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Along Armenian Footsteps in Serbia

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.

What remains of the Armenian cemetary in Kalemegdan. (photo by Bedo Demirdjian)

What remains of the Armenian cemetery in Kalemegdan. (Photo by Bedo Demirdjian)

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.

A candle lit in memory of the Tehlirians and the Der Ghazarians at the cemetary in Valjevo. (Photo by Bedo Demirdjian)

A candle lit in memory of the Tehlirians and the Der Ghazarians at the cemetery in Valjevo. (Photo by Bedo Demirdjian)

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.

The author (L) with Zaven Der Ghazarian.

The author (L) with Zaven Der Ghazarian.

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.

Tombstone in memory of the Tehlirians and the Der Ghazarians. (Photo by Bedo Demirdjian)

Tombstone in memory of the Tehlirians and the Der Ghazarians. (Photo by Bedo Demirdjian)

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.

13 Comments on Along Armenian Footsteps in Serbia

  1. avatar Alis Abroyian // July 8, 2009 at 1:55 pm // Reply

    This could be the beginning for a modern pilgrimage. Keep up the good work!

  2. Sireli Bedo,

    Talaat-in yev miousneroun badjveloun hamar, artiok bedk e kordzadzenk assasination-i pokharen, nemesis execution vorbeszi kaghakagan pnouyt sdana.

    Hotvtatze hedajrjragan er. Zaven-e yen Kohar-e ge tchanan nayev tseghasbanoutian hartsov zpaghil.

    Parevnerov

    Kasbar

  3. avatar Eky Ternamian // July 9, 2009 at 12:58 am // Reply

    Dear Kasbar,
    What a pleasant surprise to read someone writing about my historical roots. I too was born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia and my father Hovsep Davitjan and his family were good friends of the Tehlirian Family. Two years ago when our parish priest Hyr. Meghrig Parikian  created and directed a charity Musical in Commemoration of  our  May 28th Independance Day  we invited as our honored guests  Zaven and his lovely wife Suzanne Melikian to attend and reunite Zaven with his child hood friend my father Hovsep Davitjan, it was truly a memorable weekend. They both had tears in their eyes when they hugged. The brilliant  musical play depicts the assasination of Talat Pasha by our Soghomon. At the end of the DVD  which you can purchase from our St. Mary’s Armenian Apostolic Church Toronto web site there is an interview with Mr. Zaven Melikian which I’m sure those interested would like to see. Thank you again for the memories, as I remember my father mention many times the Kalemegdan Park , Zemoon, Sava, Markovich, coffee business…………

  4. avatar Aslamazyan A.K // July 9, 2009 at 5:31 pm // Reply

    Kecce Hayerd, vor patmutyun# chmarit ver eq hanum: petq e mtnel ashxarhi banuk sayteri mej u grel (hachax) pastaci patmutyun# i lur ashxarhin:
    Kecce Wuiclin Armenian:

  5. Hi Bedo,
    Very interesting article. Keep up the good work. See you soon.
    ari

  6. You are mentioning Battle of Kosovo happened in the year 1212. The actual date is 15. 06. 1389 in julian calendar, or in gregorian 28.06.1389. 
    Battle of Kosovo is very important day of serbian history and the date is engraved in our hearts and minds. You can compare this date to the date when armenian genocide started. Those who understand the importance of this battle to serbian nation, will understand why are we making this much noise about todays situation in Kosovo, which we consider as a cradle of nation.

    In the battle Armenians came with turkish army as vazals, but when they have seen the ortodox crosses on our flags,they flee to our side. The rest of armenians that survived this battle went to woods around city Sokobanja and build monastery which is called Jermencic (little armenian), which stand till now days.

    But you were very right telling that armenians first came in touch with Serbia around beggining of 13 century. Sveti Sava (Saint Sava) is a name of the men who decline his right to trone as the oldest son, to became the first archbishop of Serbia, builder of many monasteries and schools. He is among our biggest saints.
    In the year 1218 he went to Armenia. He was charmed with the beauty of armenian monasteries so much, that he did bring armenian builders to Serbia where  they build monastery Vitovnica. In the wall of the monastery there is a text in stone made half in serbian,half in armenian.
    For all my armenian brothers
    Ivan

  7. avatar Raffi Boyadjian // July 25, 2009 at 3:40 am // Reply

    Hi bedo it’s Raffi Gacia’s brother, nice article, goodluck with your job.

  8. avatar Andreea Araxi Sarchisian // August 2, 2009 at 5:41 am // Reply

    Dear Bedo:
    I was forwarded the Armenian Weekly link by a relative in New York (from the Tehlirian lineage).   I was astonished at your article.  Bravo!  My mother is a Der Ghazarian.  From your article, Rostom is my mother’s cousin.  A year ago, I found his sister who lives in Valjevo and also contacted Soghomon’s son Vasken who is in Serbia.   I grew up with pictures and stories about them.    I would like to receive more information about your visit. 

     I visited Kemah’s Vari Pakarij village near Erzngan in April 2006  where Der Ghazarians and Tehlirian’s were born. Through the family tree, we found that the Der Ghazarian’s and Tehlirian’s were really the same blood family who took on different last names due to destiny like reason’s.   I saw the remains of the Armenian Church, came home with soil and have since kept touch with one of Soghomon’s sons Zaven who lives in California.  I will be happy if you can contact me so that we can complete this beautiful journey you have been on.

    Shad Shnorhagal Em,

    AA Sarchisian

  9. avatar krikor berberian // October 22, 2009 at 4:15 pm // Reply

    gouzeyi aytselel serbian paits ge medadzeyi yete bidi garenam poker hayasdanme shinel im harazad haeroves  pavaganer ge pendreyi hayer yev cheyi kednar paits vertchabes ke yev at houysovem vor bidi hantebim hayoume vor gertsken verej ge hosi  ourakh menank hay menank mayr lezoun chi moranank

  10. I like the Serbs, they are great people. Unfortunately their government kisses NATO’s behinds – the same NATO that bombed Belgrade – and betrays their people. Boris Tadic is a scumbag.

  11. avatar zaven der hazarian // June 26, 2010 at 12:00 pm // Reply

    Sireli Hayrenagicner,
    Take my regards from Valjevo, Serbia.
    Sirov,
    Zaven

  12. The hatred for Turks sticks two nations like a cement huh :-)

  13. avatar Branko The Great Serb // December 8, 2011 at 3:33 am // Reply

    Armenian-Serbian brotherhood forever.On the Balkan we Serbs pay the price in blood,because we are proud orthodox and during 1991-1995 end even today we fight with
    islam and mujahedins in Bosnia (Republika Srpska) an on our holy land Kosovo and Metohija.Dear Armenian brothers we will never give up.
    For all my Armenian brothers.
    VIVA ORTHODOXIA

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