For me, I would jump at the chance to meet KAREN JEPPE, the Danish missionary, trail blazer, and extraordinary business leader who devoted her life to rescuing and empowering the women and children who survived the Armenian Genocide. Since I started studying the humanitarian efforts of Karen Jeppe, I have humbly felt a magnetic connection and a kindred spirit with her.
Ms. Jeppe began to answer a calling when she attended a lecture by Gage Meyer Benedictsen detailing the plight and devastating effects of the Ottoman Armenians during and after the Hamidian Massacres in the 1890’s. She and Mr. Benedictsen became friends and advocates for raising money and awareness to help Armenians in their homeland. Ms. Jeppe bravely broke the status quo for women in the early 1900’s with her courageous leadership. Furthermore, Ms. Jeppe left behind her comfortable homeland and traveled to the uncertain dangers in the Armenian homeland where she was needed.
Through the support of the “Danish Friends of Armenians”, her innovative vision and program for self-sufficiency took shape with a modern education curriculum combined with hands-on training in skilled trades. