The Armenian Cultural Foundation’s recent publication, President Calvin Coolidge and the Armenian Orphan Rug, sheds light on a little-known piece of American history. It also currently stands at the center of a political debate surrounding the White House’s refusal to release the rug featured in the book for an exhibit and book launch at the Smithsonian. However, for the book’s author, Dr. Hagop Martin Deranian, the work represents another chapter in a son’s lifelong journey to honor the memory of his mother and her battle to survive the Armenian Genocide.
At age 91, Deranian has seen much of the world and has accomplished much, too. He is a renowned dentist and has served on the faculty of Tufts University School of Dentistry. Deranian has written multiple books on Armenian subjects, including Worcester Is America, the Story of Worcester’s Armenians and Miracle Man on the Western Front: Dr. Varaztad H. Kazanjian, Pioneer Plastic Surgeon.
"'The Armenian Mirror Spectator," November 24, 2013
In 1929, his mother, Varter Bogigian Deranian, 44, died while visiting relatives in Providence. “I was 6-years-old when she died. I have spent the rest of my life in an attempt to accurately trace her story,” he said.
The younger Deranian was born in 1922 and grew up in Worcester. He attended Clark University in 1941, a few weeks before Pearl Harbor and served in the US Navy. He recalled taking an interest in Armenian history early on. “I wrote my first term paper on the Armenians. I didn’t get a good grade on it,” he chuckled, “but it tempted my imagination from there.”
Varter Bogigian Deranian was born in 1885 in the village of Husenik. Her father, Bedros Bogigian, had worked for five years in the mills of Worcester, the city Deranian would one day call home. Her uncle, Hagop Bogigian, a subject of Deranian’s continued research, emigrated to the US, becoming a successful businessman and later benefactor of women’s education, thus further helping establish ties with Massachusetts.
Martin Deranian has painstakingly rewoven the memories of his mother’s life from family stories, historical research and physical artifacts, such as his mother’s simple gold wedding band engraved with the date of her marriage as a young woman to Mugrditch Nazarian, representing her life prior to the Genocide.
When she began her married life as Varter Nazarian, she had the promise of a young family and a bright future. However, beginning in 1915, all that changed when Mugrditch Nazarian was dragged from his home one day, never to be seen by his young wife again. From there, the all-too-familiar story of Varter Nazarian’s Genocide survival began as she faced the deportation march with her children.
Joyce Van Dyke’s acclaimed play, “Deported: A Dream Play,” documents the journey of Varter Nazarian and her close friend, Elmas Boyajian, Van Dyke’s grandmother. During the arduous march, the two friends faced unimaginable pain, losing a total of nine children. Varter Nazarian reached Urfa, having lost six children.
While there, Swiss missionary Jakob Künzler, one of the central figures in the Armenian Orphan Rug, known as the “Father of Armenian Orphans,” assisted her to reach Aleppo and to safety. Along with his wife, Künzler helped to shelter more than 1,400 orphan girls at the Ghazir orphanage administered by Near East Relief. In response to desperate need in 1915, Near East Relief, a newly established US humanitarian organization, dedicated its resources to saving more than 1 million refugees, raising funds and organizing a group of American medical personnel, civil servants and various other volunteers to aid those in need. The book notes the importance of this connection: “It is this link with Künzler, never forgotten, that drove [Martin Deranian] to write about this story of the Near East Relief, the Ghazir Armenian orphan weavers and President Coolidge.”
“That story has captured my interest and I’ve devoted myself to whatever I can to tell that story,” Deranian said.
Martin Deranian first heard the story of the Armenian Orphan Rug from Alice Jernazian Haig, the daughter of Rev. Ephraim and Marie Jernazian, who had forged a strong bond with his mother during the Genocide.
Alice Haig began her journey to find the rug in 1973. She located it at the home of Calvin Coolidge’s son, John Coolidge, in Connecticut. She urged Deranian to continue the research she had begun and he, indeed, spent decades doing just that. “The relief effort in the wake of the Genocide intrigued me and captivated my spirit. Coolidge has often been viewed as an austere figure, and yet, I learned he was actually quite a sentimental, warm man,” explained Deranian.
Coolidge personally received some of the weavers at the White House and hosted them, Deranian added.
During the Armenian Rugs Symposium of 1982 in New York, Deranian first shared the story with the public when he delivered a paper titled “Calvin Coolidge and the Armenian Orphan Rug.” That paper was later printed in the Congressional Record during the 1984 proceedings of the US Senate. Later that same year, the rug was temporarily unearthed from storage for a viewing at the White House with Sen. Carl Levin, former US Ambassador to the United Nations Set C. Momjian and Deranian himself. Deranian recalled his own experience touching the rug.
“It was like touching heritage,” Deranian recalled.
The orphans wove more than 3,000 rugs. Two of the orphans set up their own business in Philadelphia years later. After much searching, Deranian purchased one of these rugs as his own piece of this little known chapter of history.
In 1995, the White House hosted another viewing of the rug, this time for Vartoohi (Hovsepian) Gulezian, one of the orphan weavers and one of the two girls brought to America.
Deranian continued his work and with the help of the Armenian Cultural Foundation and guidance of its curator, Ara Ghazarians, the book became a reality. “They helped me refine and bring it to fruition,” said Deranian. “They played such an important role.”
The release of the Armenian Orphan Rug prompted several cultural events, the culmination of which was scheduled for December 16, an event at the Smithsonian which they hoped would include the rug itself. In early September, the Smithsonian announced that the White House had declined to lend the rug out, thus prompting the cancellation of the event. Many have voiced their disappointment with decision to withhold the rug and by default, continue the denial of the Armenian Genocide.
Along with US Ambassador to Armenia John Heffern, several congressmen reached out to the White House asking for a reversal of its position. The common theory among various segments of the Armenian community, and alluded to in a recent Washington Post article and NPR report, is that the White House’s denial represents a cautious approach in order not to offend ally Turkey. The rug’s creation clearly references the provenance of the weavers and their status as orphans due to to the Genocide, a reference the Obama administration has steered clear of since his election.
For Deranian, this development has been met with disappointment. “I think it is a very unfortunate stance. I see this as a story of America’s compassion. This [stance] hides that story of America’s heroic Near East Relief efforts,” said Deranian.
It’s not just about remembering tragedy, but for Deranian, the story of the rug represents hope. “Approaching the centennial [of the Genocide], I wanted to show this nation’s goodwill and the altruistic response of America — an extreme humanitarian act. Many people died serving in attempts to save these children.”
"'The Armenian Mirror Spectator," November 24, 2013