Victoria Varjabedian: An Armenian Mother


By Sissag Varjabedian

BEIRUT — On January 16,1971, in this damp cold Beirut winter, we buried an Armenian mother endowed with singular capacities — my mother or Mairig, as we, her children, used to call her.

Being one of her children and, particularly, an Armenian man, public servant and writer, I am impelled to put in writing a few memories while her grave is still fresh, while trying not to weep — but to no avail. Despite all my effort, a myriad of bittersweet episodes come pell-mell to the forefront of my mind, and teardrops stream down my cheeks. A life of more than half a century impetuously passes before my eyes — from the roads of exile to my entrance to the university. I am very sad…not because I am being eternally separated from my mother — who became both a mother and a father to us, her children; rather, with the departure of Victoria Varjabedian, our nation has lost one of the worthy representatives of a model class of Armenian women and mothers. She is the type of Armenian mother who, although having suffered on the roads of exile, nevertheless emerged victorious in the end. It is not on account of her death that her merits are becoming evident. I have long since taken note of them.

One day, when we were sitting around as a family and my son, Shahnour, who is endowed with exceptional artistic ability, was painting a portrait in oil of his grandmother seated facing him, I said to her:

“Mairig, you know, I’m going to write about you.”

However, that day never came during her lifetime. A year or two later, she asked with a sweet smile on her maternal face:

“Sissag, my son, you said that you were going to write something about me. What happened?…”

Controlling my emotion, I put my hand on her shoulder and, looking sadly in her eyes, said, “Mairig, the time hasn’t come yet…,” then turned aside.

The time finally came at 3 p.m. on January 15, 1971, when Mairig’s utterly exhausted and tormented body found its eternal rest. It was then that I decided to present this wonderful woman and honorable mother to the public because, up until that day and hour, she was my mother, but after that — when she had crossed over to the other side of the river and beyond the threshold of eternity — she belonged to the Armenian people, of which she constituted a worthy and exemplary daughter.

When I was standing with head bowed before her lifeless body, I saw how old age and illness had ravaged that healthy woman to a little human doll, which was comfortably slumbering on its death bed.

However, when we placed her in the coffin, it was as if it was too narrow for her, and that small and shriveled-up being grew and grew and became a giant — a giant of invincible will and indestructible resolve.

Herein lies the exceptional worth of Victoria Varjabedian and the necessity of her being presented to the public.

The daughter of an Armenian Evangelical family, who married a worthy son of the Armenian Apostolic Church, she worshiped the Holy Armenian Church — while not forgetting hers — and, for her, Echmiadzin was an immovable rock, an indestructible faith. The daughter of a Protestant, she used to take us to church and taught us to make the sign of the cross. Having become a widow at an early age, she rejected all proposals of remarriage, and, with an irreproachable life and infinite sacrifice, she devoted herself to building her children’s future — as human beings and Armenians, as stated above.

These, thus, are the merits of Victoria Varjabedian, whose life can serve as an example to others.

With her irrevocable departure, one more member of a courageous and honorable generation of Armenian mothers, which emerged during the years of our national suffering, the period of 1900-1925, disappeared. These mothers aborted the monstrous plan of the Turks to annihilate us, by raising their children and keeping them Armenian.

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Mairig was born into the Kalayjian clan, one of the families comprising the Armenian Evangelical community of Marash, in 1885. She was the only sister to four brothers, one of whom was a doctor while the other three were businessmen. She received her higher education at the American Girls’ College of Marash, where she mastered the English language. She was then hired as a teacher in the school of St. Sarkis church in the Armenian quarter of her birthplace Kiumbet (corrupted form of Kumpet, meaning dome). The principal at that time was Hagop (or Hagopos) Varjabedian — our father, the sole male child of Fr. Krikor Varjabedian, the parish priest of said church.

The Varjabedian clan of Marash had produced 40 generations of priests — starting from Persia, where they first emigrated from Armenia, and ending in Marash after a few hundred years. These were dedicated pastors, some of whom were archpriests, such as Fr. Krikor’s brother, for example, Archpriest Hovhannes Varjabedian (died in 1904), for many years the vicar of the diocese of Marash.

