BY HARRY BOGHOSSIAN
I have had the good fortune to be friends with a remarkable woman by the name of Elibet Kuenzler Marshall. She was born on June 19, 1917 in Urfa, Turkey. She is the daughter of Dr. Jacob Kuenzler.
Dr. Kuenzler reminds me of Oskar Schindler, who saved almost 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust. Dr. Kuenzler did his best to save 8,000 Armenian orphans during the Armenian genocide from the regions of Urfa, Mardin, Diyarbakir, Harput, Kemaliyeh, Arabkir, and Malatya.
Dr. Kuenzler was, a Swiss doctor who wrote the book: “In the Land of Blood and Tears.” Jacob Kuenzler’s book chronicled the 23 years of his life as a medical technician in Turkey (1899-1922). He was stationed at a Swiss hospital in Urfa, where the Armenian Christian population lived and serviced the sick, wounded, and orphans, much like what is now called Doctors Without Borders.
When Dr. Kuenzler and his wife Elizabeth evacuated the orphans from Turkey to Lebanon and Syria, he said: “It was such a joy for us that we consider it one of the most beautiful phases of our lives.” My grandmother Santoukht was an orphan in Turkey at that time. She was ten years old and lost her family during the Armenian genocide. It is very possible that she was one of the ones Dr. Jacob saved.
I met Jacob Kuenzler’s daughter, Elizabeth and his granddaughter Pat Marshall, in my local Armenian church in San Diego. They were there for a presentation by Ara Ghazarians, who wrote the preface and edited the English translation of Jacob Kuenzler’s book.
In April 2010, Elibet invited me to her house. I was very interested in hearing her stories about her father. She said “I remember being 2 years old and playing with the orphans at my father’s mission orphanage. They were like brothers and sisters to me.”
I asked how she was related to Jacob Kuenzler. Here is what she said: “I am the youngest of his children. We were one boy and four sisters and we had an Armenian adopted sister, Rosa, she was adopted before we were born.”
In those days, orphans and children who couldn’t be cared for in the village were usually taken to the church. My parents had an Armenian maid working in their house, and she was at church one day when they were looking for homes for some of these children. The minister was asking the congregation- who will take this child, who will take that one- and they were all taken, except for one child, who had dirty, lice-infested hair, and infected eyes. She was just wearing a shirt. She was about 4 years old. And our maid said “We’ll take her, we’ll take her!” and the minister said “How can you take care of this girl?” And she ran back home to my parents and said “there is this child who’s alone no one wants her she is going to be put into the street.” So my parents went to the minister. My mother was expecting her first child at the time. And they saw this child and they said immediately “of course we’ll take her!” And they took her home and cleaned her up and made her healthy and she became my oldest sister Rosa.
Shortly afterward, my mother had her first child, who was a boy. When I was born I was the youngest.
My parents had both been orphans and had always wanted to have a family and take care of them. (See her mother in the picture with the orphans)
“My parents organized and carried out the evacuation of about 8,000 Armenian orphans from Turkey to Syria and Lebanon. Have you read the book? They walked these children hundreds by hundreds. Each child carried their own blanket. They would have dry food for lunch. They had to go through many checkpoints, and the Kurds tried to stop them at times, saying “we can use one of these orphans,” but Jacob said “They are not mine, I’m just transporting them; here is the list of the people.” He had the name of each child on the list. One by one they were counted. Then they continued with the journey.
Each day, my mother would travel ahead of the group and cook enough bread, at the shelter, and my father would come with a hundred children and they would have their daily soup for supper. The next morning, they would have a cup of milk and bread, and they would be given a dried fruit. And they would continue the journey. My mother would rush ahead and do the same every day until they got to the Lebanon border. They found an old monastery up in Ghazir and we used it as an orphanage. It was above the Mediterranean.
My parents cared about the welfare of all the orphans. If there was a child that wasn’t doing well, the child was brought into our family, into our house. And they would live with us for a bit, and then when they recovered, they were sent back to the orphanage which was really a school, because they learned to read and write.
As these children grew up they were instructed to teach each other. My mother knew they couldn’t stay at the orphanage forever, so she taught them trades: housekeeping, sewing, cooking, nanny, shoemaking and knotting carpets. The children were all smart, and many had learned some kind of trade in their homes before the war. One day my mother said these children have such a talent for making carpets. Let’s open a rug factory. Jacob Kuenzler established a rug factory in Lebanon for the orphanage.
“The Armenian orphan girls made a huge rug for the president of the United States. The rug was delivered to the U.S. President Calvin Coolidge on December 4, 1925, with a label on the back of the rug, which reads “In Golden Rule Gratitude to President Coolige.” It was displayed for a time in the White House, where it was a daily symbol of good-will on earth.
