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Remembering a Forgotten Hero of the Holocaust Era

On Christmas Day 1933, Archbishop Leon Tourian, Primate of the Armenian Church in North America, celebrated the Divine Liturgy at the Holy Cross Church of Armenia on West 187th Street, inside the block just east of St. Nicholas Avenue, in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. Hundreds of worshippers packed the church and many more spilled out into the street: there were so many Armenians then in the neighborhood where I was to be born twenty years later and grow up in, that the popular pun was Washington Hayots‘— that is, “of the Armenians”. It was an illustrious community that included a graphic artist who designed most of the typefaces Armenian-Americans used, and a translator of the medieval Book of Kings from Persian to whom Reza Shah had awarded Iran’s highest civilian medal. When I was a kid I went to school with Maro Avakian, the daughter of the great violinist Anahid Ajemian and the CEO of Columbia Records, George Avakian. Armenian restaurants like the Golden Horn and the Dardanelles served a sophisticated cuisine. New Yorkers listened to Aram Khachaturian’s music regularly on WQXR, the classical station. I live now in Fresno, California, the birthplace of William Saroyan, and in my childhood we read his short story “The Summer of the Beautiful White Horse” in school and I learned my first Armenian word, Vazeh! (Run!)

In those days the older generation in the neighborhood were mostly survivors of the Armenian Genocide. Ottoman Turkey had used the outbreak of World War I as a pretext to carry out a carefully worked out plan to exterminate its Armenian population. With the help of their German allies, the Turks coordinated mass arrests, death marches, shootings, burning, drowning. In many cases Armenians were killed gradually, so that their labor could be exploited first. Children were often taken away to orphanages: those too young to manage or too old to be Islamized were killed and buried in common graves. And so on. Yeshiva University is down the block from Holy Cross Church of Armenia. Washington Heights was a Jewish neighborhood, too: the Orthodox German Jewish refugees lived on Bennett Avenue and attended the Breuer shul. Many young parents, when I was a boy, had numbers tattooed on their forearms. They whispered in kitchens about the war, thinking we weren’t eavesdropping.

Archbishop Tourian was the scion of a gifted and famous family. Bedros Tourian, an ancestor who died in his teens of consumption, and whose complete lyrics I have translated and published as a book, singlehandedly invented modern Western Armenian poetry. The Archbishop was also a survivor, of the last act of the Armenian Genocide. My friend Steve’s mom, Marjorie Housepian-Dobkin, wrote a book about that: in 1922, the army of Mustafa Kemal conquered the port city of Smyrna and burned it down. Hundreds of thousands of Greek and Armenian residents vanished, driven inland and murdered. Many thousands more, thronging the quayside in terror, were literally pushed by the Turkish army into the Aegean sea. US Navy ships floated at anchor in the harbor, turning up their gramophones on deck to drown out the screams of desperate people. An American Protestant missionary pretended to be an admiral and raised a fleet of Greek fishing boats that were able to save many people. I knew a few in Washington Heights. Abp. Tourian was a survivor of Smyrna, plucked out of the water. There is a film of all this: it was hidden in a closet in Washington Heights for decades, the owners fearing that the Turks would find them, even in America.

As the Archbishop walked down the aisle of the church in his splendid garments, several men sprang from their pews and seized him. One stabbed him over and over with a long butcher’s knife. Tourian collapsed, bending his heavy crozier in two. Parishioners carried their stricken leader to the parish office and rang Marjorie’s father, Dr. Housepian, who lived down the block. She was a little girl then. She picked up the phone. Her father ran to the church, but Tourian died. The men who had conspired to murder him, with the help of a hired hit man, were local officials of a political party called the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, in Armenian, Dashnak. The organization had been active in Armenian community self-defense and resistance in Turkey, and had championed a progressive political agenda of socialism and women’s rights. It had led the first Armenian republic, which arose out of chaos of the disintegrating Tsarist Russian empire. Driven into exile by the Communists, the Dashnaks drifted farther and farther to the right, espousing ultra-nationalist and fascist ideology. Their youth wing was called the “Race Worship Society”. The Dashnak press welcomed the Czech Jew Franz Werfel on his US tour to promote his novel, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. The book is about the successful armed resistance to the Turkish deportation order by several villages on a mountain above the Mediterranean. It inspired the Jewish ghetto fighters during World War II. But two Dashnak leaders in Europe, Garegin Nzhdeh and Dro Kanayan, formed an Armenian Legion in Hitler’s Wehrmacht. Its record is controversial and cannot be compared to the villainy of the Ukrainian and Baltic units that took a proactive role in the Holocaust. And it should be noted that hundreds of thousands of Soviet Armenians fought in the ranks of the Red Army: an Armenian, Marshal Baghramian, commanded the Belorussian Front. But Dashnak opposition to Soviet rule in Armenia was uncompromising, and Abp. Tourian served a church hierarchy whose head, the Catholicos, was in Soviet Armenia, in the ancient holy city of Echmiadzin. He ignored Dashnak threats. He was killed.

