‘Rescued and Safe’ Armenian Orphans and the Experience of Genocide

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“‘Rescued and Safe:’ Armenian Orphans and the Experience of Genocide”

The decision taken by the Young Turk authorities in the spring of 1915 to expel the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire set into motion a state-sponsored plan that not only resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Armenians. It completely eradicated the Armenian community from Anatolia. The seemingly endless columns of Armenian women and children, elderly Armenians, and weak ones were deported to Syria. Along the way they were attacked by marauding Muslim bands, tribes, and villagers as well as the Teshkilât-i Mahsusa (Special Organization), which had been formed specifically to exterminate them. The gendarmes (zaptiye) assigned to escort the deported Armenians did little in the way of preventing the attacks. In many cases they took part in the mass killings, rapes, and abductions.

Children were perhaps the most vulnerable of the Armenian deportees. Their parents and other family members had either been killed or succumbed to the horrendous conditions inflicted upon the deportees. Children were forcibly separated from their parents, young women and children were kidnapped, sold, delivered to brothels or adopted into Muslim families. The trauma of these children did not lessen after they were torn from their families. They were often abused and made to perform strenuous tasks by the families that had taken them in. The forced integration of these children into Muslim households repressed or subsumed their Armenian identity within the dominant cultural and religious milieu. Those children who were orphaned at an especially early age would later be unable to recall any memories from their previous lives.[1] This essay aims to introduce its readers to the plight of the Armenian orphans and touch, very briefly, upon the international rescue movement that was born in the midst of the Genocide.

Although circumstances differed from case to case, the similarities of the orphans’ experiences during the war are striking. In order to gain a better understanding of the ordeals they underwent one can turn to a variety of sources. One source is the oral testimonies of the survivors, collected largely decades after the Genocide. In one such collection, we can read stories like Anaguel’s. She was seven or eight in 1915 and her family was killed on the deportation route from her native Mezre. Left alone she had to beg for food, and survived because of the generosity of several Turks she encountered along her way.[2]  Another source of information on the orphans are the intake forms of the Rescue Home in Aleppo, which, under the direction of the Danish humanitarian worker Karen Jeppe, helped process the return of thousands of Armenians to their people in the immediate aftermath of World War I.[3] The story of Serona, who was about age three at the time of the deportations, is not atypical among the accounts of other child survivors:

She was deported with her parents sister and brother to the region of Tchimishgezek [in Kharpert province]. Her brother died on the road being too small for such journeys. In a village named [eghizar?] she lost her parents and her sister and she found herself alone among Turks. The chief man of the village took her to his house and kept her two years. Then he gave her as a present to a Turkish officer living in Mardin. Serona lived 3 years in the officer’s house but she was ill-treated and fled to the Armenian priest asking him to protect her. The priest could not keep her but he sent her at night to our Hassitebe agent. From there she was sent to Der-el-Zor. Our Der-el-Zor agent got a passport for her and sent her to us. As far as we know she has no relatives.[4]

Older girls were more susceptible to be married off to men several years their senior. It was not uncommon to see these young women branded with tattoos, which were a mark of both ownership and subordination.[5]

The ordeals which young men endured were no less harrowing. Vartan Kastadjian, who was sixteen when he was deported from Hadjin (now Saimbeyli) to Deir ez-Zor, was adopted by an Arab when the rest of his family was killed. He was found working as a shepherd by an Armenian from Hassitebe, who informed Vartan that his distant relatives were still alive in Aleppo. If he wished to unite with them, all he had to do was meet with the Rescue Home agent in Hassitebe. It was an opportunity Vartan did not let slip by.[6]

A far more extraordinary instance of forced assimilation, sponsored at the governmental level, was the orphanage of Antoura in Mt. Lebanon, on the outskirts of Beirut. The orphanage, formerly a Catholic college and presently the St. Joseph Antoura French College, was run by the feminist Halide Edib (Adıvar) under the direct supervision of Djemal Pasha, commander of the Ottoman Fourth Army in Syria.[7] Armenian (and Kurdish) orphans from every corner of the empire were brought there, assigned a number, circumcised, and given Muslim names. An American Red Cross official who visited the orphanage after its liberation by Allied troops in 1918 remarked that “Every vestige, and as far as possible every memory, of the children’s Armenian or Kurdish origin was to be done away with.” No ounce of energy was spared by their overseers to “impress Turkish ideas and customs upon the lives of the children and to catechize [sic] them regularly on…the prestige of the Turkish race.” [8] Karnig Panian, a child of six when he arrived at the orphanage in 1916, recalled how:

At every sunset in the presence of over 1,000 orphans, when the Turkish flag was lowered, “Long Live General Pasha!” was recited. That was the first part of the ceremony. Then it was time for punishment for the wrongdoers of the day. They beat us with the falakha [a rod used to beat the soles of the feet], and the top-rank punishment was for speaking Armenian.[9]

Children who were unable to withstand the blows were unceremoniously buried behind the college’s former chapel. “At night,” Panian went on to explain,

The jackals and wild dogs would dig them up and throw their bones here and there…at night, kids would run out to the nearby forest to get apples or any fruits they could find – and their feet would hit bones. They would take these bones back to their rooms and secretly grind them to make soup, or mix them with grain so they could eat them as there was not enough food at the orphanage. They were eating the bones of their dead friends.[10]

The remains of the children were discovered in 1993 and moved to a small cemetery adjacent to the college.

The work spearheaded by the Rescue Home in Aleppo, which was established under the auspices of the League of Nations, and other aid organizations in the Near East was part of a greater humanitarian effort by the West to restore the orphans and others displaced by the conflict to their surviving relatives (if they had any) and provide relief and shelter. The armistice at the end of the war brought with it the release of prisoners of war but not the release of those women and children who were held in captivity. In a letter dated to July 16, 1921 and addressed to the secretariat of the League of Nations, Emma D. Cushman, an American humanitarian worker from Near East Relief, estimated that some 6,000 Armenians in Constantinople and 60,000 Armenian children remained in captivity. She remarked on the

Unique and clever manner in which the Turks contrive to conceal the identity of the children. They try to bring about not so much a change a name and locality, but rather a complete change of mind in the child. These children, for a period of time extending from one week to three months, will deny strenuously that they are christians [sic]. Some indeed will go so far to revile the christians as infidels, and declare they are loyal Moslems, while at the same time their history is sufficiently doubtful to keep them under observation, and sooner or later will be forthcoming that they are indeed christians.

Cushman noted that in 1919 rescuing children was relatively easy, as the “Turks were frightened, and children were produced more readily.” Many of the youth came to them, while many also ran away back to their Turkish homes. “The work,” concluded Cushman, “is stupendous and calls for the utmost care, tact and patience.”[11]

In any case, guided on the one hand by altruism and with a profound sense of self-righteousness on the other, Western humanitarians and relief workers took particular pride in their role in the rescue of Christians and evinced strong distaste for their continued confinement in Muslim households. A sermon delivered in London by the British suffragist Maude Royden illustrates the indignant and incensed tone that the rescue movement sometimes took. The abduction of Armenian children, Royden states, should not have come to anyone as a surprise, as “It has been the policy of the Turks for centuries to refresh their worn-out blood – for the Turks are a worn-out and decadent race – by infusing the blood of a younger and more vigorous nation by this hideous policy.” How, she put it starkly, would those in attendance feel if their daughter “had been deliberately stolen by people who desired to violate her body and destroy her soul”?[12] It was an arresting image but one that can frequently be found in the rescue narrative presented by relief organizations in their fundraising and publicity drives. As Keith David Watenpaugh has observed, “The ideological and cultural meaning of rescue and the immense symbolic value of the women and children defined humanitarianism and the League’s role in the Eastern Mediterranean as it underscored a loss of Turkish national prestige and Muslim social control and preeminence.”[13]

Rescue missions were not always successful. Not all who had been forcibly brought up in Muslim families could not or, in certain cases did not, want to leave. With the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, the atmosphere in the country grew markedly less tolerant and became increasingly difficult for minorities openly to express their cultural identities. Some survivors of the Genocide were absorbed into the Turkish national mold. Not all of them forgot their native language and former customs. It is estimated that as many as two million people in Turkey are of partial Armenian heritage, but with the stigma attached to being an Armenian in the country, this is a trait many are adverse to acknowledge publicly.[14]

Those orphans who were brought up in the Levant and Middle East shared different fates. Some settled in the area whereas others moved to Europe and the Americas. Many were able to rebuild their lives and rise to prominence. The story of the “Arba Lijoch” or Forty Children is well known. When the future emperor of Ethiopia Haile Selassie I visited Jerusalem in the early 1920s he was so moved by the plight of the Armenian orphans that he adopted forty of them and brought them back with him. They received musical training in Addis Ababa to form eventually the imperial brass band (and later the royal orchestra), under the sponsorship of Kevork Nalbandian. King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia took a disproportionately significant number of Armenian wives, who bore him more sons than all the women of the other Saudi tribes.[15] Some were able to put down their experiences into writing.[16]

