The Birth of a Community
Paris — An Armenian-style church at Germigny-des-PrËs south of Pithiviers on the River Loire, lost like a lonely jewel in the depths of France, is one of the examples of early contacts between the French and Armenian people dating back to between the 10th and 12th centuries.
Religious contacts were established during this period and these are documented in the country’s oldest historical records. The French were in no doubt, even way back, that Armenians would play an important role in the future.
The Crusaders were a glorious turning point. Political and commercial links flourished between the French and Armenians. First of all there were blood ties, stretching right up to almost the royal palaces. The last Regent of the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia , Leon VI of Lusignan, of French stock, died in 1393 in Paris and was buried at the Saint Denis Basilica just to the north of the French capital.
After that, Cardinal Richelieu and Colbert helped the Armenians set up trading posts.
Succeeding waves of immigrants
History was to gather pace and the skies were to darken. The era of the Genocide dawned, the French sometimes present, and sometimes not. After the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, the French authorities needed workers. The Armenian refugees and orphans crammed into Turkey, Egypt and Lebanon, arrived by the boatloads to Marseilles and journeyed to the mines and factories around Marseilles, Valence, Grenoble, Lyons and Paris.
There, a quarter of a million Armenians settled down into tight little communities of between 2,000 and 4,000 people. The foundations of theArmenian community in France had been set.
The Armenian immigrants who arrived between 1920-30 fought and died for France on the battlefields of World War II and in the Resistance during the occupation by Nazi Germany. They paid the price for their assimilation and integration.
Their offspring, the first generation Armenians born in France, provided many celebrities like the singer Charles Aznavour and the film director Henri Verneuil, both the sons of refugees, or later still, world Formula One driving champion Alain Prost, whose father was Armenian.
Armenian refugees were also prominent in the arts. Paris is full of faded memories of artists famous in their days, entertainers who graced the prestigious stages of the French capital. Alice Sapritch, GrÈgoire Aslan and Jacques Helian are only a few of them.
French-Armenian ties were preserved and consolidated over the years. Thousands of new immigrants who arrived after the troubles in Turkey (in 1956), Lebanon (in 1975) and Iran (in 1979) comprised the next wave of immigration. Today, many youngsters who are the product of this movement are completing their studies in France, setting up Armenian households and sending their children to Armenian language schools.
Faced with the growing demand and the awakening of cultural identity, the future looks bright.
Institutions with firm foundations:
The Armenian General Benevolent Union, established in 1906, and its founder Boghos Nubar moved in 1921 to Paris, the diplomatic and political hub of the Armenian Question. AGBU chapters were set up in Paris, Lyon, Valence, Marseilles and Nice.
The Armenian Social Aid Association, operating Armenian retirement homes, was founded before this period and is unique to France. National institutions, and first and foremost the Armenian Church of Paris founded in 1905, were very soon to co-exist in Paris, playing a fundamental role in defending and protecting the refugees.
Today, Armenian classes are organized in many localities with full bilingual kindergartens and primary schools near Paris and Marseilles attended by several thousand children and youths. Armenian is currently a valid option counting toward the Baccalaureate, the French High School certificate.
A caring community
In 1983, the bloody attack at the Paris Orly airport, blamed on a badly divided Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA), raised a public outcry. Unlike the Orly attack, the occupation of the Turkish Consulate in Paris in 1981 was enthusiastically supported by young and old, and by all shades of public opinion.
The campaign to pass the resolution condemning the Armenian Genocide at the European Council unleashed on June 19, 1987 at Strasbourg a demonstration rare in its emotional intensity.
The earthquake on December 7, 1988 in Armenia and the huge mobilization of the French Armenian community in aid of the victims served not only to underline how numerous they were, but also proved that contrary to what was thought, they did care. The exhaustive effort made by French Armenians to provide humanitarian and logistical aid to the quake victims was probably unprecedented.
The passage of time, despite some heart-rending tragedies along the way, has opened the doors to social and human progress which is at once powerful and worthy. Successive waves of immigrants have brought with them their own contributions. The Armenian legacy can be found in trade, industry, science, fashion and the arts.
A lot has changed since the first Armenians arrived in France. They have rapidly become an extremely dynamic economic, social and intellectual component of French society.
Jean-Claude Kebabdjian is the founder and director of the Centre de Recherches sur la Diaspora Arménienne.
The Armenians of France
Paris — A mélange of integration and a new sense of national identity is revitalizing the Armenian community of France — the largest in Europe.
From Paris to Marseilles and a dozen cities, towns, and villages in-between, Armenians are busy charting a new course, often with priorities that differ from that of earlier generations.
Sustaining schools, clubs, churches, newspapers, a radio station and other traditional community infrastructures are still important, but not necessarily the focal points they used to be.
