Antranig Kazarian

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The Journey Home to Armenia: The Return of a Soldier Belgium

David Zenian

Antranig Kazarian will return to Armenia in April as an official delegate to the Holy Etchmiadzin elections, 56 years after leaving his home to join the Soviet army in the war to stop Adolph Hitler’s advancing forces.

Antranig, only a teenager then, did not get much of a chance to fight the Germans. Instead, he was taken prisoner, first by the Germans, and then by the Russians as a deserter.

“My father tried to discourage me from joining the Soviet army, but to no avail. I was young and full of bright ideas. It was late in 1939 when I left Armenia and joined despite my father’s will.

“For the next six years, I was moved from one prisoner of war camp to another. I spent more time escaping and getting caught than fighting,” the retired carpet dealer said in a recent interview at his Brussels apartment.

And it was not just the Germans who held him prisoner.

“First I was a POW in a German camp, then the Russians locked me up as a deserter. I have done a lot of traveling across Europe, mainly in freight trains being moved from one prison to another,” he says jokingly.

Kazarian remembers surrendering to the advancing German army outside Minsk with three fellow Armenian soldiers from Kirovakan (Vanadzor), Leninakan (Gyumri) and Yerevan.

“That was on January 20, 1940. I was 18 and had no experience,” he said.

Fortunately, the Russians counterattacked, and young Antranig and his mates were freed and placed in an Armenian fighting unit led by an officer by the name of Sahakov.

“He was a nice person, but a hard-core communist. His first instruction was: do not surrender. If caught by the enemy, commit suicide.

“I was a good soldier, but that was one order I was not prepared to follow, so when our unit was surrounded by the Germans, I surrendered. It was in November 1941, and we were 45 Armenians in that group. All except three of us died. I spent weeks digging graves for my fellow Armenian soldiers,” he remembers.

While in a German POW camp, an Armenian officer of the German army by the name of Lt. Mouradian gathered the Armenian prisoners for a “lecture” in patriotism.

It did not take long for Kazarian to realize that he was being recruited to join a special Armenian unit to fight the Russians.

“Lt. Mouradian said we were going to be sent to the Caucasus to liberate Armenia from communist rule. I had a choice ... either agree to join Lt. Mouradian’s unit, or remain in a German prison camp. I joined the unit,” Kazarian said.

What was intended to be a “patriotic” mission, however, went sour.

“The Germans were furious. Someone had told them that we were Soviet spies or something. They executed all the officers among the Armenian prisoners and loaded the rest of us on trains heading toward Poland,” Kazarian said.

By now a hardened prisoner and a bitter opponent of both the Russians and Germans, Kazarian was determined to get as far away from the war zone as possible. As the train carrying the prisoners made its way through Poland, Kazarian made yet another attempt to escape.

He jumped off the train in the middle of the night and after roaming the fields, found refuge in the home of a Polish priest. “For a month, this priest fed me and protected me. But one day, when a German patrol came into the village in search of escapees and deserters, the priest had no choice but to ask me to leave. He was afraid of what the Germans would do to him if he was caught harboring an escaped prisoner,” Kazarian said.

Barely out of the priest’s house, Kazarian was arrested by a German patrol. “We were literally put in iron cages for two months. At this camp, we had the opportunity to meet General Dro, who, in the presence of German officers, reprimanded us for what he said was reluctance on our part to join the war against the Russians and liberate Armenia from communism,” Kazarian said.

Little did he know that the encounter with General Dro, Defense Minister in the first Armenian Republic 1918-21 who later led the German-organized Armenian Brigade fighting the Soviets during World War II, would change his life.

Instead of being sent to the Caucasus, the Germans sent Kazarian to Holland to work in labor camps, digging trenches, building barricades and other military fortifications.

As the defeated German army began its retreat, prisoners like Kazarian were once again loaded into trains heading to Berlin. “By now I was an expert in escaping from my captors,” he said.

As the train stopped briefly at Paris’s Gare du Nord, and still in the uniform of the so-called Armenian POW contingent, Kazarian made another dash for freedom. “The train pulled out and I was free in a city where I was a total stranger. I had no money, no friends and did not know the language. But, God was on my side because I was spotted by a Russian civilian who introduced me to an Armenian by the name of Arthur, who, along with another Armenian by the name of Haig Boghossian, took me to the Armenian Club,” he said.

The next six months of Kazarian’s life at the Armenian Club were too good to be true. Then the war ended but still Russian agents roamed Paris in search of “deserters”. It was early in 1945 when the Russians caught up with Kazarian.

Arrested again as a deserter, Kazarian once again found himself on a train — this time on its way to Russia. “I somehow knew what was in store for me ... Siberia. I had to escape again,” he said.

And escape he did by jumping off the Russian train in Poland and hiding in the lavatory of another train heading in the opposite direction to Berlin.

There, with the help of the American military, Kazarian managed to get permission to go to Belgium — his second choice after France. “When I finally reached Brussels in 1945, I was a broken man. This was the end of the road for me. I would not have survived if it were not for Krikor Muradian, an Armenian carpet dealer who took me under his wing and taught me the carpet business,” Kazarian said.

Life has been good to Kazarian since. He built his own carpet business, raised a family and became prosperous. But he did not look back. “The little contact I had with my family in Armenia was lost in 1973. I don’t know what I’ll do when I return in April for the first time since 1939. I get palpitations just thinking of stepping on Armenian soil.

“Look at me ... Antranig Kazarian, the not-so-young Armenian soldier returning home for the first time in 56 years as a representative of the Belgian Armenian community which saved my life,” he said fighting back his tears.