Karen Jeppe and Armenians: An Interview with Prof. Jonas Kauffeldt

Karen Jeppe and Armenians: An Interview with Prof. Jonas Kauffeldt 01 February 2016

NV: It is interesting to note how many Danes have been involved with Armenians in the Ottoman Empire and later in Syria and Lebanon. Can you tell us something about it?

JK: The involvement of Danes with the Armenian community in the Ottoman Empire, as well as its later partitioned parts, was really a product of the growing range of Western Christian missionary activities that flourished across the empire and region during the 1800s. Danes were in no way at the forefront of those efforts, but the events at the close of the 19th century did generate enough concern and attention to see a region-specific aid organization founded in 1902, the Danish Friends of Armenia. Another group, the so-called Women’s Missionary Workers, also became involved during these years, with the Dane Maria Jacobsen (d. 1960) emerging as one of its most famous activists.

NV: What kind of work did the Danes undertake? What kind of philanthropy did they practice? And how did they relate to other European missionaries?

JK: The main focus of Danish activities was working with children and women. Efforts were particularly aimed at providing both educational and vocational training, something which became especially important after so many Armenian children and women became orphans and widows, respectively, over the final few decades of the Ottoman Empire’s existence. It was, as Jeppe came to believe, necessary to focus on providing these victims with a solid foundation so they could fend for themselves, become self-confident again, and thereby serve as a contributing element in the restoration of vibrancy to the Armenian community. After all, many women had become heads of households due to the deaths of their male relatives, so it was essential to provide them with the training and skills needed to carry out those responsibilities successfully. Jeppe also believed, much as did others before her, that merging this requirement for stable employment with an aim to preserve and promote Armenian culture would be best-served by focusing on a production and marketing of Armenian handicrafts.

NV: How did Karen Jeppe get involved with Armenians?

JK: Jeppe became involved with the aid work in Ottoman Armenia after 1902. Spurred into action by the words of Åge Meyer Benedictsen, an author and scholar who was knowledgeable on the subject of Armenian affairs and history, she joined the ongoing international effort to bring relief to the Armenian population of the eastern Ottoman Empire. It was particularly the work with orphaned children that became her focus, taking in 1903 a position as a teacher at the German orphanage in Urfa which was administered by the German Orient Mission. There was not at that time any significant Danish representation in the area, but the recently founded Danish Friends of Armenia organization, of which she became a member, covered part of the costs of dispatching her to the region.

NV: What is Misak's Story about? Why do you think she wrote it?

JK: Jeppe’s account is essentially a dramatized biography of her adopted son’s early life, from childhood to budding adulthood. Misael "Misak” Melkonian, the main character in the story, is introduced to the reader as an orphaned victim of the anti-Armenian violence that plagued the eastern provinces of the Ottoman Empire during the mid-1890s. Over the subsequent two decades, she traces his story and weaves into it her own story. In fact, Misak is in addition the unlikely tale of two people who are from so very different backgrounds and distant parts of the world, yet still become a family, as she eventually adopts him as her son. But the story is also symbolic, I think, with the young Misak in some ways representative of the Armenian nation, as they both persevered through tragedy and suffering to become again proud, self-sufficient, and confident in their own self-worth and abilities.

In my view, Jeppe wrote the account during the 1920s to generate a series of responses in the minds and souls, if you will, of her readers. On the first and most immediate level, she was writing the story to entertain, hoping that the account would help to retain existing subscribers to the organization’s bi-monthly journal. By extension, if this could be accomplished, if a so-called "buzz” could be generated about the story, then it might also attract additional subscribers and broaden popular awareness of the plight of Armenians in the post-World War One Middle East.

Jeppe’s next aim with the story was precisely to educate. Once people’s attention had been won through the pure entertainment value of her narrative, she could then weave history and political realities into the account. Her purpose now became to show how the internal events in the Ottoman Empire had gradually made life ever more precarious for the Armenians and how ordinary people were made victims of circumstances beyond their control or responsibility.