“Times have changed and so has the direction of this community which numbers well over 300,000,” says Simon Mahdessian, an 87-year-old Armenian Genocide survivor who came to France in 1927 after spending his early childhood and teens in orphanages in Cyprus and Greece.
Mahdessian, a retired tailor, remembers life in Paris in the late 1920’s when Armenians were referred to as “dirty foreigners”, and officially classified as “stateless refugees” exiled from Turkey.
“Those were traumatic days,” he says.
In Marseilles, life for the early settlers was not any better.
“The atmosphere was very hostile until about 1940. While there was no open discrimination on the part of the French government...I cannot say Armenians felt comfortable out in the streets,” says Aram Shehigian, a 77-year-old retired pharmacist and the “unofficial historian” of the Marseilles community.
“The early Armenians were farmers, laborers, craftsmen. Few were educated and fewer spoke French. But they were hard workers,” he said.
It was this generation that, despite the hardships, began building the community and its institutions stone by stone. In one French city after the other, organizations took shape to cater to the needs of fellow Armenians.
One of the first structures was the Armenian Church of Paris which celebrated its 90th anniversary in January this year. Another early institution was the Tebrotsassere School, relocated to Marseilles in 1918 from Istanbul, and then to property donated to the Armenian General Benevolent Union in Paris in 1928 as an orphanage for young girls.
Today the Tebrotsassere School, which relies not only on tuition but also private donations and French government assistance to balance its annual budget, has 216 students — mainly the children of recent immigrants from the Middle East.
With Kindergarten through middle school, the 150-year-old building is too small to admit more students.
“Tebrotsassere is the largest full-time Armenian day-school in the Paris area, and because of its constantly improving curriculum in recent years, it can easily compete academically with local French schools,” says Garabed Dakessian, the school’s principal who holds a Ph.D. in electro-mechanical engineering from the University of Paris.
“You have to evolve to survive,” says Dakessian who is also the principal of the AGBU school in Paris which is open three nights a week for adults and on Saturdays for children between the ages of 6-14.
The school, located in the Alex Manoogian Cultural Center in the heart of Paris, successfully combines Armenian language, history, culture, dance and music classes under one roof.
“We have over 150 students between the ages of six and 66,” Dakessian says. “We have created a happy and highly stimulating milieu for all age groups.”
Often veering from traditional educational methods, the AGBU school combines current affairs with Armenian language and history classes.
“One group comes in to translate news stories from Armenian sources to French for the Lettre de l’UGAB, the highly successful weekly newsletter of the AGBU. This is one way of improving their Armenian language skills and learning something about current affairs,” Dakessian says.
Catering to the needs of an older generation is the Haratch newspaper, the only Armenian-language daily in France, published diligently by proprietor and veteran chief editor Arpig Missakian.
Founded by her late father Shavarsh Missakian in 1925 to serve the new immigrants, the newspaper maintains the same high standards of its early years when it was better known as the “community lighthouse.”
“I will remain faithful to my father’s vocation. I will continue publishing the newspaper in Armenian for as long as I am alive. I will not change it into a French-language Armenian newspaper,” she said.
Ms. Missakian, who took over the newspaper after her father’s sudden death in 1957, refutes suggestions that introducing French as a second language in the newspaper will increase its circulation base from its present level of 2,500-3,000 copies.
“Back in the late 1930’s, more than 5,500 copies were sold at a time when the Armenian community was much smaller than now. As that generation dies of old age, our circulation declines, but Haratch will not change,” she said.
Because of a constant drop in readership, other publications were over the years forced to either fold or change their formats from daily to weekly, and in some cases even monthly.
But the health of a community is not only measured by the number and size of its schools, churches and newspaper readers.
By re-defining its priorities, the community has been able to attract the younger generation of Armenians who were born in France and have not experienced the hardships and bitterness of their forefathers.
It’s this generation which is giving the community a new sense of direction.
“We should not concentrate only on preserving the old. We also need to move on ... we should not be cloistered.” says a thirty-something activist.
“While lobbying does not exist as you know it in the United States, increased contacts with French officials is having a very positive effect on the community ,” another young French Armenian said.
According to unofficial counts, dozens of Armenian organizations are now active on the community scene. The AGBU, SOS Arménie, Terre et Culture, the Groupement Inter-professionnelle, the Union des Medicins Arméniens, and the Forum des Association Arménienne are gaining momentum.
Among the more avant-guard is the AGBU’s Alex Manoogian Cultural Center in the heart of Paris which in recent years has become one of the main focal points of community life.
The center is involved in a multitude of community activities such as organizing regular seminars by top French government officials, city mayors, bankers, businessmen and municipality representatives, to lectures on current affairs which attract a great number of young people.
