BY CATHERINE YESAYAN
To think that Vienna, Austria is ranked as the number one city with the highest quality of life and as the most livable city on earth makes me happy. I love Vienna. The city of Mozart, Beethoven and Strauss offers a delicate blend of culture, history and culinary experience that warms the heart of any tourist.
On Sunday July 5, when Europe was sizzling in a record heat wave, I headed to the Armenian Apostolic church in Vienna. My cousin Annie had given me directions on how to get there. First I took the underground and then the over-ground electric car. I arrived at Armenierplatz (Armenian Square) where the church is located around 12:30 p.m. A mass was still going on. It was a sweltering hot day in Vienna—the temperature was around 37 degree Celsius which in Fahrenheit measures to 96 degrees.
After the mass was over I met father Andreas, and we had a little chat in the courtyard. He was from Etchmiadzin and had been in Vienna for eight years. He was ordained in 2004 and told me that he was married and had kids. I like the idea that the Armenian Church ordains both secular (married) and celibate priests.
I asked him if he knew how to speak German before coming to Vienna. With a smile he responded, “I learned the language with my kids.” He has three kids—11, 8 and 2 years old. Since the heat was unbearable, we continued our conversation at the hall annexed to the church, where the women’s committee served cookies and coffee.
There my cousin Annie introduced me to her friends and we had a conversation about Armenian life in Vienna. I learned that the church has about 300 members, from which around 60 were present. The church conducts Saturday Armenian language classes. They think there are about 7000 Armenians in Vienna.
Annie and her sisters have been living in Vienna for more than 50 years, so they are very much immersed in the Armenian community of the city. Annie’s younger sister Margo sings in the church choir. She also participates in the Armenian dance group that meets once a week at one of the halls at the church.
Margo was the best person to get information from about the Armenian community of Vienna. She had come from Iran to Austria as a student in 1962. She studied art and had met her husband in Vienna, also an Armenian from Iran. Margo says that their wedding in 1969 was the first marriage ceremony at the Apostolic church. The church was built in 1968.
She also told me a little tidbit about Viennese coffee culture. Guess what? Vienna’s world renowned coffee houses are closely linked to Armenians. Yes, it’s true. It is documented that the very first coffee house in Vienna was opened on January 17, 1685 by Johannes Deodat (or Diodato, known in Armenian as Owanes Astouatzatur –Յովհաննէս Աստուածատուր). Since then, coffee houses have played an important part in Viennese social life.
I asked her about the commemoration of the centennial of the Genocide. She said that Austria had put forth a series of programs throughout the month of April to make the Armenian cause known to Austrians. There were numerous radio and television broadcasts including panel discussions, lectures and interviews.
On April 7, the House of the European Union held an outstanding panel discussion dedicated to the Centennial of the Armenian Genocide. The unprecedented event became a reality by the efforts of the Austro-Armenian Genocide Commemoration Committee, headed by Dr. Armen Kirakossian, Ambassador of the Republic of Armenia to Austria.
Margo proudly told me about the panel that consisted of Dr. Ulrike Lunacek, member and Vice-President of the European Parliament, Dr. Heinrich Neisser, the second president of the National Council, Dr. Susanne Glass, the President of the International Journalists Association in Austria, and Irene Suchy, Austrian 1st Channel journalist.
She was deeply impressed by the closing remarks of Herbert Mauer, an expert in Armenian affairs who read extracts from his new book titled, “And God Speaks Armenian,” a tribute to the Armenian nation.
On April 22, Turkey recalled its ambassador in Vienna because the Austrian parliament had declared the 1915 killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks an act of “genocide.”
On April 24, Armenian Catholic and Protestant churches came together and staged a requiem at St. Stephen Cathedral for the souls of Armenians killed by the Turks. After the mass, about 1000 people marched from the cathedral to Parliament.
On Sunday June 14, on a misty day, the Viennese Armenian community came together and orchestrated a “Shurge-par” or a group dance at St. Stephen’s Square, which is in the heart of Vienna and a popular tourist attraction. This was another effort to bring awareness to Armenian culture. Here is a link to watch the dance.
Nothing quite warms my heart as to watch the kids show their pride for being Armenian. And that’s how the flash-mob ends. The kids present their message: “Nothing can conquer this ancient nation that knows how to dance with such ardor and fortitude.”
I ended my five day stay in Vienna in the tradition of Viennese coffee houses, where people come to read (and maybe write) books, trade gossip, think, dream and indulge in the glorious pastime of watching the world go by. As the function of coffee houses dictates, one can spend hours at a table just over one cup of coffee.
I sat at the outside café of the iconic Sacher Hotel at St. Stephen’s Square and reflected upon my journey that I had started forty-five days earlier with the intention to write about Armenian communities. I had a coffee and a sachertorte and felt so blessed. A day before it had rained and we had the most beautiful weather. My next stop before arriving to Armenia was Kiev in Ukraine. Stay tune for more stories.