BY CATHERINE YESAYAN
I’m in Denmark – a familiar place for me to be. I’ve been to this part of the world quite often, because my aunt married a Dane.
This time, I’m here to gather information and write about the Armenian community here in Denmark.
For hundreds of years – since around the 10th century – Danes were known as ferocious warriors and brought terror to the shores of Europe, or wherever they sailed. They were called Vikings.
When I was a child, movies about Vikings were popular. Through watching those movies, I assumed that Danish people would be like those ruthless warriors.
However, my impression, as a child, was totally wrong. Danish people are kind, polite, warm, accommodating and fun loving. I guess that’s one of the reasons my aunt adopted the country and stayed in Denmark for the rest of her life.
I had no idea whether there was an Armenian community in Denmark or not. My cousin did some search and found a site for Danish Armenians.
After communicating with them by email, Anna Karapetian, the organizer of the society, responded to me. By mere chance, on the day that I arrived in Copenhagen, they were hosting an event with the Danish Red Cross to welcome Susanna Haritunyan from the Armenian Red Cross.
The event was at the Red Cross building in Copenhagen. My cousins accompanied me to the event. There, Susanna presented two short documentaries about the work of the Danish Red Cross, and how they had helped the victims of the 1988 earthquake in Armenia.
This presented a good opportunity to meet a few members of the Danish Armenian community. I met Jannik Evers, a Danish guy in his thirties, who had fallen in love with Armenia and its culture.
In 1985, one of Jannik’s Danish aunts started working with a charity organization called “Mission East,” which, started working with Armenia after the fall of the Soviet Union – around 1992.
Since then, Mission East has distributed food and warm clothing to many orphanages in Armenia, including one for disabled children on the outskirts of Yerevan.
Jannik was six or seven years old when he participated in a PenPal-type program to write letters and send pictures to Armenian kids.
He visited Armenia for the first time in 2015. “I’ve been to many parts of the world,” he said, “however, I feel very connected to the Armenian people.”
In October, Jannik is planning another visit to Armenia. This time, he would like to help a Danish friend make some arrangements to start an IT exchange company in Armenia.
He has learned a few Armenian words, which he was proud to recite. Jokingly, he asked “Where’s the Haykan Sourj?” (Armenian coffee).
To better understand the Red Cross event, it is necessary that I explain the ties of Danish people with Armenians in the past.
If you’ve ever followed the history behind the Armenian Genocide, you should be aware of two outstanding Danish missionaries who saved the lives of thousands of orphans and women. One is Karen Jeppe and the other Maria Jacobsen.
Karen Jeppe should be considered Denmark’s first ever aid worker in the Ottoman era. Today in Gylling, Denmark, Karen Jeppe’s hometown, there’s a memorial erected in her honor. The inscription reads: “Karen Jeppe; Mother of the Armenians.”
Going further into the story of Karen Jeppe, I should mention a Danish thinker named Aage Meyer Benedictsen, who visited the Ottoman Empire and witnessed the wretched conditions of the Armenians after the Hamidian massacres.
Upon his return to Denmark in 1902, he started giving lectures and bringing awareness about the deplorable conditions of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. To that end, he organized a relief effort for Armenians based in Denmark. He called this initiative the “Danish Friends of Armenians.”
Karen Jeppe was 26-years-old when she attended one of Benedictsen’s talks, and she became captivated with his reflections and the effort that he had put forth to help Armenians with their afflictions.
At that time, an orphanage for Armenian kids in Urfa, Turkey, was in need of a female teacher. Karen learned about the offer from Benedictsen and decided to leave the comfort of her home and travel to an unknown, faraway land.
During my recent stay in Denmark, my cousin showed me an old edition of the book “Armenia: A Peoples Life and Struggle for Two Millenia,” written by Benedictsen. The 315-page book gives a thorough account of Armenian culture, geography, literature and history. Though I can’t read in Danish, I could tell through the pictures that the book contained detailed information about all aspects of Armenian life – even there was a chapter about our beloved Khachatur Abovyan, a writer, intellectual and patriot. I was truly astonished to see such a book, published in 1925 by a Dane.
Karen Jeppe arrived in Urfa, located in the south/east of the Ottoman Empire, in 1903. She was the first field worker for the “Danish Friends of the Armenians.”
In 1915, during the days of the Armenian Genocide, Jeppe was instrumental in saving many lives. She even provided shelter to Armenians in her own home. Ottoman gendarmes repeatedly searched her house, but did not find any Armenians who were there, hiding in different parts of the house.
Unfortunately, she died of malaria in the summer of 1935, when she suffered a serious bout of the disease. She was taken to the hospital in Aleppo, where she died on July 7, at the age of 59. She’s buried in the Armenian cemetery of Aleppo.
