BY GARO ARMENIAN
Published July 13, 2015
Asbarez Armenian Section
We now have the statement of the Board of Trustees of the Bird’s Nest, the historic Armenian orphanage, regarding the fate of the Orphans’ Cemetery, and the facts are finally clear.
On the scenic shores of the City of Jbeil on Lebanon’s coastline, there is a small, secluded cemetery that is home to the humble tombstones of orphaned Armenian Genocide survivors, i.e. children who could not survive the consequences of the mass murder of 1915 and died while they were under the care of the orphanage. The orphanage itself was originally set up by the great humanitarian Maria Jacobsen, who herself witnessed the horrors of the mass killings working as a Danish missionary in Kharpert.
I have visited this cemetery several times. (My first visit was with the late Nerses Serpazan, himself an orphan of the first generation). I have stood in front of those meek and tiny headstones and have tried to mentally reconstruct the heroic battle of this handful, marked by that missionary zeal, to save the last surviving breath of our people. I have referred to this cemetery many a time while lecturing interns at the ANCA (Hai Tahd) office in Washington, D.C., urging our new generation of young men and women to make the pilgrimage to Jbeil following the footprints of the great Maria Jacobsen discover this living testimony of the genocide orphans. This cemetery is the only place in the world where our orphans continue to live. They maintain a powerful presence despite all denial and neglect. And, sure enough, a century later, they still persevere and continue to speak to us.
We owe a permanent debt of gratitude to the Vehapar Catholicoi of the Holy See of the Great House of Cilicia for having taken the Bird’s Nest under their paternal wing and for having carried the torch of Maria Jacobsen’s sacred humanitarian mission to this day. Also, we owe it to the vital role of the Trustees of the Bird’s Nest (as well as our central executive bodies), the ongoing viability of this important institution. Needless to say, funding the budgets of our organizations is a difficult task and every Armenian organization must make tough choices in seeking to meet the demands of its priorities. But where should we draw the line? What are the set of criteria pointing to the danger zone.
For one thing, we must all agree, once and for all, that our national heritage is not expendable under any circumstance. It is not “available” to any governing body to dispose, however “lucrative” the alternative propositions would conceivably be. Our heritage belongs to all the generations of our people, past, present, and future; our responsibility is to preserve it in its authentic identity and to hand it over to the coming generations with discriminating care.
What may seem an insignificant burial ground is, in fact, a uniquely important living witness of our national memory, which must be kept in its original place and in its original form. Moreover, it must be made an inseparable part of the Orphans’ Genocide Museum in the Bird’s Nest campus, a project conceived and led by His Holiness Aram I and made possible by the noble support of Mr. and Mrs. Alecco and Annie Bezikian and their entire family. This is the only way. There cannot be any other option. The idea of “sacrificing” the cemetery, i.e. ceding it to commercial interests in return for cash, to fund other projects, albeit useful, is in shocking contrast to the core principle of erecting a Genocide Museum. It is morally unacceptable to have the Orphans of the Genocide fund what has to be our responsibility. I suggest we turn this page without further argument. The cemetery must remain where it has always been. It is the responsibility of the Board of Trustees to keep the gravediggers away from this sacred place.