“We are constantly changing and adapting our activities to meet the needs of the community, especially the younger generation of professionals without neglecting the needs of the other segments of the populations,” says AGBU French District Committee Chairman Levon Kebabdjian.
It is this new approach which takes the primary credit for the positive changes that are clearly visible in the community.
Through sustained contact with French officials, Armenians have been able to increase French assistance not only for community projects, but Armenia as well. It is no coincidence that France was one of the first European nations which rushed in to help the victims of the Armenian earthquake in 1988, and Medicins Sans Frontières is still active in a number of Armenian towns and cities.
This link has been strengthened over the years. A new French-language school is under construction in Gyumri thanks to efforts by a number of Armenian organizations including the AGBU.
AGBU contacts with the European Council have already resulted in the initiation of a unique training program for 18 volunteers from Armenia involved in grass root activities such as boy scouts and other community projects.
Similar contacts are on the rise across France.
In Marseilles and Paris, the city authorities often subsidize community projects like art exhibitions and cultural events. On a recent occasion, the Marseilles Mayor’s office called upon the local Armenian community to not only suggest a project, but also to administer a 600,000 franc aid packet to Armenia.
In the Paris suburb of Alfortville, Mayor René Rouquet has followed up his initial visit to Armenia in February 1987 with several others, and enacted special legislation granting sister-city status to the Armenian town of Ashtarak.
One-sixth of Alfortville’s 36,000 population is Armenian, a population ratio which has played a significant role in increasing the amount of aid to Armenia. This includes hospital equipment, powdered milk, school supplies and incubators for premature babies.
“We have a very strong alliance with the Armenian population of this town. Frankly, we do not consider the Armenians as foreigners. We always mention the Armenians as the best example in positive integration,” Mr. Rouquet said.
Unlike the United States, there may be no direct lobbying of government in France, but personal contacts, an enhanced reputation and high esteem within the community at large are tools which are often just as powerful.
The Armenians of France are using all their tools.
The Other Treasures of Paris
Some of the treasures of Paris are not listed in tourist books, but ask any scholar of contemporary Armenian history, and you will get the same answer:
“Go to 11 Square Alboni or 36 Rue de Trévise if you want to know who the Armenians are.”
The first of the two locations is the home of the Armenian General Benevolent Union’s Nubarian Library. The second is the Armenian Diaspora Research Center.
There is little or no duplication between the two institutions, and their work is unique in Europe.
Take the Nubarian Library.
Established by the AGBU in 1928, the library covers every important aspect of Armenian life, especially from the 17th century, with particular emphasis on the period when Armenians lived under Ottoman rule.
Meticulously preserved are at least 40,000 books, thousands of old newspapers and 10,000 historical photographs covering the period between 1890 and 1940.
The Nubarian Library also preserves 2,000 original Armenian musical scores, thousands of original documents, rare letters written between the 18th century and the early 1900’s to the Armenian Patriarchs of Constantinople by clergy and other personalities in Van and Mush, along with thousands of pages of correspondence relating to the Armenian Genocide.
Librarian Haroutiune Kevorkian, who holds a Doctorate degree in history and is affiliated with the National Library of France (the BibliothËque Nationale de France), is a meticulous guardian of the treasures.
“What we have here are some of the major pillars of the Armenian nation. We are nothing without our history, and what the AGBU’s Nubarian Library has done since 1928 is preserve this history,” Kevorkian said during a recent tour of the facility.
Located on the same floor as the AGBU Paris headquarters, the Nubarian Library is open to researchers, students, scholars, government officials, journalists and historians.
“This is not exactly a public library, and we are very careful with the material we have here because of its rare and precious nature,” Kevorkian says.
Visitors to the library are told to do their research in the reading room because none of the books or other material is allowed to leave the premises.
“We have put a vast amount of documents on micro-film to make sure that nothing is destroyed. What we have here is a major part of our national heritage, and we are determined to guard it with our lives,” says Kevorkian, the fourth Librarian to hold the post since 1928.
“You get attached to all this history around you, and your work soon becomes an inseparable part of yourself,” he said, in effect explaining why his predecessors served for 23, 18 and 18 years respectively.
With Kevorkian at the helm and financial support from the AGBU, the Nubarian Library has embarked on a number of vital projects including the publication of the prestigious Revue d’Histoire ArmÈnienne Contemporaine, a 300-400 page research volume containing in-depth studies by prominent historians and Armenologists.
“We are particularly interested in material related to the Armenian Genocide. One of our main sources is the Vatican and the Italian Foreign Ministry. Others are the German and Austrian governments along with the United States Library of Congress.
“Our photo collection is a source of history in itself. To save and protect 10,000 photographs documenting life under Ottoman rule, the period before and after the Genocide and the early years of the AGBU is a serious endeavor.