Maria Jacobsen, another Danish missionary, was six years younger than Karen Jeppe. Maria arrived in Kharberd, now called Elazig, in east Turkey in 1906, on her 24th birthday. She was a trained nurse, and she immediately started to work at the American hospital in Kharberd.
The 600-page diary that Maria Jacobsen kept between 1907 and 1919, complete with heart-wrenching photographs, has played a huge part in bringing out the truth about the miseries of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey.
“I thought I should never be able to smile again,” she wrote in her diary after she turned away a boy who was later found dead from starvation.
In 1919 she contracted typhus from the children that she worked with and was forced to go back to Denmark for treatment. After she was cured, she was invited to the United States to give lectures about her job in Turkey and the plight of the Armenian children. She stayed there for seven months and was able to raise money through the Near East Relief, a charitable foundation based in the United States.
She returned to the Middle East, but this time she was stationed in Lebanon and soon founded what would become the Bird’s Nest Orphanage, which is still in operation.
Visitors have said the Bird’s Nest was more like a school than an orphanage. In 1950, Jacobsen became the first woman to receive Denmark’s Gold medal award for her humanitarian work.
She visited Denmark for the last time in 1957 and died at the Bird’s Nest in April of 1960 she was 78. She is buried, according to her wish, on the courtyard of the Bird’s Nest in Jbeil Byblos, Lebanon.
At Birds’ Nest, the Armenian orphans referred to Maria Jacobsen as “Mama Jacobsen.” Thousands of orphans went through the orphanage. They were educated in their own Armenian culture and language.
At the gathering of Danish Armenian society’s Red Cross event, I met two women in their 70s who, as children, were enrolled at the Bird’s Nest orphanage in Lebanon. Both of them told me about the kind “Mama Jacobsen” and how the kids loved her as their own mother.
I also met a married couple who were missionaries from Denmark stationed in different Middle Eastern countries, including Iran and Lebanon, around the 1970s and 80s. The husband, as a youth corps member, had gone to Beirut and had volunteered at the Bird’s Nest Orphanage.
The husband said that when he first went to Birds Nest in 1965, there were more than 200 kids at the orphanage, although today there are only about 25 kids.
Many years later, husband and wife were stationed in Isfahan, Iran as missionaries. Then, after the Islamic Revolution, they moved to Kuwait.
Recently, in California, under the leadership of Dr. Garbis Der Yeghiayan a committee, called “Armenian Friends of Marie Jacobsen,” has been formed. In October of 2016, to memorialize “Mama Jacobsen” the committee placed her bust at the Lutheran Church in Solvang, California – a small Danish village, close to Santa Barbara.
Today, I’m writing this with a heart full of gratitude to those two women who did so much for the Armenian people. I’m glad that I could bring these accounts to this page and tell you about the two outstanding missionaries.
Now back to where we left off, about the Danish Armenian society.
Anna Karapetian and her husband Ashot Abrahamian moved to Denmark in 1994. To adapt to their new environment, the first thing they did was to learn the Danish language.
In 1998, Anna’s mother came to stay with them. Anna and her husband spent as much time with Anna’s mother as they could, but she still felt very lonely – as Anna and Ashot spent most of the day at work.
Her mother’s feeling of loneliness gave Anna the idea to seek other Armenians in Copenhagen. To do this, she took a phone book and searched for Armenian last names – ending in “ian.”
In 2005, she was able to bring together a group of about 110 Armenians to form an association. They named the group DanArmen. The membership was an annual fee of about $11. Today, the group has dwindled to only 30 members. Anna is not sure, but she thinks there might be about 2,000 Armenians in Denmark, which are scattered in cities all over the country.
DanArmen, with the help of Danish social services, has made accommodations for elderly Armenians. Members of the group also provide humanitarian aid to Armenia.
Since 2006, DanArmen, under the leadership of Anna and her husband, has shipped 15 containers of food, furniture, and supplies for schools, nurseries and hospitals. Additionally, they have provided warm clothes and quilts for children, toys, mattresses, medical equipment and much more.
In 2007, DanArmen applied for government support and received $26,000 to offset part of the cost of shipping the containers.
The Danish government has not kept silent about the tragic events of 1915; however it has not officially acknowledged the events as genocide. The Foreign Minister of Denmark, Martin Lidegaard, has stated “Our opinion is that to leave that distinction to the historians.”
The Armenian embassy in Copenhagen opened in 2011. It stayed open until March of 2019. Then, it was closed and the ambassador was transferred to Sweden.
In Copenhagen, there’s an Armenian priest from Etchmiadzin. He leads Sunday worships, as well as the celebration of some ecclesiastical traditions, such as the blessing of the grapes.
For the commemoration of April 24, Armenians gather at Gylling, where there’s a khachkar (cross stone) installed next to the memorial of Karen Jeppe.