It is worth mentioning here that Fr. Hovhannes and his brother, Fr. Krikor (our grandfather), were the children of Fr. Hovhannes Karayapoudjian, who opened the first school in Marash next to the St. Kevork church.

Hagop Varjabedian received his higher education at the American [St. Paul’s] College in Tarsus. Generally speaking, he wrote on ethnographic topics, made a study of the Marash provincial dialect and labored to produce inspirational poems. He assembled raw data for the history of Marash and published extensive reports in various newspapers, of which Krikor Kalousdian made wide use, through his own admission to me. Kalousdian prepared the voluminous book Marash or Kermanig (950 pages), which was published in New York in 1934.

He contributed to the contemporary newspapers of Constantinople, especially Piuragn. It was he who, for the first time, translated Yeghishe’s “Vartanank” from classical Armenian into vernacular, which was published in Constantinople in 1911 under the penname H. Varj. Puzant Yeghiayan wrote about this in an issue of Hask monthly. Hagop also published a conversational book of English-Armenian-Turkish, titled Arachnort Anklieren Lezvi [Guide to the English Language], which can help one learn the English language even today. I have a copy of each of these books.

Hagop Varjabedian also had numerous other handwritten studies, which were destroyed during the catastrophic days of 1915, in order to spare the family from persecution.

 

The Helpless Widow and Exile

Continuing the concise biography of Mairig, the best members of the teaching staff of the St. Sarkis church school in Marash — Hagop and Victoria — took a liking to each other and decided to get married. This created quite a stir, almost a “national crisis” at the time, since relations between the Armenian Apostolic Church and Protestants were strained. Hagop was the son of an Apostolic family, and a priest, on top of it, while Victoria came from a well-known Protestant family, her father being a member of the Council of Elders (Yeretsneru Zhoghov). However, owing to the intervention of some of the broadminded members of the vestry of St. Sarkis church, the marriage was completed.

I remember very little of Hairig, inasmuch as he died prematurely. His portrait is vaguely etched in my memory: he was an unusually tall individual with a well-proportioned build, a peaceful face and kind look.

Hagop died in 1914, barely having reached the age of thirty-five, leaving young Victoria alone with four children — Sissag, Hratch, Dickran and Shahe. As if this weren’t enough, the war that shook the world followed, in whose whirlpool our family got caught up.

Elderly grandfather Fr. Krikor was exiled along with the first 40 well-known families of Marash. The poor man, having taken with him his wife, daughter-in-law and her four fatherless children, proceeded along the road of exile. The rest is the familiar story of the black fate suffered by the Armenians, requiring no explanation.

Fortunately, they were exiled to Jordan and, after much deprivation and suffering, they reached the village of Tafileh, where an Armenian community was formed, consisting generally of natives of Marash. I distinctly remember how my grandfather, Fr. Krikor, used to put on his vestments every Sunday and celebrate mass in the home of the Arab village chief, where we had taken up residence, along with ten or so Armenian families, each one occupying one room of the house. Generally speaking, we were not subjected to persecution, and the local Arabs were friendly toward us.

However, this good life didn’t last long. There was an epidemic, which took the life of my grandfather, and one day we woke up to find that Shahe had died in our mother’s arms.

We were orphans and we would have died helpless and hungry if providence hadn’t come to our aid and if it weren’t for Mairig’s enterprising spirit, as well as the determination to work and keep her children alive.

One day, the wife of a high-ranking Turkish official, seeing that Mairig was educated and had the ability to govern, and especially taking into consideration the fact that she had been a teacher, asked her if she perhaps could give lessons to a group of children of Turkish officials and military personnel, since their Turkish teacher hadn’t been able to return on account of the Damascus railway line having been shut down. Mairig began to work. The children learned simple arithmetic, studied Turkish grammar and sang Armenian songs with Turkish words!

