‘Nazi’ Soldier’s Friendship with Armenian Nurse

By Jirair Tutunjian, 19 August 2014

The dark-eyed, dark-haired woman with the purposeful air sat on the park bench, lost in her slim book. She was on her lunch break from the nearby forest of gray buildings.

We shall never know what Hrip was reading on that sunny day in the Brussels Park. The old book, her companion, her fragile link to her family and to faraway Erzerum, Armenia, where she was born 28 years earlier. She did not remember her hometown. Hrip was born the year her people had been butchered and exiled.

By Jirair Tutunjian, 19 August 2014

The dark-eyed, dark-haired woman with the purposeful air sat on the park bench, lost in her slim book. She was on her lunch break from the nearby forest of gray buildings.

We shall never know what Hrip was reading on that sunny day in the Brussels Park. The old book, her companion, her fragile link to her family and to faraway Erzerum, Armenia, where she was born 28 years earlier. She did not remember her hometown. Hrip was born the year her people had been butchered and exiled.

Hrip, who together with her family had escaped death in 1915, was named after a mythical Christian martyr – St. Hripsime. The saint, leading 39 virgins from noble families, had gone to Armenia in the last years of the third decade to convert the pagan kingdom to Christianity. King Drtad, a rough-and-tumble warrior, who in his youth had killed a bull with his bare hands in a Roman arena, was enchanted by Hripsime's beauty. The king wanted to marry her. The missionary had replied that she would become queen only if Drtad converted to Christianity. Outraged by her impudence, the king had ordered h and that of her followers. Hripsime became one of the first martyrs of the Armenian Church.  The grief stricken king had gone mad, eating grass, wallowing in mud. He thought he was a beast.

In Brussels Hripsime had become Hrip – one of the concessions exiles make, translating themselves, accommodating their hosts.

It was the fifth year of German Occupation. Hrip had come to Brussels in 1939 to enroll at the Universite Libre de Bruxelles. She had come to Belgium to become a child psychologist, but her plans were scuttled by the German invasion. Her scholarship funds no longer getting through, she had continued her studies, teaching Armenian to support herself.

The university student residence, where she was registered as a foreign student, had been taken over by the Red Cross and turned into a hospital. Since she was a foreigner, with no place to go, she was allowed to keep her room. Soon, she was helping out at the hospital as wounded and dying military prisoners were brought from the war front.

Life was hard, but one didn't dwell on it. The constant hunger, the cold, the uncertainty were part of her permanent condition. "My aunt was a born survivor," says her niece, Colette Copeland, a Canadian journalist. "The most she would say was that she wasn't the only one who suffered."

After five Years of German rule, Hrip had become used to the heavy hand of Wehrmacht, the Gestapo. Besides, in the spring of 1944, there was a mood of optimism. The German armies were retreating everywhere. Everyone talked of the imminent American-British invasion of northern France. Soon the Germans would retreat behind the Rhine.

Parev Kouyrig, a man's voice. "Hello, sister" in lilting Eastern Armenian.

When Hrip raised her eyes from the book, she saw a German soldier smiling at her. He was blue-eyed and had an open, honest face. A tuft if thick dark blond hair completed the picture.

She was confused, apprehensive. A German soldier who spoke Armenian.

“I guessed you are Armenian because of the book. I too am Armenian," continued the soldier.

He told her his name. He was from Soviet Armenia, now fighting the Russians. He told her how he had ended up in Brussels. While the soldier told his story, Hrip toyed with the badge on her chest. A pin of enamel of Ararat–with the twin peaks of Greater and Lesser Massis–symbolizing Armenia, with an Armenian cross hanging in the blue sky. Armenians living under German Occupation had to wear the pin, to distinguish them from other conquered nations. The Germans considered Armenians "gutblut" (good blood), brother Aryans.

The soldier asked Hrip what she did in Brussels. It was her turn to tell her story of war and dislocation. She told him that soon after the German army had entered the country, she and a dozen other foreign students had walked for days to reach the Maginot Line and still-free France. When the German soldiers had finally stopped the march, the students were practically shoeless, the leather worn from the long walk. The Germans had ordered them to return to Brussels. Among the students was Amir Abbas Hoveida who 40 years later would become prime minister of Iran and a martyr to the Ayatollahs.