“We have the history and heritage of Western Armenians during the Ottoman years...everything which dates as far back as the 17th century,” he said.
Across town at 36 Rue de Trévise, other portions of Armenian heritage are being preserved at a facility which is not only the brainchild but also the fruit of one man’s personal initiative and years of diligence.
Jean-Claude Kebabdjian is the founder and director of the Centre de Recherches sur la Diaspora ArmÈnienne, which since opening its doors in 1983 has put together a vast collection of valuable materials pertaining to Armenian life.
“I first had the idea to start a collection of historical material in 1976 when I applied to the authorities to establish this research center.
“Joined initially by a small group of enthusiasts, we approached the French authorities, including the Ministry of Culture and the Paris Municipality for assistance. We had no problem getting the necessary license and today we are recognized, and to a great extent funded by the government,” Kebabdjian said.
What started as a personal collection of Armenian photos and old postcards in 1976 has since evolved into a full-fledged “gold mine of information on Armenian affairs.”
The Center’s documentary base today includes 3,000 French, English and Russian language books, 25,000 black-and-white and color slides on various Armenian-history related subjects, hundreds of film clips, special reports and video tapes, 12,000 photos on religious architecture, 2,500 documents from U.S. government archives on the Armenian Genocide, and hundreds of pages of valuable historical reports.
Kebabdjian and assistant Lida Sarian spend endless hours adding new material to an already impressive collection.
“Funding is always a problem,” says Kebabdjian. “The French government gives us about 600,000 French francs a year and we get about 200,000 francs in gifts from the Armenian community. This is barely enough to pay the rent, salaries and other expenses. We have a very tight budget,” he adds.
But despite the financial restraints, the Center is constantly involved in innovative projects.
In the 12 years since its official opening, the Center has produced a number of television documentaries and also supervised or participated in the publication of half a dozen works on history and current affairs like a much acclaimed collection of Armenian photographs, and two major studies on the Armenian city of Ani.
In addition, the Center regularly organizes trips, exhibitions, conferences on Armenian sociological and historical themes, and slide and film shows in collaboration with various French government and private think tanks.
The Nubarian Library and the Armenian Diaspora Research Center: two treasure islands in the heart of Paris, known by the connoisseurs of history and heritage waiting to be discovered by the public at large.
PARIS, AUGUST 18, 2005
The Armenian newspaper "Haratch" (Paris) celebrates its 80th anniversary. "Haraj" was founded in 1925 by Shavarsh Misakian, whose daughter Arpik Misakian carried on business after his death.
Note: The transliterations of the names are probably wrong.
AGBU Press Office
55 East 59th Street
New York, NY 10022-1112
Phone: 212.319.6383, x137
Monday, August 22, 2005
On Thursday, August 18, 2005, Léna Balsan, Mayor of the French city of Valence, met with AGBU President Berge Setrakian in New York at the AGBU Central Office to discuss matters of mutual interest concerning Armenians in France, particularly those in the Rhône Valley.
Balsan was involved in the development of the Armenian Heritage Center (http://www.patrimoinearmenien.org), which opened on July 11, 2005, and is the first of its kind in France. Located in the heart of Valence, the center houses extensive information about the history, exile and integration of the country's Armenian population into the fabric of the French nation. Since the 1920s, the town of Valence has been home to a significant French Armenian community making up 10% of its population.
Genocide Insurance Settlement with Axa
French Insurance Company Agrees to Pay $17 Million to Genocide Heirs
LOS ANGELES--The French Insurance Company Axa has agreed to pay $17 million to descendants of life insurance policyholders who perished during the Armenian Genocide.
The unofficial announcement came on October 2 by prominent Los Angeles attorney Mark Geragos, one of the attorneys, along with Vartkes Yeghiayan and Brian Kabateck who filed a class action lawsuit in a California federal court against Axa.
Though the judge in the case has not signed the deal, he has agreed to the $17 million settlement.
Geragos made the announcement during a USC Institute of Armenian Studies banquet honoring Federal Judge Dickran Tevrizian who mediated the settlement.
Of the $17 million, up to $11 million will go to the heirs of close to 11,000 life insurance policyholders; $3 million to various Armenian non-profits; and $3 million for attorneys fees. A French-Armenian non-profit will process and pay the claims, and will receive funds leftover after claimants are paid.
The Axa settlement follows a similar agreement with New York Life Insurance Company in early 2004. New York Life agreed to pay $20 million which was to be disbursed as follows: Up to $11 million for the heirs of 2,400 life insurance policyholders who perished during the Armenian genocide; $3 million for nine Armenian-American charitable and religious organizations; $2 million for administrative expenses; and $4 million for attorneys fees.
ASBAREZ Online [10-06-2005]