Yes, this was the external front of the work, whereas the picture was completely different on the inside. Mairig, who didn’t know the meaning of tired, used to gather us three children together and, under the dim light of a candle, teach us the Armenian alphabet. She used to grab and direct our feeble hands so we would write correctly and not betray St. Mesrob.

When she was home on Fridays and Sundays, she would teach us English.

I learned my first words and sentences of this language from her. She would make the three of us stand facing her and command:

Military operations began to develop. The British, under the leadership of their famous Colonel Lawrence and the support of Anglophile Arabs, began to advance from Egypt to Jordan and succeeded in occupying Tafileh where we were living. There I saw the legendary Lawrence wearing typical Arab garb; the Arab ruffians used to point him out from afar, saying “hede inglizi” (he’s an Englishman).

However, a few weeks later, the British and their ally, the Arabs of Sherif, retreated and the Germans and Turks attacked with cannon fire, seizing Tafileh. A real hell was created; there was plunder and massacre of Armenians by Turcophile Arabs. It was Victoria who, as the head of a delegation of Armenian women, went to the Turkish army headquarters and requested of the general that the firing of the cannons be ceased since the British had already retreated.

Fearing that the British would mount a counterattack again, since Tafileh had been rendered into a war front, they withdrew further north, to the fortress city called Kereg, taking with them the Armenian refugees and confining them in the famous fortress of Kereg.

It took us four days to travel on the road from Tafileh to Kereg. On one of those winter days there was a terrible storm; the rain was coming down in torrents and an icy cold wind was blowing. Even now I can very clearly picture in my mind how the caravan of Armenian refugees proceeded silently under these rainy and stormy conditions. We, in turn, mother and sons, were wallowing in mud and water, trying not to get separated from the caravan. Alternately grabbing me and my brothers by the hand, Mairig was staggering like a drunkard, utterly exhausted and weak, saying, “walk, my boys; when it gets dark, wolves will come and eat us.” Along the side of the road, she saw a gaba [cassock; monk’s gown; women’s dress, gown, robe] made of a large piece of felt, which, being soaked with water, had become extremely heavy and had been tossed aside by its owner. She took it and fashioned a tent out of it, under which we took shelter for a while until the rain stopped. Grandmother, the priest’s wife Markrid, who was quite a distance away from us, was seemingly coming from the world beyond the grave, as if she were an apparition. Along the road we saw how many of the Turkish soldiers, while retreating from Tafileh to Kereg the previous night, had gotten frozen and were still clinging to their weapons and bayonets.

Finally, we miraculously reached Kereg. However, after a while, the Arabs of this fortress city threatened to massacre the Armenian refugees. It wasn’t prudent for us to remain there, since the regular Turkish army had retreated to Damascus and anarchy prevailed. Taking advantage of the proximity of the British, who were located at a place called Ghor on the Dead Sea, approximately a thousand kilometers from Kereg, and led by Armenophile Arabs, the Armenians began to flee, caravan after caravan, to the British side at night, paying one British pound sterling per person.

 

Retreat and Salvation

We too set out on a dark night with a small caravan and, experiencing unimaginable difficulties, we traversed an expanse of land that alternated between desert and volcanic rock, under a scorching sun. I was old enough to be able to walk by myself, whereas poor Mairig, grabbing Hratch by the hand and carrying Dickran on her back, while carrying the divine liturgy chalice and cross in a bag in her other hand, was walking or, more accurately, crawling behind the group, filled with fear of getting separated from it.

One of the kind Arab escorts, taking pity on this Armenian mother experiencing such difficulty, took Dickran from Mairig’s back, put him on his back and proceeded rapidly. After a while, when the caravan reached the Arab who had gone in front, we saw that the kind youth had set the little boy down on a rock and then turned him over to his mother, smiling.

During those days, one of the members of the caravan was Ovsanna (who is presently in Beirut), the wife of the late Archpriest Mashdots Vosgeritchian, our worthy pastor in Zahle. I’m sure that she will be greatly moved when reading these lines. Since Ovsanna didn’t have anyone to protect her, Mairig took her under her charge; when we reached the camp of Port Said, she gave her in marriage there to Edward Vosgeritchian, a teacher from Zeitoun, who years later was ordained as the priest of the Armenian community of Homis and later moved to Zahle.

