BY CARHERINE YESAYAN
On December 7, 1988, Armenians around the world woke up to the horrific news of an earthquake that hit and ravaged two cities – Gyumri and Spitak – in Armenia and caused the death of 50,000 people, with an additional 130,000 injured.
Today marks, the 33rd anniversary of the devastating 1988 Earthquake, also known as the Spitak earthquake. The forceful shock of 6.8 Richter scale, combined with the poor quality of communist era infrastructure, caused an unprecedented devastation.
The rattle happened on a Wednesday morning at 11:41 a.m., when most people were at work and children at school.
Today, I’d like to tell you the story of an amazing woman, who for a whole year, dedicated her life to assisting the children who were caught under the debris and wreckage of the fallen buildings during the earthquake. Her name is Lois Fisher.
Lois, an American citizen living in Cologne, Germany, was born in 1940 in Hartford, Connecticut. In 1971 she married a German journalist, and, on assignment, they moved to the communist Peking in China.
Her husband happened to be the first German Journalist in China, where they lived until 1976. While in China, she learned to speak in basic Mandarin. She wrote a book entitled “Go Gently through Peking,” about her experiences in China and with the Chinese people.
Later, in 1978, when her husband and she were stationed in Moscow, she learned to speak Russian. She wrote five more books, this time about her experiences of living in the Soviet Union. In all of her books she had tried to humanize the Chinese and the Russian people.
I met Lois, this year, in Armenia. I was invited to the launch of the translation of a book that she had written about her experience with the Armenian children that she had cared for at a Moscow hospital—the title is “My Armenian children,” originally written in German.
Her story begins in December of 1988, when Lois was at home in Cologne, Germany, seated in front of a TV, when she heard the news about the devastating earthquake, and how a number of Armenian youth who had suffered under the wreckage were transported to a children’s hospital in Moscow.
Since she had made many friends while staying in Moscow, and due to her altruistic nature, she decides to fly there and see if she could provide any kind of support to the children who were fighting for their lives.
The day she arrived in Moscow, one of her friends, who happened to be an Armenian woman, invited her to join in on distributing gifts to the children at the hospital. That was her first encounter with those Armenian children.
For nearly a year, day and night, she tirelessly dedicated her time to care for those injured children. The Hospital became her home and the children became like her own kids.
During those months, she commuted between Moscow and Germany, where she looked for sponsors to cover the medical costs for the children she was assisting.
Lois developed a close bond with six of the children, who called her “Auntie Lois.” She also spent time with the children’s parents and some of their relatives, who came to Moscow to visit them. They introduced her to Armenian hospitality: she joined them for their daily homemade meals, and learned about Armenian culture, customs, and politics.
In June of 1989, about a year and a half after the earthquake, when the children were discharged from the hospital, Lois accepted an invitation from the family of Asgush, a child in her care, to visit Armenia. She then traveled to Armenia and stayed with the family in the city of Nalband.
“I stayed, for almost a week, in a ‘wagonchik,’ next to the house of my host, whose house, was one of the few, which was still standing,” said Lois. By then she had already published her book about the Armenian children she worked with.
Now let me back up and tell you the reason why Lois returned to Armenia this last summer.
Three years ago, in 2019, right before the pandemic, one of the kids who had been under her care, Azniv, who is now a grown woman, was working at a publishing company in Yerevan. She learned that a coworker, Vanuhi, had received a scholarship to study for a year in Cologne, Germany.
When, Azniv heard that Vanuhi was leaving for Cologne, she remembered that Lois Fisher, the woman who had put her heart into assisting Armenian youth affected by the Spitak earthquake years prior, was from Cologne.
So, she asked Vanuhi to try to locate Lois in Cologne. She also gave Vanuhi the book that Lois had written about her experiences with those injured Armenian children.
Once in Cologne, Vanuhi was able to find Lois through the publisher of her book. Meanwhile, Vanuhi read the book and becaame so impressed with the story that she decided to translate it into Armenian.
While in Cologne, Vanuhi formed a close bond with Lois. She told Lois that she wanted to translate her book into Armenian, and asked if she would come to Armenia for the launch of the translation of the book. And this is how I met Lois. I had the pleasure of being invited to the book launch event, which was held in Gyumri.
Lois had come to Yerevan with her husband and two of her friends—a German physical therapist, Gudrun Mik, who had assisted the kids in their therapy sessions, and another Russian woman, Tatiana Pavlenko, who had also played a significant role in miraculously healing the children. Olga Arlenovna, a therapist, also attended the reunion.
