Onnig Isbendjian was born in Smyrna, today’s Izmir, on September 15, 1907. Years later, he had safely settled in New York, where he attended medical school at Columbia University. Like many Armenians, this was not a voluntary movement, but was a forced response to the Genocide. While many Armenians and other Ottoman subjects migrated from the Empire in the late nineteenth century and there were even attempts to denaturalize Armenians who left during the reign of Abdulhamid II, the massive exodus of surviving Ottoman Armenians after the Genocide created an uprooted population on a massive scale. Eventually, those uprooted faced a new and rather unprecedented problem: after the 1923 creation of the Republic of Turkey, Ottoman Armenian refugees who had fled to parts of the Ottoman Empire that had become new states (the French and British mandates in Syria and Palestine, for instance) suddenly found themselves not only as refugees, but as stateless refugees. If they had an Ottoman passport, it now was completely worthless. The Ottoman Empire no longer existed. Armenians who still desired to return to their homes in the new Republic of Turkey were systematically refused entry and were not going to be given Turkish citizenship. Statelessness and lack of citizenship in an era increasingly structured around borders and bureaucratic documents was a harsh sentence to perpetual limbo. Among the sources in the collection of the Zohrab Information Center, we have an example of a remarkable solution to this problem of Ottoman Armenian statelessness, the Nansen Passport.
Fridtjof Nansen, an artic explorer and scientist turned diplomat, was the High Commissioner for Refugees for the League of Nations starting in 1921. By July of 1922, he realized that a rather new problem had emerged: aristocratic Russians who had fought against the Soviets, known as White Russians, were residing in places like Paris without any legal recourse or possibility for further movement from the first country to which they fled. The Russian Empire, whose citizenship and passports they held, no longer existed. Having fought against the establishment of the Soviet state, the new Soviet government was clearly uninterested in granting them Soviet citizenship. Therefore, they were stateless. Without citizenship, they existed in a permanent state of legal limbo. Nansen devised a legal device to help them out of the conundrum. Though it is known as the “Nansen Passport,” it is more accurately a transit document. Nansen convinced many countries, including the United States, to recognize the legality of these Nansen Passports. Countries which recognized them would allow individuals bearing the Nansen Passport entry to their country. After that, a naturalization process could occur through legal means.
Initially only offered to White Russians, by 1924, after the newly-formed Republic of Turkey more systematically began refusing the reentry of Armenians who had been displaced during the Genocide, Nansen realized these Ottoman Armenians faced the same grave situation. Through the League of Nations, in 1924 Nansen began issuing Nansen Passports to Ottoman Armenians unable to return to the Republic of Turkey. While there were other methods of migration and movement from the Armenian highlands to new countries, the Nansen Passport was an important legal mechanism by which many Armenians were able to secure a stable future in a new country. Among those were Onnig Isbendjian.
Years later, his Nansen Passport was bequeathed to the Zohrab Information Center. In addition to the two Nansen Passports, Isbendjian also had a passport from the short-lived First Republic of Armenia. Together, these three sources in the collection of the Zohrab Information Center speak volumes about not just the travels of one individual Armenian, but the plight of Armenians after the Genocide, the development of bureaucratic control over travel between states, and the international response to refugee crises. During Eastertide, these sources also remind us about the possibility of rebirth. As we discussed last week, by canonizing the martyrs of the Armenian Genocide, the Armenian Apostolic Church offers us a new way to think about that tragedy. It offers hope of renewal and points to individuals as examples and icons of Christ. Similarly, the Armenian Apostolic Church, like many ancient Christian churches, recognizes the category of confessor—someone who suffered for their faith in Christ, but were not killed. It is not a stretch to consider many of the survivors of the Genocide as confessors. If this is true, then documents like the Nansen Passport of Onnig Isbendjian in the collection of the Zohrab Information Center are certainly precious sources for Armenian history, but also examples to which Church leaders can and should appeal. These documents bring to life stories that not only inform, but which can edify and uplift.