Hrip told the soldier of her other journey – the long journey, and escape from genocidal Turks, to Syria and then to Cyprus. Her father had taught philology and biology at Nicosia's Melkonian Institute, one of the best Armenian high schools in Diaspora.

She told him about her mother, who had died while Hrip was marooned in Brussels, her sister Emma, her brother Massis – named after the mountain on her badge. Hrip had attended Melkonian, and after her graduation had received a scholarship to study in Brussels.

The two Armenians met regularly, with every meeting unveiling more of their lives. They talked about the vagaries of fate, about their dreams and about the unknown postwar years. The soldier was apprehensive. The Germans were losing the war.

One day, as they settled for one of their usual talks, the soldier asked: Me ban qah? Mdahok es yerevoum, Hrip jan.  “What's the matter? You look worried, dear Hrip.”

Hrip, choosing her words carefully, said: “I can’t see you anymore.”

Paytz inchoo? asked the soldier. Why? "l am worried. The Belgians would think that I am a collaborator. TheY wouldn't understand," said Hrip.

He understood. He knew she was right. He wouldn't try to change her mind.

After a long silence, he took out his army wallet, rifled through various ID cards and picked his passport photograph. He then took his fountain pen and in black ink wrote behind the army photograph: "Souvenir for fellow Armenian, Hrip Karakashian." He signed it "K. Toumanents, 1944."

They never saw each other again.

After the war, Hrip returned to Cyprus and taught at Melkonian. In 1953 she was asked to become the principal of Ecole Tebrotzassere near Paris and inject new life into it. Tebrotzassere, a school within the French educational system, which also taught Armenian language, culture and history, was in dire straits and in danger of folding.

Soon, Armenians from all over Europe were sending their children to the Armenian boarding school. They had heard of Hrip’s dedication. For the next 30 years Hrip, known simply and universally as Oryort ("Miss"), ran the school as a sacred mission. She never married. "l have thousands of children. They are all my tsakougs-my cubs." She would say. Among her "children" were Seta, the daughter of Charles Aznavour, and the children of many other prominent European Armenians.

Oryort was admired and respected for her unflinching high standards and no-nonsense discipline. Some of her charges had nicknamed her the Terrible Oryort. But Oryort didn’t mind the endearing jibe. She was from the old school. When parents from Britain, Austria, Switzerland and Southern France trusted their children to Oryort in distant Paris, they knew their offspring were in good hands. Her friend and author William Saroyan said of her: “She is diminutive, but her psychology is big.”  French president Jacques Chirac, then the mayor of Paris, presented her  the key to Paris in acknowledgment of her services to education.

She had become a legend. Generations of Armenian children, who attended Tebrotzassere, would remember her as the Oryort, who was made of iron and compassion. The Oryort was their mother away from home. Despite her small stature, with her charm she could impose her will on parents, on the sponsors of the school and on government bureaucrats.

She ran her Little Armenia the best way she knew. In the late '70s Oryort retired from Tebrotzassere, and returned to Brussels, to the city of her youth. She had come full circle. Many old friends were there to welcome her back.

Oryort continued to teach children at a small Armenian community school in Brussels, and organized summer camps at Heide, at the Belgian seaside.

In the late 1990s, her health began to fail, necessitating numerous stays in the hospital. On April 24, 2001, she died

peacefully in the hospital and was buried at the Cimetiere d'lxelles in Brussels. She died 86 years to the day from the

start of the Armenian Genocide. Her niece, Colette, says: “It’s as if she had willed it to die on that day. She had been ill for a long time . . . yet she persevered, as if to live until April 24.”

A small group of mourners, practically every member of the small Armenian community of the Brussels, had gathered at Cimetiere d’lxelles, to pay its respects to Hripsime Karakashian, who had died, after a long illness, at the age of 85. She would be buried far Erzerum or Nicosia. No one was left in Erzerum or Nicosia. Her family had scattered to the four winds – to Canada, Singapore, America and Britain.

At her Requiem of Forty Days, one of her former students, Ara Vroyr, said: “It was a time when everyone was a tzakoug – it was a time when her sweet perfume wafted in the air of Keienhof … a time when we saw her one day her long hair falling down to her wait, a Caucasian Melisande. She laughed, danced with us. She enchanted us.”

 * (Mr. Tutunjian was told Hrip's story by Colette Copeland, the niece of Hripsime Karakashian. This article originally appeared in 'The Armenian Mirror-Spectator', April 13, 2003.

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