One of the witnesses to the grisly crime, which was on the front pages of New York newspapers for weeks, was a young Genocide survivor named Avedis Derounian. He was shocked by the presence of fascist terrorists within his own community and resolved to serve his adopted country by infiltrating and exposing American fascist and Nazi movements. Adopting various pseudonyms, he joined the Silver Shirts and America Firsters. He mixed with the German-American Bund and the followers of the anti-Semitic rabble rouser Fr. Coughlin, the pro-Nazi flying ace Charles Lindbergh, and the hatred-spewing tycoon Henry Ford. Fortune magazine took him on, a Congressional committee was formed as the result of his exposes, and his book Under Cover, published under the name John Roy Carlson, was a US bestseller during World War II. All the groups and individuals Derounian investigated were anti-Semites, and all posed a clear and present danger from within to American democracy. Had they not been neutralized, thanks in large measure to his efforts, a pro-Axis fifth column would have seriously impeded America’s war effort.

After the war, survivors of the Holocaust were unwelcome in their old homes and unwanted by the world. Many braved the British blockade to come to the Land of Israel. When the State was declared in 1948, the Arab countries surrounding Israel attacked it, as did the military units of the Arab community inside the country. In all cases, the Arabs were aided by escaped German war criminals and other foreign anti-Semites, notably Englishmen. The Arab ideology was eliminationist and envisioned a completion of the Holocaust. Socially, Arab thinking was Islamist, jihadist, retrograde— much the same as the Iranian, Hamas, and sundry other jihadi lines today. Derounian traveled to the Middle East, this time using his own name— Arabs and Armenians generally got along— and wrote another book, From Cairo to Damascus, which was published by Knopf. He exposes the Nazi core of the Arab cause, describes the sickening personalities who drove the postwar would-be Blitzkrieg against Israel… and then crosses the lines. And comes to us. The hardbitten reporting becomes the prose of a humane dreamer. Socialist, kibbutznik, liberated and liberal, egalitarian, armed Israel, Derounian writes, is the blueprint for a future free Armenia. And he warns, presciently, that political Islam will prove a far more lethal and tenacious threat to humanity than Communism.

The Armenian Genocide, which Yad Vashem ignores for craven political reasons, is important to Jewish history as the dress rehearsal for the Holocaust. In a better world, the Jewish state that rose out of the ashes might correspondingly have served as a model for a future democratic Armenia. But that was not to be. The Dashnaks, like the so-called “Captive Nations” (the mainly crypto-fascist émigré movements of Ukrainians, Estonians, Lithuanians, Latvians, etc.), jumped on the Cold War bandwagon. Dashnak propaganda demonized Derounian as a crank, a Kremlin stooge, and so on. (The Dashnaks also published a history of New York parishes: the entry on Holy Cross church does not mention the one historical event that ever happened there— the murder, by the Dashnaks themselves, of Archbishop Leon Tourian.) In 1979 I landed my first job, the only one in my long life that I look back to with fondness. I worked for the Archdiocese of the Armenian Church of America at St. Vartan Cathedral on 34th Street and Second Avenue, commuting downtown from, yes, Washington Heights. Once for some reason I had to contact Avedis Derounian. I spoke first to his sister, who warned me that the Dashnaks were utterly vicious and capable of anything. (I found that out later on, but it’s another story and this one’s long enough.) Then he and I chatted. He was a thoughtful, kind man. The campaign to discredit him had broken him, and in the obscurity of old age he spent his days quietly in the reading room of B’nai Brith in Manhattan. He felt comfortable in the company of the American Jews whom he had worked decades before to defend, in a country that is and is not home, a country whose hospitality to the stranger was then, and still is, overshadowed by prejudices that can become murderous. As we know. As we cannot afford not to know.

Avedis died soon after. I’ve read his books. I had the honor to know him slightly. But in a lifetime of doing Armenian studies I’ve seen very little written about him. There is an archive of his papers, though, and perhaps it is time for a biography to be written. If anybody wants to do that, I’d be happy to talk with them.

The vestments Abp. Tourian wore when he died are caked in blood, in a cardboard box to the side of the main altar of Holy Cross church. You can visit the little parish office— pressed tin, linoleum, old phones— where he died of his horrendous wounds. Down the block there is now a Dominican panadería where I bought café con leche and a bun on a cold day. Most of the Armenians now live in the suburbs or across the river. Yeshiva University’s rococo mosque of a study house still rings with students chanting Gemara. Strangers live in my childhood home; other strangers, in the apartment nearby where I lived in my working years. My Armenian teachers, amazing women, are now gone. New York itself is three thousand miles away. Life at a certain point becomes a farewell symphony. But I have discharged a duty and remembered here a forgotten hero of the era of the Holocaust, a hero not only for Jews and Armenians but for all men and women who believe in freedom, democracy, and progress. Avedis Derounian, Astvadz hokin lusavoreh (May God illuminate his soul).

About the Author
Born New York City to Sephardic Mom and Ashkenazic Dad, educated at Bronx Science HS, Columbia, Oxford, SOAS (Univ. of London), professor of ancient Iranian at Columbia, of Armenian at Harvard, lectured on Jewish studies where now live in retirement: Fresno, California. Published many books & scholarly articles. Belong to Chabad.
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