Vanuhi had arranged a tour company to transport her 13 guests from Yerevan to Gyumri. We left around nine in the morning, in a van, from Yerevan. On the way, we stopped for lunch and visited a few sites. We stayed overnight in Gyumri.
The book launch event took place the following day at the Regional Library of Gyumri. In attendance were dignitaries, invited by Vanuhi, as well as a dozen of the kids, now adults, who were under Lois and her teams care. It was an emotional and moving reunion.
Speakers took to the podium to make their remarks, and a few of the children who survived the devastating earthquake read testimonials, reflecting back to their days in the Moscow hospital.
Thanks to the love, care, and effort that Lois and other therapists provided for those Armenian kids, their physical and emotional wounds slowly healed. Only one of the kids remains on a wheelchair to this day.
At the library, I had a chance to speak to a few of the injured kids.
First, I spoke to Lucineh Oganezova, now a radiologist, who described her ordeal: “When the earthquake hit I was at home with my mother and my sister. They both died. I was 17-years-old. We were living on the 5th floor. My father, who was an orthopedic doctor, was at work. I stayed under the wreckage for two days until, with the help of my father, they could rescue me.”
She was not one of the kids that were transported to Moscow. One of her legs was amputated. Now, she walks with a prosthetic leg and a cane.
According to Lucineh, she was at the library to meet Gudrun Mik, the German physical therapist who was part of the group who was there for the book launch event.
“Gudrun, had come to Gyumri to assist the injured kids,” said Lucineh. “She stayed with us in our Domik in Gyumri and she helped me to improve my walking skills. I have many good memories of her. To boost my moral, she was teaching me of how to dance. She was very kind.”
I also had a chance to talk to Azniv, who was the impetus of this whole story. I could tell that it was hard for her to relive and reconnect to her unfortunate past, however with a gentle smile she told me her story.
“I was 13 when the Earthquake hit, and I was at school in my classroom,” Azniv said. “I fainted from the jolt and the falling of the debris. When I came back it was the following morning. I heard the voices of my classmates talking to each other. Some felt that it was an earthquake and some thought it was an attack from the Azeri’s.”
Fortunately the morning after the earthquake, the kids were removed from under the wreckage and were transported first to a medical unit in Gyumri and then to a hospital in Yerevan. Azniv’s kidneys were not functioning and her legs had become swollen.
In Yerevan, there was lack of dialysis machines. So the medical team quickly decided to fly Azniv to children’s hospital in Moscow. She became one of the 53 kids that were transported there.
Here I’d like to step back and tell you about Azniv’s family.
When the earthquake hit, Azniv’s mother was at home, cooking. Unfortunately the rattle created a fire and their whole house burned down. Her mother could not be saved.
Her father was a doctor and he was out of the country working in a city in Russia, where her older brother was studying.
When her father heard about the earthquake, he and his son flew to Georgia, and from there they drove to Gyumri. They searched the hospitals in Gyumri and couldn’t find Azniv. So they went to Yerevan. There, they learned that Azniv was sent to Moscow.
Azniv’s younger sister, who was a student in the same school, was saved because her classroom was in another building.
Azniv explained that while she was at the hospital in Moscow, many members of her family visited her, and she was asking them about her mother and they were feigning stories, not telling her the truth that her mother had died.
Azniv told me that all the medical crew, the doctors and nurses, were so kind and were taking such good care of her and all the other children. She remembers Olga Arlenovna, the therapist who thought her how to sit and how to walk.
“We loved the doctors and the nurses,” she said. “A special bond was created among us, and because of their efforts no limbs were amputated.”
While spending time in the hospital, Lois observed that the clinic was lacking basic medical supplies. Thus, in 1989, she founded “Door to Door,” a private German charitable organization to assist needy people.
For the next two decades, Lois continued to visit the hospital, to bring medical supplies from Germany to the Traumatology department of the hospital, where the children had been treated. She funded these projects through donations made by German citizens who sponsored her efforts.
Although many years have gone by, I thought this compelling story about the colorful life of a woman whose actions brought a difference to many lives had a merit to be told. This tribute to Lois Fisher presents a nano example of the relief efforts made, by the whole world, to the victims of the 1988 Spitak earthquake.
I also wrote about some of the relief effort that were offered to the victims of the 1988 earthquake in an Asbarez column, published on the 30th anniversary of the earthquake in 2018.