New Grand Commander Takes the Helm of the Knights of Vartan: Dennis Papazian


Dennis Papazian

By Aram Arkun
Mirror-Spectator Staff

ENGLEWOOD, N.J. — Dr. Dennis Papazian’s election to an initial one-year term as Avak Sbarabed, or Grand Commander, of the Knights of Vartan, at the organization’s Grand Convocation on July 10, provided an opportune occasion to discuss the work of the Knights, as well as Papazian’s ideas and goals. Hagop Vartivarian participated in the discussion here on July 20 in his capacity as Armenian Democratic Liberal party (ADL) press chairman.

Papazian, born in Augusta, Ga., has been a member of the Knights for 40 years, serving in nearly every office as he moved up in the ranks. Reminiscing, he said, “The Knights of Vartan in those days was the Armenian establishment. All the greats were Knights: [Dadour] Dadourian, [Alex] Manoogian, [Dikran] Boyajian, [Dr. Hovhannes] Zovigian [a Ramgavar leader from Boston], etc. In those days, you had to be tapped; you had to be invited. So I waited. And exactly 40 years ago it happened.”

In addition to working for several decades as a history professor at the University of Michigan’s Dearborn campus, Papazian founded and directed the Knights of Vartan Armenian Research Center on that same campus. He retired in 2005 and moved to Woodcliff Lake, NJ. Papazian has held prominent positions in a number of other Armenian organizations, and over the years has published dozens of articles and book reviews. He has appeared as a commentator on television and radio.

The Knights of Vartan was founded in 1916 in Philadelphia during the Armenian Genocide. Other major centers of the organization initially were in New England and New York. A fraternal organization modeled after the Freemasons, its goals according to its website are “to champion the Armenian cause, to alleviate the suffering of the Armenian people, to ensure the safety of displaced Armenians … and to train leaders to serve the religious, cultural, educational and charitable needs of the Armenian people.”

Since its founding, some aspects of its operations and rituals have always been kept off-limits to non-members. Papazian explained that “the ideas of secrecy, rituals, degrees and discipline were vitally important in those days. Secrecy would preserve the Armenians from Turks and other adversaries.”

The Knights profess non-partisanship. However, members must be Christians, whether belonging to the Armenian Church proper or as Armenian Evangelicals or Catholics. Papazian explained, “To be a member of the Knights of Vartan, you must accept the Holy Trinity. However, since most of us are members of the traditional Armenian Church, the Knights are closer to this. Many lodges meet in church facilities and support the church. St. Vartan Cathedral in New York [consecrated in 1968] was fundamentally built by Knights of Vartan supporters, nearly all of whom were leaders of the Knights.”

The Primate of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America (Eastern) is a member. Though “others thought that you can have secular nationalism, we know that does not last as long as religious nationalism.”

Up until the 1930s, the focus of the group was on local Armenian-American needs, so that not much aid was sent overseas: “Charity and beneficence was an important part of the early days. Their first job was to establish churches, cultural institutions, schools and other organizations to keep the Armenians together in the United States.”

The assassination of Archbishop Ghevont Tourian in 1933 strengthened the attachment of the Knights to Echmiadzin and its churches in America. In the Cold War period, as divisions deepened in Armenian communities, “the Knights of Vartan stuck with the established church because they felt it was the only hope for the perpetuation for the Armenian people. The Diocese in America was stabilized through
Echmiadzin. This was the conservative way to go.”

Armenians were being used by both sides of a major international conflict. In America, “the US government was anti-Soviet, so it gathered peoples under Soviet domination into a group called the Captive Nations. The US government funded it and it railed against the USSR.” But nobody would actually go to free Armenia: “Some naive Armenians thought they would go up against Bolsheviks and win. I admire their patriotism, but not their sophistication. Hungary listened and was crushed.” Under these circumstances, he continued, “The Knights were not against Armenia, but were with the Armenian people. If the Soviets dominated, that was the way it was. The majority of the Knights were patriotic Armenians. However, the Tashnags would not let their members join the Knights. On the other hand, a lot of Ramgavars served as prominent leaders of the Knights.” In fact, a large number of members were also ADL members.

The Knights Today
The Knights have a total of 25 lodges in the US and Canada, as well as 25 women’s lodges. “We are probably the largest grassroots organization in America. We have several thousand dues-paying members, men and women.” At present, the membership is roughly half foreign-born and half American-born. The official languages of the organization are both Armenian and English. However, Papazian explained, “We do our best to do our rituals in Armenian. Most use English, but a few lodges still use Armenian.”

Charitable work is done chiefly through other organizations. “We give about $700,000 a year to charities and have given overall $2 million to schools in the Republic of Armenia. The latter actually was turned into $20 million due to the World Bank multiplying their contributions by a factor of 10.” The goal in Armenia is not only to provide education to the new generation but also “to help them practice entrepreneurial activities to bring wealth to Armenia. We consider that educated people will become involved in entrepreneurship,” Papazian explained.

