Armenians in Poland: From the Middle Ages to the Modern Day

Erywan Restaurant owned by Armen Afrikyan.
Catherine Sarkissian Yesayan

Catherine Sarkissian Yesayan

BY CATHERINE SARKISSIAN YESAYAN

In the 1950s and 60s, two brothers from Tehran, Abdullah and Issa Omidvar, were traveling to the most remote parts of the world and reporting their adventures to our national newspapers.

As a young girl in Iran, I marveled over their weekly stories, published under the “Baradarane Omidvar,” as they called themselves — meaning “Hopeful Brothers.” Reading their reports and learning about their experiences in African villages was inspiring. Their actions gave me a longing that maybe one day I, too, could be an explorer. It has been my good fortune, somehow, to pursue that dream of world travel.

For the past six years, I have done some exploring with a focus on Armenian culture in different countries. Although my achievements don’t come anywhere close to the “Hopeful Brothers,” I’m tempted to call myself a modern-day explorer. This year, my adventures took me on a road less traveled, to Warsaw, Poland. Through my preliminary internet research about the Armenians of Poland, I discovered the rich and important roles that Armenians have played in the history of that country.

The Polish capital surprised me with expansive boulevards, vast parks and superb architecture. Warsaw is known as the Paris of Eastern Europe and indeed it has a similar grandeur and beauty.

Before arriving in Warsaw, I had made prior arrangements to meet with the Ambassador of Armenia to talk about the community’s history. The Armenian embassy is on the outskirts of the city. To get there, I called a taxi and it took me about half an hour from the center of town to arrive at the embassy. Fortunately, the taxi fare in Warsaw is not expensive — I think I paid $20 or maybe less. When I arrived at the embassy, Ambassador Edgar Ghazaryan greeted me. During our one-hour talk, he gave me an overview of Armenians arriving in Polish territories.

“The first wave of Armenian migration started in the 11th century following the fall of the Armenian Kingdom of Ani,” Ghazaryan said. “Armenians settled mostly in the cities, and they became the nucleus of the Polish bourgeois class.”

Catherine Sarkissian Yesayan with Armenian Ambassador to Poland Edgar Ghazaryan.

Catherine Sarkissian Yesayan with Armenian Ambassador to Poland Edgar Ghazaryan.

In 1367, King Kazimierz of Poland signed a Royal Decree granting special status to the Armenians of Poland. On September 19, 2017, Poland officially marked the 650th anniversary of the event with a conference in the Senate. The conference explored the country’s rich Armenian heritage and its contemporary relevance. Ghazaryan proudly said that, during 2017, there were 118 events organized to memorialize that important decree. Today, the original document is part of Poland’s national archives.

The Polish kings and dukes regarded the Armenians not only as their loyal subjects, but at times an elite segment of the population, giving them special privileges — including self-rule. There are no concrete details regarding the number of the early Armenian settlers, however the estimate of 200,000 often appears in the historical documents of the era.

“Armenians have been part of the Polish landscape more than 900 years,” Ghazaryan said. “Despite assimilation, many still see themselves as Armenians or, at the minimum, Poles of Armenian origin.”

Ghazaryan explained that modern-day Poles that have Armenian ancestry are aware of that fact and celebrate it.

“During the recent few decades, there’s been an awakening among the Polish-Armenians to stop the assimilation process and get back to their Armenian roots and heritage,” Ghazaryan said.

Today, the Armenians are one of Poland’s officially recognized minorities, and the descendants of the medieval community have preserved some of their institutions. One of the many cities where Armenians became part of local establishments is Zamosc, about 150 miles south of Warsaw. The city, which is imbued with Armenian heritage, was founded in 1580. Some of the beautiful and colorful buildings were built by the regions’ wealthy Armenians, and today those homes with facades displaying engraved writings in Armenian are part of the UNESCO World Heritage list.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, thousands of Armenians immigrated to Poland for better opportunities. It is estimated that there are currently between 40,000 to 80,000 Armenians in the country. Among the recent stream of immigrants from Armenia is Armen Afrikyan, who has opened a restaurant in downtown Warsaw called Erywan (Yerevan in Polish). After my meeting with the ambassador, I headed to Erywan restaurant to have lunch and meet Afrikyan. From the taxi, I noticed a blowing Armenian flag on the side of the restaurant.

Erywan Restaurant owned by Armen Afrikyan.

Erywan Restaurant owned by Armen Afrikyan.

As I stepped inside the restaurant, I was impressed to see that it was packed, and most of the tables were taken. It appeared to me that the customers mostly came from the nearby offices in the business district. I sat down at an open table and order Schnitzel. The food on the menu had European flavor. After about an hour, when the crowd got thin, Afrikyan came to my table.

The wealthy Afrikyan family, from which Armen is a descendant, is very well known in Armenia. I remember a few years back when citizens of Yerevan organized marches and protests to save the beautiful historic Afrikyan Building from demolition in Yerevan. However, all the efforts to prevent the bulldozing of the historical building were fruitless.

Armen Afrikyan was born in 1972. He said that when the demolition of their building started, he moved to Warsaw taking with him his young family. He has four kids: two girls aged 20 and 14, and two boys aged 10 and 6.

I was excited to meet a member of the famous Afrikyan family, curious about his roots and the origins of the family’s rare surname.

