BOCHUM, Germany — Under normal circumstances we would have organized a huge birthday party. There would have been music — Armenian music — and poetry and dancing, shish-kebab, with all the trimmings, paklava and Ararat cognac. Friends would have come from all over Germany — Armenians, Turks, Kurds, Germans, young and old, colleagues and students, as well as family members. No one would want to miss Heide Rieck’s 80th birthday party.
But these are not normal times, so friends had to scotch any plans for such a gathering. Lockdowns are not conducive to festivities. And yet, celebrate we must. The best substitute we came up with was a tribute to our friend, and in an Armenian publication; for among the many, many friends of Armenia there are in Germany, Heide Rieck is at the top of the list.
I remember well how it all began. It was a cold January day in Cologne, in 2013. Guests of the Turm Theatre were glad to be inside, out of the cold. The play they had just seen was chilling but it ended with a warm kiss. “Anne’s Silence” was a monodrama composed by the German-Turkish author Dogan Akhanlı, who had fled political repression in his homeland. His play tells the story of a Turkish-German girl Sabiha, who has been engaged in Turkish nationalist political rallies. After her mother’s death, she discovers that she was Armenian, and the drama depicts Sabiha’s struggle to come to terms with her identity. Her recovery of her Armenian roots unfolds as a process of confrontation with the truth of the 1915 Genocide, in part reflected through the story of Hrant Dink. Actress Bea Ehlers-Kerbekian, who provided the concept for the play, portrayed Sabiha and all other characters in a tour de force performance. Her Armenian heritage lent her added insight into the psychological turmoil experienced by the protagonist.
Heide Rieck was in the audience, and it was the first time she had found herself among Armenians. She stayed for the round table discussion that followed, during which the question arose, whether or not the German government would ever recognize the Armenian genocide. As a participant, I ventured to say that they might indeed do so; after all, there were two years to go to the centenary, and “a lot could happen.” Heide was profoundly moved by the play, the stunning performance and now this note of optimism, which, she later wrote, “inspired me to dedicate three years to reading and writing about the fate of the Armenian people and to introduce Armenian culture to my region.” She would bring the production to Bochum a year later.
As a result the German-Armenian Culture Project came into being and the three years have stretched into seven, with no end in sight. In the coming days or weeks, her new book will appear, compiled and edited together with her colleague, Azat Ordukhanyan, director of the Armenian Academic Society (AAV 1860), the oldest Armenian organization in Germany. The new volume, titled Wurzeln in der Luft: Völkermord und Lebensspuren (Roots in the Air: Genocide and Footprints of Life), is an anthology of personal stories, written by children and grandchildren of the Genocide generation. Most of the 20 accounts are by Armenians, but there are also Pontic Greeks and an Assyrian, Turks and Germans. The book is just the latest contribution to educating the public in Germany, especially youth, introducing them to the history and culture of Armenians and thereby building bridges between the two peoples.
Author Rieck was well equipped, both personally and professionally, to undertake such an ambitious cultural enterprise. Born in 1941 in Stettin (today Szczecin, Poland), she and her family were forced to flee in 1945 to Krefeld, a city on the Rhine. Expulsion, deportation and war are not vague historical references but lived realities. Her love for literature and drama developed early, and she studied acting at the Keller Theater; later she set up a students’ theater group at the Pedagogical College, where her own first plays were performed. In 1963, she moved to the Ruhr region and taught theater and pedagogy there as well as in France. Theatre continued to be central in her teaching experience, during which she developed and produced more than 70 plays with her pupils.