Finally, after a real crucifixion, we reached the place called Ghor, a bona fide desert on the shore of the Dead Sea, an unhealthy place. Located there was the first British base, which constituted the guarantor of our final salvation. Unable to endure all the many tribulations she had suffered, Mairig fell deathly ill but she eventually recovered. Her knowledge of the English language greatly helped her to gain the assistance of the British army doctors, as well as secure medicine and food. The British were amazed at how this woman, who was shrouded in rags and was reduced to skin and bones, spoke their language clearly and fluently.

In 1964, I took my family on a tour of the places we had gone during our period in exile. My intent was to show the members of my family a part of the calvary of crucifixion, to which the previous generation had been subjected, so that they would know how and where the Armenians had suffered and so that they, in turn, would become good, knowledgeable Armenians. I found the home of the Arab sheik in Tefileh, still one of the best houses in the village, where now the king is reported to stay and where our grandfather, Fr. Krikor, used to celebrate mass every Sunday.

There we were introduced to a few Armenian women, who had been little girls during the deportation and who had remained there during the period of our retreat, having panicked and lost their parents. They had been forced into marriage by local Arabs and had children by them. With their tattooed faces and Bedouin manner of dress, they totally resembled Arabs, but amazingly they spoke correct Armenian.

From the tent city of Port Said, Mairig was able to establish contact with her brothers in America, who had attempted to help us in every way, even wishing to bring us to America. However, Mairig was never enthusiastic over this idea, since she felt obligated, as the daughter-in-law of a priest, to remain in the bosom of her people. Grandmother, Yeretsgin Markrid, whom we had left in Kereg as she couldn’t come with us on account of her age, joined us here. A group engaged in the assembling of Armenian orphans brought her from Kereg.

I distinctly remember the declaration of the Armistice — it must have been 1918. We were in the tent city of Port Said when, one day, the ships in the harbor began to uniformly and loudly sound their horns. A few dozen of us boys ran barefoot across the sand and were amazed to see that all the ships were decorated with flags of various colors and the sailors were engaged in wild celebration on the small bridges. When we returned home, the elderly said that the war had ended and that we would be returning to our homeland.

My teachers at the Port Said school were H. Kendirjian (later the priest of Ainjar), Yetvart (Edward) Vosgeritchian (Fr. Mashdots, pastor of Zahle) and Hmayag Kranian (subsequently a familiar figure in the Armenian community of Beirut). It so worked out that I was to develop very close and friendly relations with the latter two in the realm of Armenian affairs.

After the Armistice, we returned with the rest of our compatriots to Marash with high hopes and the expectation of establishing the independence of Cilicia. However, this plan was aborted [owing to the French evacuation] and we narrowly escaped the massacre [at the hands of the Kemalist Turks] that took the lives of many Armenians having returned to Marash. Here too Mairig had a good job on account of her knowledge of English. Initially she worked for the American Red Cross as a member of the committee responsible for the distribution of clothing, and later as a nurse in the American hospital.

Having miraculously escaped the massacre of Marash in 1920, we found refuge in Aleppo following the Kemalist movement. Here Mairig again carried on the same work that she had been doing with the Americans in Marash; i.e., she worked as head of the relief distribution committees of the American Red Cross. At the very suggestion of the Americans, she put us in an orphanage where we began to receive education. Being a working woman, Mairig couldn’t undertake the responsibility of educating us herself.

In 1923, she moved to Beirut and had us transported to the well-known orphanage in Jebeil (Lebanon) where we remained for two years. Our stay there greatly aided our physical and mental development, and from there we went to the American University. During our stay at the orphanage, Mairig used to visit us a few times a month, bringing with her an abundance of foodstuffs, sweets and fruits. Thus we never felt as if we were orphans or cut off from family.