Lastly, Jeppe sought to generate an emotional response from her readers, a response that would motivate people to actively address this historical reality and injustice of which they now were aware. Moreover, the telling of the story through the eyes of a child and young adult, usually accepted as the very essence of innocence, only tended to reinforce the travesty and tragedy of what had occurred.

NV: Why did you decide to translate this story? What does the story tell us today?

JK: Misak: An Armenian Life attracted my attention for a number of reasons. I firstly felt it was important to make Jeppe’s account accessible to a wider audience because there is not much of Jeppe’s published work available for people to read today. The account is also very much written as a story, so it will hopefully attract people’s attention, much as it did mine when I first came across it back in 2001.

The relevance of the story to present day readers is similarly manifested in multiple ways. It shows how individuals, driven by determination, dedication, and courage, can make a real difference in the world, something which I think people today sometimes dismiss. In fact, even when challenges seem insurmountable, it is possible to overcome such obstacles through perseverance and dogged steadfastness. I certainly believe that in each of us lie the necessary qualities to be an activist and to assert ourselves, we simply need to find the right cause to unlock whatever unique talents and motivations we can bring to the table. After all, both Jeppe and Misak were ordinary people who overcame adversity to eventually excel in their chosen field of public action. This should serve as a lesson to all, that we too can be more than we may assume if only the circumstances and our qualities intersect and give us the opportunity to take action.

NV: What happened to Karen Jeppe and Misak after 1915?

JK: What happened to Jeppe and Misak after 1915 is a broad question, as much of their working relationship developed over those last two decades of Jeppe’s life. After she was evacuated to Denmark during World War I, it was unclear how and when they would find each other again. But Jeppe recovered from her illness and at the war’s end she was determined to return to work with the now devastated Armenian population.

However the carve up of the Ottoman Empire made a return to Urfa unworkable, so Jeppe instead went to Aleppo, a city also positioned along today’s Turco-Syrian border. It was here Jeppe became an internationally-known activist for the Armenian cause, serving for several years in the 1920s as a League of Nations official on the question of refugees. Similarly, Misak became an important assistant to her in this work, which involved at times the dangerous work of recovering Armenians still scattered across the region in various forms of detention. More importantly, perhaps, was their work to reunite family members who had been split up by the years of war and violence; to develop effective job training programs and local handicraft industries; and to even found agricultural settlements in the northeastern Syrian countryside where Armenians could begin to reestablish lives based on some semblance of stability and normalcy.

This important work continued even after Jeppe died in 1935, with Misak playing an administrative role overseeing the Danish Friends of Armenia’s ongoing local efforts in northern Syria. However, the organization found it difficult to replace Jeppe’s charisma and passion as a driving force behind its critical fundraising needs in Denmark. And with the German occupation of the country in the spring of 1940, those efforts were obviously not enhanced. In fact, the organization was dissolved in the years immediately after the end of World War II and Misak immigrated with his family to the United States, settling in California until his death in 1978.

NV: What are you working on now?

JK: I do not currently have one set project in the works. My plans are, however, to soon begin researching Jeppe’s activism here in the United States. I have come across several references to her efforts to raise funds from among the immigrant community of Danes in the U.S., and I know that she visited the United States at least once during the 1920s.

I also have plans to possibly develop a couple of articles from chapters of my dissertation, namely one on railway development in Iran during the interwar years of the 1920s-1930s and another on events in Libya during Italian colonial rule. I realize that both of those topics seem rather different from my work on Jeppe and her accomplishments, but my dissertation was really focused on aspects of Western involvement across the Middle East and the subsequent impact/influence of that contact.

Karen Jeppe, Misak: An Armenian Life, translated from Danish, annotated and introduced by Jonas Kauffeldt (London: Gomidas Institute, 2015), lxxviii + 159 pages, map and photos. ISBN 978-1-909382-18-3, pb., US$24.00. For more information see www.gomidas.org/books
« Back