Essay: A distant nephew remembers Minas Cheraz

A headline appeared recently in a local newspaper: “Are Minas Cheraz’s Ashes in Yerevan?” The newspaper went on to report, inaccurately, an answer.

I knew who had the correct information.

In 1936 my mother, Burakn Andreasyan (then age nine), attended the funeral of the writer, editor, teacher, translator. She called Azg to provide her perspective two months ago, and was told a reporter would come. Like Cheraz’s ashes, though, the whereabouts of the journalist is a mystery.

Minas Cheraz was my mother’s great-uncle, but she thought of him, and called him, “grandfather”. Minas called my grandfather, Vahan, “son”, as he, himself, never had a family, but devoted himself to service of the nation.

Born in 1852, Minas became the author of at least five books. When he was 37 Minas left his native city of Constantinople (Istanbul) to avoid persecution by the Ottoman authorities and went to London where he founded Armenie magazine. Later he settled in France.

Minas Cheraz is most of all known as a translator and secretary in the Armenian delegation headed by Khrimian Hairik that participated in the Congress of Berlin in 1878. There, the “Armenian Question” moved from the 16th point to 61st, and became secondary.

But the Congress was the entry of Armenian diplomacy into the international scene, where Europe was pressured to achieve reforms for the Armenian community in Turkey. Sadly, the efforts failed, paving the way for the 1915-18 genocide, after which the Armenian Question became Hay Dat (Armenian Cause), which again pursues the goal of reaching justice through western pressure on Turkey.

Author Arshak Alpoyachian writes in the foreword to the 368-page book “Minas Cheraz: His Life and Work” published in Cairo in 1927, “Cheraz vigorously continued his work, familiarizing Europe to the Armenian and his demands, hoping that in the name of compassion or Christian philanthropy must come to rescue and save the Armenian nation from the Turkish yoke. . . . Minas Cheraz was one who actively participated in the group that initiated the Armenian Problem from the first days and had an active role dedicating his efforts and works to the ‘holy cause’. Cheraz cherished that naïve faith until the Lausanne treaty that would put an end to the naivety of all of us and destroyed everything, but especially the belief of having an independent Armenian motherland with foreign assistance.”

Cheraz’s one naïve belief was replaced by another belief perhaps also naïve as he saw the rebirth of the Armenian people in Soviet Armenia.

My mother was always proud of her great-uncle/”grandfather”, but Minas Cheraz was not highly regarded in our family. My father always ridiculed him. Minas’ beloved nephew Vahan was shot dead by the Soviets; his family remained without their head, and even after that Minas donated money to the Soviets.

Still, when I now read the archives kept by my mother, it seems that my father was perhaps too harsh toward the man.

So, in 1926, the 60th anniversary of Minas Cheraz’s activities was celebrated in the Diaspora with solemnity, the 74-year old Minas said in his speech in Marseilles: “The genocide and massacres in the desert changed Turkish Armenia, however amidst the ashes of the Armenian people Russian Armenia was reborn as a phoenix. Now the source of our consolation is here, here is the anchor of our hopes. Let us help this country no matter what rule it is under. Government is transient and the motherland is eternal.” And he transferred 200,000 francs collected on the occasion of his jubilee to the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) on condition that he would receive the interests from the sum until the end of his life. After his death he would will the whole money to Armenia for constructing a school to be named after him.

A year later, his dear Vahan was arrested in Leninakan (Gyumri) and executed by shooting. Now I read a piece from a newspaper and Cheraz suffered a lot after Vahan’s death. It is reprinted from Boston’s Hayrenik daily in 1929 immediately after his death:

“Very soon the Soviets delivered a severe blow to Cheraz that perhaps rushed his death. A fine young man, the son of his full brother, not even a partisan, was gunned down by the Soviets… The unfortunate old man made entreaties only to know the reasons for that barbarism. But the masters of Yerevan did not even reply.”

Had he lived for another eight years perhaps he would have finally got disillusioned with Armenia when he would know that Vahan’s wife, Vardanush, would also be executed by shooting and his grandchild Byurakn was orphaned. The whole archives, with numerous letters written by Minas Cheraz were taken in 1937 together with my grandmother. I wonder if at least at his death, he wondered whether to change his will and leave the money to my mother. Anyway, a school and a hospital in Nubarashen were built with money he left after his death.

The Azg article has it right that Minas Cheraz’s ashes together with Komitas’ ashes were brought from Paris to Yerevan in 1936. However, the inaccuracies were that the ashes were brought secretly, that he was buried in the cemetery situated on the site of the current Shirvanzade school.

My mother remembers that she and her mother attended Cheraz’s funeral, which took place with solemnity in the yard of the school in Nubarashen built with his money.

“My mother’s aunt came from Paris together with her family, stayed at our home for about two months, and then settled down in Nubarashen,” my mother remembers. “Probably it was they who said they were bringing Minas Cheraz’s ashes with them. I remember that we came from Gyumri to Yerevan together with my mom to attend the funeral. It was in the yard of the Nubarashen school. I remember very well the brass band, there were a group of people, they put the ashes into the grave in a solemn ceremony, a tombstone was put onto it, but I don’t remember what was written on it.”

A year or two later Cheraz’s ashes were removed from the school yard, my mother heard one party official say “What is this Dashnak’s gravesite doing here?” (Cheraz was non-partisan, but at that time all Armenians who lived abroad were labeled as Dashnaks). Later my mother learned that he was buried where the Nubarashen textile factory was being built.

During the period of the rehabilitation of Stalin victims, in the late ‘50s, my mother and father wrote letters to the Council of Ministers, to the Catholicos of All Armenians to revive Minas Cheraz’s memory and name the Nubarashen school after Cheraz, however they did not receive any reply.

My mother remembers that in the 1980s, at the request of two journalists of “Garun”, they traced Cheraz to the Nubarashen school which bore the name of Ghevond Alishan. They met the school headmaster who was well aware of Cheraz’s story and promised they would call the new wing then under construction after Cheraz, but it didn’t happen.

In 1967, my mother’s uncle, Levon Cheraz, came to Yerevan from Istanbul and was looking for his uncle’s gravesite. A piece from one Istanbul-based newspaper (probably Marmara) in my mother’s archives says on that occasion: “The 115th birthday anniversary of intellectual and national figure Cheraz was on July 15 and his nephew wanted to lay a wreath as he is already 77 years old… and… that would perhaps be his last homage. The gravesite seemed unknown.”

This year marks the 115th year of Minas Cheraz’s birth. Maybe even an inaccurate article is a step toward memorializing his name.