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Hovhannes Toumanian


The Family Lineage
The Children
The journeys and travels
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Toumanian and the orphanage

Hovhannes Toumanian and Care for Orphans

The tragic destiny of Armenians has had deep impact on the biographies of many Armenian intellectuals, as patriotism has always been their way of life. The great Armenians from Khorenaci to medieval poets and to Abovian, Raffi and others bear the seal of the nation’s difficult destiny on their biographies. The creations of Hovhannes Toumanian occupy a unique place in this golden chain. A nation is sometimes able to give birth to sons who, by an unexplainable prophecy, with the eyes of their minds, nerves and blood foresee the imminent calamity. Toumanian was one of those exceptional seers. Still in 1913, he wrote: "…Turks are going to solve the Armenian cause through massacre….Turkey will apply the most monstrous means to put an end to the Armenian nation and its cause."
The future genious has been imbued with ideas of liberation since his juvenile years. Otherwise what would have made a 15-year old youngster to write the following lines:
Why are you sad,
My poor Armenia.
Why are you sorrowful,
My beloved mother,
With broken heart
My mother Armenia.
Toumanian chose to link himself inalienably with the fate of his people with all his heart and soul. The heights of his creative work coincided with comparatively favorable periods of the life of the Armenian nation. However, unfortunately, such happy periods were very few during the life of the great poet. As a tragic impact of the Russian revolution of 1905-1907, Armenian-Turkish collisions happened. This was the first but not at all the last time when the Poet and the freedom fighter embarked upon the sacred duty of alleviating his people’s fate. He substituted his pen with a white flag with the mission of putting an end to bloody confrontations. In 1914, as the World War I flared up, Armenian people faced yet more atrocious and horrendous times. In those days Toumanian was in Dzavegh with his family and friends. He immediatly returned to Tiflis and joined the Relief Committee of War Victims which was established in October of 1914, to continue his service to his Motherland.

Being bound to his people with all delicate fibers of his soul, the Poet became one of the those exceptional prophets who foretold the inevitably tragic page of history that was to befall Armenians – the genocide of Armenians by the Ottoman Turkey in 1915. Physically and morally sick, Toumanian together with his daughter Nvard immediately left for Echmiadzin as soon as the first news about the massacres reached Tiflis, to help in take care of the refugees. Toumanian described the nightmare of those days: “It was a refuge where children who narrowly escaped death and starvation were collected… A forest of thousands of boney arms and hands of mothers... Countless skeletons of still breathing children pushed forward…” Even today, it is tremendously difficult to imagine what was going on there those days. And what were the feelings of the Poet? There is a famous photo that is demonstrated in the Toumanian Museum – “Toumanian and his daughter Nvard with orphans in Echmiadzin, 1915”. On this picture, the Poet is only forty-six but looks like a very old man.
Without losing time, Toumanian engages in providing shelter, food and care to the orphans. He organizes the operation of five hospitals with five hundred beds, and an orphanage for three thousand children. Many of the children called him “Hayrik”- Father. Toumanian wrote: “Many children have so much used to me that even after having meal, even after being clad and sheltered would cling on me saying -‘Father, I am an orphan, I have no Mom and Dad’. When we would tell them that they would be given new clothes, some of them would step forward and ask –‘Father, I want a red dress….’”
The memories of Vahan Totovents are very exciting- “Toumanian was running from one place to the other, form one tent to another, form one dying person to the other. He was ordering, shouting, cursing, reproaching, smiling, caressing. One day, under heavy rain, he ran and vigorously opened the gates of the newly constructed residence of the Catholicos which had been untouched before then. Refugees flooded in. Infuriated Catholicos scolded the Poet – ‘How dare you, I am the Catholicos of all Armenians’…to which, Toumanian answered, – ‘And I am the Poet of All Armenians’”. This is the greatest evaluation that Toumanian unconsciously gave to himself.
Toumanian recalls Armenian women with great respect and gratitude who, in those nightmarish days, had selflessly engaged themselves in tending the orphans. “…I remember the long rows of children’s boney bodies, when ladies and maidens would sit them for feeding. They were like angels in their white gowns, pale and sorrowful from pain and stifling smells.”
Toumanian’s daughter Nvard was among those angels who worked unselfishly to save people ignoring all dangers that threatened her (many nurses became victims of diseases that raged among the refugees). She wrote to her brother Artik: ‘Father and I are getting ready to go to Yerevan. We are moving 125 orphans there, forty-three of them are infants, and there is no one to take care of them. Refugees are already settling but the number of orphans is increasing. The seminary is turned into a hospital. Father is pleased and very tired. But he cannot leave the work half done.’
The children of the Poet-Patriot were as devoted to their Motherland as their Father. His elder son Mushegh signaled from Igdir, where military operations were taking place. In one of his letters he wrote that Kazaks were distributing Armenian kids among themselves and that it was a common thing. He wrote with great pain – “…Children are being adopted and russified. Armenians face a new type of robbery – robbery of children.”
Toumanian and his daughter Nvard remained in the hell of Echmiadzin for two months. He was dissatisfied with the clergy and various committees who failed to organize work expediently to help refugees: therefore he tried to fully take up that difficult task. We can judge the gravity of the situation of those days form notes taken by Leo: ‘Hovhannes Toumanian was amidst that hell, and thanks God, he did not go mad.”
The Poet of All Armenians did not have the right to go mad. One day he would lightheartedly state – ‘I recall the happy day when for the first time the supervisors complained that children have become naughty and it has become difficult to manage them. Some would sing joyously in groups, joke, shout and laugh merrily. Our eyes filled with tears of happiness.’