In Beirut, Mairig first worked in the Armenian orphanage founded by Ghazaros Ghubligian as a nurse, and then became the immediate assistant to Miss Dray/Drey, the American woman who headed the outpatient clinic of the American Hospital. In this position, which she held for many years, Mairig was very helpful to Armenian students who were studying medicine, as well as Armenian patients at the American Hospital, especially those who were indigent. Doctors Yervant Jidedjian and Khoren Yeretsian, who came to express their condolences upon the sad occasion of Mairig’s passing, recalled those days and the work she had done with much appreciation.

We three brothers, in turn, continued our education while working and performing various jobs of manual labor at the university, such as waiting on tables in the cafeteria, cleaning, watering the garden, house sitting for Americans going on vacation, etc. We did this until I completed the course of study for business, Hratch received his Bachelor of Arts degree, and Dickran became a certified physician. Being the oldest male child of the family and on account of my starting a working career early, Mairig saw to it that I didn’t fail to carry out my responsibilities toward the family and my brothers; she also instilled in them respect and love for their older brother.

Grandmother Markrid had gone to Greece to live with her daughter. With the death of the latter, she was left all alone, having lost her husband some 20 years earlier. She wrote to Mairig, who arranged for her to join her. A few years later, Grandmother died, praying for and blessing her daughter-in-law and grandchildren.

In 1940, we sent Mairig on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. In 1952, we sent her to North America, where she saw her brothers and relatives. After a six-month visit, she returned fresh and happy.

 

Victorious Mother

After receiving our university education, when we began to succeed in life, we became active in Armenian community life and our books successively appeared in print. Mairig felt boundless joy, seeing that her sons, like her husband Hagop, were turning into writers. She would get quite excited, pray and read the Bible, take communion and thank God, saying that she couldn’t have ever imagined such good days would come in her life.

In 1945, we suffered the misfortune of losing my brother Hratch — a misfortune which, nevertheless, couldn’t break Mairig’s solid will. Having become a grandmother by then, she began to assist in the upbringing of her grandchildren.

The helpless widow of yesteryear had become a victorious Armenian mother, showing contempt for the Turkish persecution and overcoming numerous obstacles. Her success was the result of her exceptional abilities, unusual effort and great sacrifices, which made her worthy of respect and appreciation.

However, this huge tree became bent down under the onerous weight of 85 years. She fell down and broke her leg; after being confined to bed for 11 months, she entered her eternal rest.

This is the story, in summary form, of an Armenian family, which saw the hell of the Armenian Genocide, passed through the valley of death and whose orphans were saved, thanks to a valorous and intelligent mother. This is the reason why the story of our family, more than being unique to us, is of a more public nature and why I felt obligated to present it to the public, omitting many parts of a strictly personal nature.

Unfortunately, when we speak about the heroic feats and successes of our nation, we always forget the exemplary Armenian woman, remembering her only on Mother’s Day. Indeed, this generation of ours owes a great debt of gratitude to its mothers. They constituted brave warriors, who sacrificed as much as our fedayis and volunteers. Sincerely speaking, I am very much afraid that the new generation will not be able to produce such exemplary Armenian mothers like them, in order to keep their offspring Armenian and ensure the survival of the Armenians.

Every wife, of course, has great overall respect for her husband. However, the respect and admiration Mairig had for our father, her Hagop, were something exceptional — a kind of hypnosis reaching the level of worship. As a human being, he was perfection. Mairig’s only dream was that we, her children, resemble her husband.

“You know, my sons, Father didn’t partake of alcoholic beverages, didn’t smoke cigarettes and didn’t speak Turkish.  He wrote books and often prayed. He knew Nareg by heart. It used to get very cold in Marash, especially during the winters. I often used to wake up at night and see him sitting in front of the lantern writing or on his knees praying with open arms and weeping. If he hadn’t died so young, he would have been ordained a priest so as to continue the family calling. He had a notebook of religious poetry, Keghon ar Asdvadz [Ode to God], which he had written and from which he often used to read to me.”