“A forefather of mine, in 1760, came to Tbilisi, Georgia from Bayazeth in Western Armenia,” Afrikyan said. “His name was changed from Apram to Aprik and then to Afrik — that’s how the family name was created.”

Armen Afrikyan inside his restaurant, Erywan.

Armen Afrikyan inside his restaurant, Erywan.

In 1829, one of Aprik’s grandsons opened a tavern in Yerevan. Then, other family members got involved with city government and ventured into businesses, growing the family’s wealth and influence. Afrikyan told me that he is part of the seventh generation of Afrikyan brothers.

Shortly after moving to Warsaw, Afrikyan found his current spot for Erywan. Being a restaurateur in Yerevan, he brought his experience to Warsaw, opening the restaurant three years ago.

The decor of his restaurant, with exposed red bricks, was charming. The building, Afrikyan said, was built in 1860. After copious remodeling attempts, the cement inside the walls was stripped down to expose the bricks, he explained.

As I left the restaurant, in the taxi, I thought to myself that this may very well be a good example of how genetic memory passes down through DNA to next generations.

I was very happy that my pursuit of Armenian communities had taken me to Warsaw, a city off the beaten path.

There are five Armenian Sunday schools in Poland: the Education centre of the Armenians of Poland (Warsaw), the Sunday school under the Armenian cultural society (Krakow), the Sunday school under the Armenian union (Lodz), the Sunday school under the Armenian communal union (Gdansk), and Courses of Armenian under the Cultural society of the Armenians of Poland (Wroclaw).

In addition to Armenian Sunday schools, some Polish schools have added extracurricular Armenian courses that teach Armenian language and culture on a supplementary basis.

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9 Comments

  1. State of Emergency said:

    The primary reason why most Armenians in Poland assimilated into Polish society had to do more with their forced conversion into Catholicism in the 1600s. The Armenians established in Poland in the Middle Ages (11-17th centuries). Wealthy Armenian merchants initiated the conversion for their own gains. The Vatican provided lucrative incentives to the wealthy if they promoted the conversion of their community. Because ties with Echmiadzin were broken and the local priests had no need of being in correspondence with Armenia or the Catholicos, the Armenian language and as well as traditions gradually disappeared in Poland. Intermarriage with locals were also facilitated because of the same church going members. Eventually, only remnants of a once strong and distinct community were left. The overwhelming Polsish Catholic society absorbed them. Today, only a handful of Polish Armenians remember their roots. All Armenian Christian denomination must heed this lesson. The only true national church is the Armenian Apostolic Church. It is the church who has and will represent Armenian culture and history no matter what. Without a distinct and separate identity, the future of every diasporan community is in peril. Let Poland be a lesson to all who preach otherwise.

    • Catherine Yesayan said:

      Thanks for bringing this up. Sorry I didn’t include that part of the history, because I thought readers may not have enough patience to absorb all that info.

    • makrui. kassabian said:

      Very very true and thank you too right the truth is not other way the same is all off others country

    • Abraham said:

      With due respect, Armenians are well known for their adaptability and assimilation! They are always loved and respected where ever they went due to their hard work and their capability to quickly learn the language of their host country. It is worth mentioning that it is not uncommon for any religion to try to attract more people to its faith.

  2. Արմենակ Եղիայեան said:

    Հրաշալի պատում մըն է, հաճոյքով ու երախտագիտութեամբ կարդացի զայն:
    Կատարելապէս համակարծիք եմ, որ հայապահպանման գլխաւոր գործօնը, սփիւռքի մէջ յատկապէս, Հայ առաքելական եկեղեցւոյ պատկանելութեան գիտակցութիւնն է:

  3. sylva portoian said:

    Dear Cathrine,
    You are a great narrator … I enjoyed reading your article…
    You should write novels if you like to earn money and help your community …
    I’m sure you will sell your novels easily …
    Most people are interested in stories and novel books not in poetry books.
    I have written 20 poetry historical poetry books sold only a few …
    But I can’t write stories…
    Wish you the best to continue …
    Healthy wishes,
    Sylva~MD~POETRY

    • Catherine Yesayan said:

      Dear Sylva,
      Thanks for your comment. I like poetry but cannot write a line. I have a friend who is a poet, but she says she cannot write stories. That so interesting. I’m intertaining the idea of publishing a book. Maybe in two years. (:

  4. Nubar C. said:

    Hello Dear Catherine, Thanks for visiting Warsaw and giving some new details to us from the community. I/We appreciate it. A few decades ago, when going to Armenian school in Egypt, I have heard from my teachers that at one time a few centuries ago in Poland there was a fairly large Community of Armenians, who because of a Religious dispute between the “LOOSSAVORTCHAGAN” Church and the CATHOLICs there was a huge split
    and most of the Armenians became Catholics like the Poles and these Armenians lost their identity during the Centuries and they became Poles. They say even that these days there are some Poles who have some Old Original Armenian “AVEDARAN”s in which they show that they are somewhat Armenians. Have you ever heard of this and did anybody have heard of it.

    Please let me know.

    Thank you,

    Nubar C.

    • Catherine Yesayan said:

      Dear Nubar,
      Thanks for reading my story. A while ago I saw a documentary about Romania and Bulgaria. In that movie, they showed Armenians, who even didn’t speak Armenian, however they had very old Armenian Bibles in there homes.

      In Poland when I met the Ambassador he said that he knew a few cases, that people by chance had realized that they had Armenian roots, and they were eager to get back to their roots.

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