Education is a big part of the work in the US too. Both Armenian day schools, and churchaffiliated weekend schools are financially supported. There is an Armenian Studies fund administered by the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR): “We wanted a permanent place where people can apply for funds. NAASR processes the applications with its advisory committee of scholars, but our board makes the final decision as to who gets a grant, and distributes the money,” said Papazian.

The Knights also gives money to the Zoryan Institute, the Armenian Assembly of America and other Armenian organizations that directly engage in activities. One of the most important events organized by the Knights is the annual commemoration of the Armenian Genocide in Times Square, an international media center. Co-founded by the late Sam Azadian in 1985, it takes place every year around Armenian Martyrs Day. Papazian exclaimed: “It is much more important than most people realize. These events are videotaped by many organizations, open and surreptitiously, and even by the Turkish government. We even had various international TV groups. The publicity does not always come with it, but it is very prominent. We will never let the world forget.”

In recent years, Armenian organizations from one end of the spectrum to the other have joined together at this event and the audience has been increasingly a young one, including student groups from colleges and universities. Papazian pointed out that “often the young people sleep in Kavookjian Hall [in the Diocesan complex in Manhattan] the night before. We give them pizza, and then they come the next day. We bus in people from Boston, Washington DC, Philadelphia and other places.”

Despite increasing difficulties in getting permission from the city government for any protest or demonstration at Times Square, the fact that it has been taking place for so long has “grandfathered” it in.

Proposed Changes

Originally, the Knights was a leadership organization, but in recent times, it has emphasized service: “I’m trying to explain to the Knights that all life is politics. I’m returning to what the Knights of Vartan was — an organization that felt it had an obligation to give leadership and wise council to the community. I think we must participate again in community life on a fuller scale.”

In the past, the Knights’ ranks swelled with each new wave of Armenian immigration from other countries. However, not too many Armenians from the newest immigrants — from Armenia and the former USSR — are joining (interestingly, a good number of these are ADL members). Maintaining and increasing the size of the organization is a concern. For this goal, Papazian is looking to “people who are middle aged, with families and young kids. These are the keys to the future.” To ease their entrée, he wants to allow new candidates to be able to start without having to go through the full set of obligatory rituals. Instead they can take the
first step of becoming first degree Knights. In order to make the rituals more accessible, Papazian wants to simplify and modernize their early 20th-century style and language.

Papazian will attempt to appeal to the interests of these potential candidates: “Their patriotism may be different from what ours was. Our old quarrels and knowledge may mean nothing to them. I want to preach that the Irish help the Irish, the Italians help Italians; so if you want Armenian power, stick together and you’ll get Armenian power. You young guys stick together — you have a natural family already.”

Part of the problem in enlarging the Knights is that there is no permanent central headquarters: “Since we do not have a physical office, I want to establish a virtual office — a website which includes a private or closed section only open to members. One of our great problems is that we have taken the techniques of communication of 1916 and somehow glorified them into being virtuous. My personal belief is that if e-mail existed then, our leaders would have used it.”

Papazian wants to restructure the finances of the organization. In the past, it kept two separate set of accounts, one as a tax-exempt fraternal organization donations to which are not tax deductible, and one as a charitable organization to which donations are tax deductible. “The question is, what is educational and what is fraternal? The Knights of Vartan have not understood that many of our functions are educational. One example is our newsletter [Avarayr] which is available to the public. This should be publishable with tax-deductible funds.”

The Knights never established branches in Europe or other parts of the diaspora because it was designed for the American-Armenian community. It was not thought practical in the past because “in the old days, it would take a week to get from New York to Europe,” he explained.

More recently, the organization has considered opening an office in Armenia, since much of its attention has been turned there in the last two decades: “Some did want it. The problem is that service leadership — private leadership — is not well developed in Armenia yet.”

Papazian’s Greatest Happiness and Disappointment
Papazian took a break from his job at the University of Michigan and worked for four years as executive director of the Armenian Assembly of America (1973-76). “My greatest disappointment in life was that the Assembly did not succeed in bringing together all the Armenian organizations.”

It seems a bit paradoxical, but the happiest day in Papazian’s life was December 7, 1988, and it provided a lesson that he feels is still important for Armenians: “When the earthquake hit Armenia, we saw the word ‘Armenia’ appear for the first time in Detroit’s newspapers. Only then could we see Armenia on television. We suddenly had cooperation in the community. People saw we had bigger problems to work on together. This should be a shining example of how to get things done when you have a common goal. This was a breakthrough. We paid a big price for it. If we learned from it, maybe it was worth it. But if we didn’t, then it was in vain.”

For more information on the Knights of Vartan, see www.kofv.org.