|Bread from Stones: The Middle East and the Making of Modern Humanitarianism||Keith David Watenpaugh’s history of the development of modern humanitarianism through wartime efforts in the Middle East includes a discussion of the Nansen Passport. Dr. Watenpaugh used Isbenjian’s passport from the collection of Zohrab Information Center in his book.|
|The Spirit of the Laws: The Plunder of Wealth in the Armenian Genocide||Akçam and Kurt detail the legal intracicies through which the Ottoman and then Turkish governments confiscated Armenian property and used it bolster the finances of the new Repulic of Turkey. In addition to demonstrating legal continuity between the Young Turks and the Kemalist government, the book provides a careful description of the means by which Armenians were barred from reentry to Turkey.|
|The Russian Revolution||By Alan Moorehead, a history of the Russian Revolution, including the plight of the stateless White Russians.|
Leaders of the Armenian Apostolic Church can and should make use of such documents and stories. Documents, artifacts, and other treasures in the collection of the Zohrab Information Center and similar repositories are material instantiations of the Armenian and Armenian Christian experience. Earlier in the year, in the context of the “Sunday of the Steward,” we showcased some of the treasures of our collection here at the Zohrab Center and insisted that all of us—leaders or not—must be good stewards of our Armenian Christian tradition. That includes not just the physical objects such as coins, textiles, or the priceless historical documents we are discussing today, but the knowledge and spiritual existence made possible by those physical objects.
Today, however, I want to put special emphasis on the material objects themselves, whether they be textile fragments previously featured on the Zohrab Center’s Instagram account or Onnig Isbendjian’s Nansen Passport. First, there is the issue of stewardship and preservation of the material objects themselves. This is relevant not only to churches in Turkey or ancient manuscript pages separated from the rest of the book. Many objects or documents that we don’t think of as important at the time can be invaluable later. Consider, for instance, the attempts of projects like Houshamadyan, to “recreate” village life in Armenia before 1915. What we today consider a moral imperative and bulwark against cultural loss depends on the existence and survival of incredibly quotidian objects from the past. When possible, we should support efforts to collect, catalog, and appropriately preserve documents and objects in our care—either personally or in a position of leadership.
More important than preservation and collection for its own sake, however, is the use to which we put them. Here at the Zohrab Information Center, the vast majority of our collection is in the form of printed books and periodicals from the nineteenth and twentieth century. While a book can also tell an important tale as a physical object—when multiple owners each inscribe their names into a book, or when we know a book was brought from a certain village in Western Armenia—putting the book to good use is relatively obvious. We read it for the valuable information it might contain. It is more difficult to conceive of how to use other sources, such as the Nansen passport. In closing, I will highlight just one way to mobilize sources such as documents or physical objects: as teaching tools that can help develop an edifying and even spiritually uplifting narrative.
As an example, the Zohrab Information Center has in its collection documents concerning several priests and bishops of the Eastern Diocese. Notable among them is the British Mandate Palestinian passport of Father Zgon Der Hagopian. Even more striking is an official document from the Vatican, appearing very much like a passport, asking “the competent authorities” to grant Father Zgon “free access” at the Second Vatican Council. Much like the Nansen Passport, this was a special travel document intended to facilitate Father Zgon’s travel to the Second Vatican Council as an official Ecumenical Representative of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Such documents are historical, of course. Yet they also bear witness to the activities of faithful Armenian priests and, in this case, the work of Christian unity. Similar to Teotig’s collection of short biographies and stories of Armenian priests martyred during the Genocide, these documents offer the opportunity to hold our ancestors, clergy, leaders, and others up as sources for inspiration. Passports and other documents can be historical sources, teaching tools, as well as material objects to help animate our past and strengthen our faith. It is our hope that the sources in the Zohrab Information Center will be put to such use!
|The Missing Pages: the Modern Life of a Medieval Manuscript, from Genocide to Justice||Heghnar Watenpaugh follows the so-called “Zeitun Gospel” from its illumination by one of the great Cilician Armenian painters, Toros Roslin, through the separation of its canon tables, and the court case against the Getty Museum in the past few years. A fascinating story of objects as cultural heritage and the conflicting ways to appreciate and preserve them. At St. Nersess.|
|Goghot’a: Hay hogeworakanut’ean ew ir hōtin aghētali 1915 tariin||Known primarily for his “Almanacs,” Teotig collected tales of Armenian clergymen martyred during the Genocide. This source, like documents about more recent clergy in the United States, offers one possible way to use documentary sources. In Armenian.|
|houshamadyan.org||A website dedicated to the collection of information about the Armenian heartland before the Genocide. It offers a digital “recreation” of lost Armenian places and local cultures through heavy reliance on documents, pictures, and other primary sources.|
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