We had to pray before every meal and go to church on Sundays when we were bachelors and living with her, and when we got married, we would go as a family, with our wives and children.

The day of Mairig’s death, I was invited to dinner at the home of my in-laws, Arakel Hovanessian. When we sat down at the table, I said, “Let’s pray,” and I broke down uncontrollably. I recalled Mairig, who wanted us to pray before every meal without fail and who maintained this custom until she became confined to bed, near the end of her life. This is why one cries when one’s mother dies, even if she has reached an advanced stage in life and become a grandmother many times over.

Mairig loved me very much, as I was the oldest male of the household, her co-worker and advisor. She waited for days, lying in her bed in a state of near death, until I returned to Beirut from London so she could bid me a final farewell and I could be present at her burial. My two sons, Hagop-Khajag and Shahnour, who were in London, had called and requested that we spend the New Year with them. My wife and I went. I returned on account of business after ten days, on January 10, whereas my wife Araxie wished to stay a little longer and enjoy the boys. A few days later, Mairig took her final leave from me; now I was not only fatherless but motherless as well. Being deprived of her, and separated from my wife and sons, as well as my daughter and son-in-law, Dr. Raffi and Shoghag Hovanessian (Chicago), I felt doubly orphaned. I stayed up nights, shedding tears with the memory of Mairig, recalling the days of exile and the past, and writing these memoirs. However, I proudly overcame this great grief, fortified by the presence of my brother Dickran, his family, our relatives and numerous friends.

No matter how many faults mothers may have, no matter if they get upset, are hard to please or are sickly, they never wish harm on their children. One day, when Mairig was lying in a hospital bed, I said to her, patting her on the head:

“Mairig, do you know how much we are paying daily so you can rest?” Then I told her the amount.

“Oh, my son, isn’t that too much of a burden for you? Am I really worthy of such a large        expense as that?…”

Go ahead and measure the criterion of a mother’s goodness, if you can.

The Armenian Mother is a voluntary slave at home, desirous solely of the comfort of her children, daughters-in-law and grandchildren. A mother is a treasure, a blessing for a household. A mother is a nice house guest, who is here today and gone tomorrow. Delight in her virtues and don’t give any importance to her human faults, because none of us is free from faults. Don’t offend her so that one day you won’t have regrets in front of her grave.

The day of Mairig’s burial, Saturday, January 16, the weather was cloudy and there was a torrential rain until noon. However, amazingly, as the hour of burial approached, the weather cleared up — precisely like her life, which was gloomy at first and then sunny. A great multitude, irrespective of denomination and faction — ranging from the humble to the highest class of our community in Beirut — had swarmed at St. Kevork church in Nor Hajin. More than thirty bouquets of flowers and crosses had been sent by various persons or organizations. The service was soul-stirring, the singing was sweet and harmonious, and my pained heart was profoundly moved.

The funeral oration delivered by Very Reverend Fr. Kevork Garbisian, the day’s celebrant, was restrained, proper and appropriate.  Students of the Hovagimian-Manoogian School carried the coffin on their shoulders from the church to the river’s edge in Beirut, from where the hearse, followed by numerous automobiles, departed toward the Armenian cemetery at Furn el Chebbak, where her remains were interred.

 

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Thus ended the odyssey of an Armenian mother, who was the embodiment of devotion to her family, whose love for the Armenian Church had no bounds, and who lived an irreproachable life. Armenia was in her heart, and Armenian language and literature were objects of worship for her.

Hearing the news of her death, many relatives, friends, acquaintances and compatriots shall certainly be greatly saddened. If they wish to respect her memory and if they belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church, they should go to church, light a candle and make the sign of the cross, which Mairig so loved to do. If, on the other hand, they belong to the Evangelical Church, they should request of the reverend that, one Sunday, the hymn “Nearer My God to Thee” be sung, which again she very much liked to sing. I am sure that her soul shall rejoice from above and I shall always feel her near me as long as I’m alive.

I am proud of having had such a Mother and I shall weep no longer.

Blessed be her memory; may her life serve as an example to the younger generation.