See (below) the rug on the floor in my living room? That’s a replica of it; a smaller version.
On March 22, 2014 Elibet, her daughter Polly and I recorded the rug in her living room. Elibet said: “this carpet was made by all those Armenian orphans who worked for my father in Lebanon.” Polly said: “when we were kids, we would sit down on the carpet and look at all the animals and played on the rug.”
In May 19, 2014 I was scheduled to see Congressman Adam Schiff in Washington, D.C. Unfortunately, he was not in his office. I met Timothy Bergreen his Chief of Staff. I showed him the DVD we recorded Elibet’s rug, the Jakob Kunzler’s book “In the land of blood and tears,” and I made a picture of Elibet and me. Timothy is holding the picture in his right handI said to him: “please give these items to Congressman Adam Schiff and we hope to see the official Armenian Orphan Rug. In November 2014, the Armenian Orphan Rug was displayed at the White House Visiting Center.
The American Near Eastern Relief organization funded the orphanage, and that came in handy because the Germans, French and Danes who were giving money to run these programs, had run out of money, so the American Near Eastern Relief came in and saved the whole thing.
My parents also arranged Armenian weddings. People in America, or other countries would write and say ‘we need a nice girl for our son. Do you have somebody’? And they would say “yes we have several” and they would say please “pick a girl for our boy.” Mama would say “we cannot send a girl to you; they have to be married first before they can go with you.” But often the boy couldn’t come, because they couldn’t afford it. And they would send a photograph. You know, in Armenian weddings, you tie the couple’s heads together. It’s wonderful to watch that. My parents were so happy when a letter would come ten or so years later that was addressed to Papa Kuenzler, Beirut, Lebanon. And the postmaster knew who he was, and papa would get the letter thanking him for sending this wonderful girl to their family who gave them children, and was a wonderful wife. So that happened several times. Some went to South America; some went to the United States. There were also children adopted by Europeans in Germany and France. I played with these children they were my friends.
There is a picture of my father, in Beirut, with the orphan boys. It is my favorite picture. It’s in Auntie Ida’s book “Papa Kuenzler and the Armenians” by Ida Alamuddin. He loved children. They were always climbing all over him. The kids just loved him, he always was there and took care of them. And they played with him, because he said “I was an orphan when I was seven.” He loved children.
Elibet Kuenzler Marshall was an amazing woman. She loved gardening, swimming, doing puzzles, and going to the beach. She loved the roses I brought to her, every month. I made hummus for her, and she used to dip her finger in it and put it in her mouth. She offered me tea to drink with her. We celebrated her 95th birthday. We made birthday cake for her and surprised her with gifts. We sat down and listened to her stories, about her father’s mission – things we had never experienced in our lives. She also, read my article I testified in front of the chair members in the State Capitol of California. The Genocide Awareness Act SB 234 by Senator Wyland.
When Jacob Kunenzler died on January 15, 1949 in Ghazir, Lebanon, he became known as the Father of the Armenian Orphans. He was a wonderful man who would give to others and expect nothing in return. While he was in Turkey he lived with the Armenians for 20 years and witnessed how the Armenians were treated, between 1895-1923. Armenian men, women, and children underwent unspeakable suffering. They were deported from their homes, slaughtered, butchered, enslaved, and more, without consideration of guilt or innocence. Among them were my grandparents.
Dr. Kuenzler risked his life and his family to save thousands of wounded and sick people. He gave love to those thousands of people who suffered immeasurably. He advanced God’s work. He did not try to convert people. He let them be who they were. I will never forget the unparalleled miracles and good works he blessed us with. He was one in a million. We all need to be reminded of this amazing man, his family and all they accomplished to save 8,000 lives.
On April 17, 2017, Elibet’s daughter Polly called me to let me know Elibet had passed away the previous day on April 16, 2017, Easter Sunday.
Before she passed away, I visit her several times at her house. She recognized me, and we talked for few minutes. Then I caressed her hand. She took hold of both of my hands and said “you are so sweet to me. I don’t know why?” Over and over she said that to me. Then she lifted my hands and kissed them, first the left and then the right. She said “I love you,” and I said I love you too. She held my hands tightly for a long time. After approximately 20 minutes I said I have to go now. But she did not want to let go of my hands; she kept holding on. Vicky, the nurse was next to us and I asked her to help me to release my hands. I said “I will come back soon and we will have tea together.” She said “Yes, that will be good.” I said “I will see you in the next week or two. “
This was a special moment for us knowing we will not have many more times together. A precious last moment of love. Because it may not happen again.
It is impossible to ignore her unprecedented story that will live in our hearts forever.