Guzelian rescued hundreds of Armenian youths left in Turkey in the decades following the genocide, including Hrant Dink, who was his protege
The Youth Home of Istanbul: A Story of the Remnants’ Homecoming, the inspiring memoir of Armenian hero Hrant Guzelian, was published in Armenian in 2007 and was just released in English. Guzelian was a fearless hero who searched for and rescued hundreds of Armenian youths left without family, churches or schools in the decades following the genocide. One of the boys he rescued was Hrant Dink, who later became a fearless journalist in Turkey.
Guzelian’s quiet work in Istanbul and the countryside of Western Armenia (now Turkey) was supported by the Armenian Missionary Association of America (AMAA), the Armenian Evangelical Union of the Near East, Swiss Friends of the Armenians and other international Christian organizations.
“Reading this book in 2007, I was convinced that there was an obligation to share it beyond an Armenian readership,” said Zaven Khanjian, Executive Director and CEO of the AMAA. “Scholars and historians should read Guzelian’s eye-witness account of cultural destruction in the countryside of Western Armenia, encounters with inhumane Turkish officials bent on denial and oppression, and conviction and action in countering an existential threat.”
The April 7 launch of the book’s English-language publication drew close to 200 people to the program organized by The Joint Armenian Genocide Centennial Committee of the AMAA and the Armenian Evangelical Union of North America.
Filled with examples of courage, conviction and faith, reading this book is like discovering a wonderful secret. Who could imagine, considering the political environment of 20th century Turkey and the plight of Armenians remaining there following the genocide, that one Armenian man could rescue hundreds of displaced, persecuted Armenians youths. He certainly had a divine calling to introduce them to their heritage, to provide them with shelter and love, and to send them as proud Armenian adults into the world!
He began the work after he completed mandatory service in the Turkish military, where he had the rare opportunity to explore the Western Armenian countryside and met many desperate Armenians struggling to survive. Starting with one boy, who lodged elsewhere while attending classes at the home, to five boys, which was the Swiss Friends of the Armenians’ minimum number to provide funding, to ten boys, to 30 and on upward when the AMAA learned of his work and offered support, Guzelian was persuaded in 1960 to give up his day job and devote all his time to this mission.
In his memoir, he laments that he didn’t crowd even more boys and girls in need into the basement of the Gedik Pasha Evangelical Church in Istanbul and other nearby lodging: money and space, from the vantage point of his exile, seemed in retrospect insignificant obstacles. Exiled he was – in 1980 the Turkish government arrested, tortured and detained him for months until charities supporting the Youth Home succeeded in putting international pressure on the Turkish government to release him.
Guzelian writes with passion in the book:
“We weren’t committing a crime, we weren’t committing larceny; we were taking a few poor boys under the custody of the church. What we were doing was charity, and that was Jesus’ commandment to us. A church’s duty is to feed the hungry, not to abandon the homeless; to seek the lost and find them. But for the Turk, it’s aversion to help or serve an Armenian; an Armenian shouldn’t study, and learn his culture and history.
“These were about to be lost, like the other hundreds of thousands. But I repeat, the Turk’s mentality wouldn’t allow for the Armenian to study his language, culture or religion. His whole endeavor was that the Armenian had not existed and there is no such issue. For example, when they tortured me with my eyes blindfolded, one would say, ‘Why do you sing in Armenian? Why do you perform folk dances and plays? What, you want to mean, We still exist?’
“Baruir Sevag has answered this question… ‘They call us Armenian … And why would we not be proud? We exist. We will exist. And we will still multiply.’
“’Thief, his heart atremble,’ they turn Ararat to Agri. Is this perchance a prophesy, that the ‘Armenian Question’ will one day be a real agri (pain) for them? The just God will undoubtedly show His justice one day.”
The speakers at the book launch program stressed three themes of Guzelian’s memoir: ACT, PACT, and IMPACT. ACT, covered by Edwin Minassian, Esq., Chair of the Istanbul Armenians Board of Trustees and Executive Board Member of the Armenian Bar Association, set the scene for Guzelian’s work. Turkey in the 1940s and 50s oppressed minorities with high taxes, property seizures, and police state surveillance. “Right after pogroms targeting Armenians and Greeks in the mid-50s, Guzelian launched his mission, despite the environment. He had resolve, and strong faith that his mission was essential. He knew that this was an existential struggle.” Minassian noted, “There’s a lot in the book about how Guzelian dealt with his arrest in 1980, and about Hrant Dink.”