The above is only a sampling of the experiences of the children of 1915. The body of witness literature is continually growing, with new publications and translations of survivors’ testimonies being published each year. In addition, the Center for Armenian Remembrance (CAR) is also now preparing to digitalize and make available the 2,000-odd number of intake surveys found in the archives of the League of Nations. This large collection of documents will serve as an invaluable resource for scholars, as well as an interested public curious to learn about the extraordinary stories of these children.



[1] For studies on orphans during the genocide, see especially Keith David Watenpaugh, “The League of Nations’ Rescue of Armenian Genocide Survivors and the Making of Modern Humanitarianism, 1920-1927,” American Historical Review 115 (December 2010): 1315-39. Consult also Vahé Tachjian, “Gender, Nationalism, Exclusion: The Reintegration Process of Female Survivors of the Armenian Genocide,” Nations and Nationalism 15 (2009): 60-80; Ara Sarafian, “The Absorption of Armenian Women and Children into Muslim Households as a Structural Component of the Armenian Genocide,” in In God’s Name: Genocide and Religion in the Twentieth Century, eds. Omer Bartov and Phyllis Mack (New York: Berghan, 2001), 209-21.

[2] Donald E. Miller and Lorna Touryan Miller, Survivors: An Oral History of the Armenian Genocide (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 105-07.

[3] “Haykakan vorbanotse, Halep,” [The Armenian Orphanage, Aleppo] Chanaser 19 (October 1, 1964).  

[4] Archives of the League of Nations, United Nations Organization, Geneva [ALON-UNOG], Records of the Nansen International Refugee Office, 1920-1947, Registers of the Inmates of the Armenian Orphanage in Aleppo, 1922-1930, C1601/497/563, June 22, 1924.

[5] See, for example, “The Iniquitous Branding of Women and Girls,” Slave Market News, March-April 1925, 3.

[6] ALON-UNOG, Records of the Nansen International Refugee Office, 1920-1947, Registers of the Inmates of the Armenian Orphanage in Aleppo, 1922-1930, C1602/498/1028, June 18, 1926.

[7] Garabet K. Moumdjian, “From ‘Hidden Armenians’ to ‘Hidden Jews’ to Primary Sources on Ottoman Reforms, And from Armenian Ethnographies to ‘Genocide Studies’ and Beyond,” Journal for the Society of Armenian Studies 19 (December 2010): 162; Halide Edip, Memoirs of Halidé Edib (New York, London: The Century Co., 1926; repr. Piscatway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2005), 428-29.

[8] Quoted in Robert Fisk, “Living Proof of the Armenian Genocide,” The Independent, March 9, 2010. <>.

[9] Quoted in ibid.

[10] Quoted in ibid.

[11] Letter from Emma Cushman to Eric Drummond, ALON-UNOG, Health and Social Questions Section (1919-1946), 12/14199/4631.

[12] “A Plea for Armenia’s Daughters,” Slave Market News, March-April 1925, 5.

[13] Watenpaugh, “The League of Nations’ Rescue of Armenian Genocide Survivors,” 1337.

[14] Ibid., 1339. For a personal account see Fethiye Çetin, My Grandmother: A Memoir, trans. Maureen Freely (London, New York: Verso, 2008). See also the novel by İrfan Palalı, Tehcir Çocukları: nenem bir Ermeniymiş [The Children of the Deportations: My Grandmother was an Armenian] (Istanbul: Su yayınları, 2005).

[15] Michael Herb, All in the Family: Absolutism, Revolution, and Democracy in the Middle Eastern Monarchies (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999), 37.

[16] See, for example, Andranik Tsarukian, Mankut’iwn chunetsogh mardik [People without childhood] (Beirut: Hamazgayin, 1955); Aram Haykaz, Chors tari Kiwrtistani lernerun mech [Four years in the mountains of Kurdistan] (Antelias: Publishing Press of the Armenian Catholicosate of the Great House of Cilicia, 1972); Elmas Boyajian, “Haykakan vorbanotsi kyank’en,” [From the life in an Armenian orphanage] Janaser 19 (October 1, 1964).

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