By Bedo Demirdjian
The first proof of an Armenian presence in Serbia dates back to 1212, at a battle in Kosovo, during which an Armenian battalion fought alongside the Serbian army against that of the Ottoman Empire.
A khatchkar (Armenian cross-stone) lies at the entrance of the Serbian Orthodox “Gabriel Archangel” Church in Zemoon, Belgrade, with two engraved dates: 1212 and 1988. The former is the date of the above mentioned battle, and the latter is in memory of the Serbian pilots who lost their lives in a plane crash as they transported humanitarian aid to Armenia after the 1988 earthquake. (On the occasion of the 20th commemoration of the earthquake, in December 2008, the president of the Republic of Armenia invited the victims’ families to Armenia, in their honor.)
On the old Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empire borders, at the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers in Kalemegdan (which in Turkish means “fortress’s square,” after the fortress on the hill), lies Belgrade’s most beautiful and biggest park, which holds an Armenian cemetery. After the city’s conquest by the Ottomans, both the Armenian and Jewish cemeteries were gradually destroyed. Today, only a few tombstones remain, along with an inscription in Serbian mentioning the existence of an Armenian cemetery there until the 17th century.
After touring Belgrade, it was about time for the long-awaited visit to Valjevo. Approximately 90 kilometers southwest of the capital, one can feel the existence of a lively Armenian history—and presence—which goes back to the 1890’s, is still there, and is directly related to the Tehlirian family’s history.
On the bus, a group of Serbian soldiers were listening to music, and one of the songs was Sirusho’s “Kele-kele,” which the Armenian group performed in Belgrade in May 2008 during the Eurovision contest.
Valjevo, a city of 60,000, lies 185 meters above sea level in the valley of the Kolubara River. The river separates the city into the old and new quarters. In the old city, you can still find the shop and residence of Khatchadour Tehlirian, the father of Soghomon Tehlirian.
Beginning in the 1880’s, the men of Armenia’s Gamakh region traveled to the Balkans for employment. Khatchadour Tehlirian was one of those men. Along with his brothers, Nerses and Asadour, he was a coffee merchant and a member of Valjevo’s trade union. He received the family name Markovich after his father’s first name, Markar.
Soghomon Tehlirian’s first visit to Serbia was in 1913, at the age of 17. He had planned on preparing himself and going to Berlin to pursue a higher education. Yet, his plans soon changed as World War I began, and he went to Tbilisi with his brothers and cousins, and registered in the Armenian voluntary brigades. Years later, he found himself in Berlin with a plan far different—to carry out the ARF’s mission to assassinate the mastermind of the Armenian Genocide, Talaat Pasha.
Until 1915, Soghomon’s family in Erznga (modern day Erzincan) numbered 85 people. After the genocide, his niece, Armenouhie, was the sole survivor. After the Russian army’s entrance to Erznga, the Kurds handed 10-year-old Armenouhie over to the Armenian authorities, as a result of the “one gold coin for each Armenian survivor” policy. The main purpose of this policy was to guarantee the return of the survivors and orphans who had either found refuge in Kurdish families or had been forcefully taken away.
I had the chance to meet and spend the day with Armenouhie’s grandson, Zaven Der Ghazarian, his wife Vesna, and their son, Gabriel.
Zaven is the son of Rosdom, the son of Armenouhie Tehlirian and Mihran Der Ghazarian (who was also a fighter in the Armenian voluntary brigades). Rosdom was a lecturer of economics at the University of Belgrade. Zaven is a doctor and a member of Valjevo’s city council. He named his son Gabriel in honor of Franz Werfel’s hero in the novel The Forty Days of Musa Dagh.
I spoke with Zaven in Western Armenian, a very surprising phenomenon as Zaven is the only Armenian residing in Valjevo, where there is no Armenian school or community.
Zaven has not yet visited Armenia, but said he’d love to do so one day with his family. His father Rosdom had gone to Erznga to see his paternal house and bring a handful of soil back with him to Serbia.
With Zaven, I visited the cemetery plots of the Tehlirian and Der Ghazarian families, and lit a candle in the ever-present memory of Armenouhie, Mihran, and Rosdom, and of Khatchadour, Asadour, and Nerses Tehlirian.
I also went around old Valjevo, and saw the buildings that had once housed Khatchadour Tehlirian’s family and business. Khatchadour was also the founder of the Armenian merchants’ union and had done a tremendous work to preserve his family’s Armenian identity. He passed away in 1941, in Belgrade.
After Talaat’s assassination, in March 15, 1921, Soghomon moved to Serbia and married Anahid Tatigian, also from Erznga. He adopted the family name of Melikian and, like his father, worked in the coffee business until he moved to Fresno. One of Soghomon’s sons, Shahen Melikian, a violinist, resides in Belgrade.
During his days in Serbia, Soghomon was a member of a shooting club, and it is said that he was a very good marksman.
Currently, there is a small Armenian community in Serbia consisting mainly of immigrants from Armenia. They have established the “Armenka” association, through which they run their community affairs. Many thanks to the president of “Armenka,” Kohar Haroutunian-Sekoulich, for helping me to unveil the “Armenian Serbia.”
Translated for the Armenian Weekly by Lala Demirdjian.