PACT, explained by Rev. Vatche Ekmekjian, AEUNA representative on the Syrian Armenian Relief Fund and Member of the AEUNA Armenian Heritage Committee, describes an interaction between two parties. “Hrant Guzelian entered a pact of grace with God. He knew he was the weaker party, and faith is the most elemental aspect of this kind of pact. Guzelian countered the ‘Turkification’ of Armenian youth; he was fighting against the forcible transfer of children away from their ethnic identity [defined in Article 2 of the Geneva Convention as a genocidal act]. He went to search for the lost and the hopeless, paralleling the gospel story.”
Ekmekjian told the audience that his short encounter with Guzelian, in Yerevan in 2006, had “a magnificent psychological and emotional impact on me. Even before my encounter with him, my reading of his book in Armenian was a blessing, and I had encountered many people who had been blessed and served by his ministry.”
Zaven Khanjian summarized Guzelian’s IMPACT. He recited a passage in the memoir:
“The state has been unfair, evil, oppressive, unfeeling and biased. Envying our mores, instead of following with virtuous jealousy, learning and attaining high level, the Turk wanted to annihilate us, usurping, appropriating, insulting, and depriving us of our most basic rights, the language, the faith, the culture…I thought, what can I do in some measure to do my share and be useful to the remnants of my nation?”
“Useful, he was!” said Khanjian. “The impact this man had was tremendous, not only on the life of a few thousand Armenian youngsters who passed through the gates of The Youth Home of Istanbul, but on Turkish society and politics, the reverberations of which will continue for times unknown.” Khanjian noted that Guzelian took Hrant Dink, whose parents were divorced and whose father’s whereabouts were unknown, into the Gedik Pasha Armenian Evangelical School’s Youth Home of Istanbul at the age of seven. For twenty years, 1961-1981, Dink was under the patronage of Guzelian, and for five additional years, he carried the torch of the church and the mission. Dink became editor-in-chief of the bilingual Turkish-Armenian newspaper Agos; advocated for human and minority rights in Turkey; and criticized Turkey’s denial of the Armenian Genocide. His assassination in 2007 in Istanbul outraged many Turkish citizens, caused widespread protests, and brought world-wide attention to continuing persecution of minorities in Turkey.
Of the book, Khanjian noted, “Narrated by Guzelian in simple language and a humble Christian spirit, it is not literary nor is it written in glowing style.” These limitations are more than balanced out by the power of Guzelian’s memories. He captures the Catch-22 tenor of confrontations with intolerant Turkish officials, inspires the reader with frequent references to scripture as his primary guide to action, and shows great insight on ways to “fly under the radar” in a hostile political environment.
The AMAA was a long-standing supporter of The Youth Home of Istanbul, and in the book Guzelian credits its leaders, as well as leaders of the Armenian Evangelical Union of the Near East, for their faithful and generous support of the Home and of the summer camp he established in Tuzla.
The Joint Armenian Genocide Centennial Committee rightly celebrates the life and work of a worthy, unsung Armenian Evangelical hero with the publication of Hrant Guzelian’s book in English. The story of his fight against the genocidal crimes of Turkey deserves the attention of the world. As Armenians world-wide solemnly commemorate the centennial of the Armenian Genocide, we also honor heroes of faith like Hrant Guzelian, who saved many Armenian boys and girls and taught them to honor and keep their heritage.
Note: The book’s publication by the Armenian Missionary Association of America (AMAA) was made possible by a donation from Dr. Vicken and Sossy Aharonian and Dr. H Steven and Julie Aharonian, in loving memory of their father Rev. Dr. Hovhannes Aharonian, who was a staunch supporter of Hrant Guzelian’s mission and Godfather to the name “Youth Home of Istanbul.”
Copies of the book are available from the AMAA, 201-265-2607.