed by Turkish guns or knives or beaten to death or drowned or perished from starvation or disease, they should surely have died of despair and hopelessness. One could almost say that the Armenians had no business surviving at all: that they had no possibility of surviving. The odds against the Armenians surviving , including European political rivalry, expediency and moral acquiescence in the actions of the Ottoman government and the powerful forces against them were simply too overwhelming. First the government rounded up all the adult males in a village and disposed of them and then returned to finish off the defenseless women and children. The Turks were too determined, too efficient, and too ruthless in their mass annihilation for any Armenian to have survived by accident or chance. The government did what it was good at — destruction.

If the unspeakable brutality of the Turks left any vestige of physical life in the body of the Armenian nation, it should surely have completely destroyed whatever spirit remained in the Armenian soul. Against such vicious malevolence, the spirit of the Armenian soul should have given up any will to survive. Why struggle or even want to survive when the powers intent upon your destruction were so overwhelming and no government in England, France or even the United States was willing to make a serious effort to stop them? Even the dedication and courage of those gallant men and women who served the Near East Relief should not have been enough to save as many orphans as were saved if it had not been for the grace of God. It was indeed by the sheer grace of God that any Armenians at all survived.

It was Corinth in 1925 that my mother was officially discharged from the care of the Near East Relief and entrusted to the care of her father’s sister, Yester Aharonian in Beirut. It was the last of several orphanages in which she had stayed after experiencing the horrific depravities of the Genocide.

The Near East Relief Card of the author’s mother

My mother described her years in the orphanages of the Near East Relief Foundation as among the happiest of her life. She and her companions were sheltered from the events following the end of the War; they led a regimented life and were provided a keen sense of purpose and direction. The education they received laid down a solid spiritual and moral foundation. The children developed a strong sense of belonging, self-sufficiency and a deep commitment and loyalty to each other and to their teachers and caregivers, who were incredibly loving, thoughtful, dedicated and skilled—-all representative of the heroic humanitarian efforts of the Near East Relief effort itself.

My mother’s miraculous return to what was left of her family in the village of Yegheki in Kharpert after years of complete loss of identity ( none of relatives even knew that she was still alive) was representative of the miracle of the survival of the Armenian identity despite the enormous scope and scale of the destructions and killings.

It was miraculous that the Turkish plan to completely destroy and eliminate every vestige of Armenian identity did not succeed. Despite the widespread scale of the atrocities planned and executed by the Ottoman government, the complete defenselessness of the Armenian population and the failure of the international community to intervene when the government’s plan were laid bare( even after urgent pleas, warnings and graphic description of the brutality and destruction of the Armenian people from respected and credible eye witnesses such as US Ambassador Henry Morgenthau ), the Armenian identity not only survived the attempted eradication but grew stronger and flourished.

The spirit of the young orphans pictured in the photograph and the message they subtly but powerfully conveyed to the world says all that needs to be said about the courage and resilience and strength of the Armenian identity.

(Charles N. Mazadoorian ( 1934-1996) was born in Whitinsville, MA to Yegsa Aharonian Mazadoorian ( 1912-2007) and Nigoghos Mazadoorian ( 1904-1997), both Genocide survivors who lived in various Near East Relief and other orphanages before coming to America. Charles lived most of his life in New Britain CT, where he attended local schools before earning a BA in English literature from Yale University. He was an ordained deacon in the Armenian Church and served at The Armenian Church of the Holy Resurrection in New Britain. He was a committed student of the Bible and of the Armenian Genocide and used his knowledge of both to write this article. Minor edits and some minor additions of materials have been made to this article by Charles’ younger brother Attorney Harry Mazadoorian.)

Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: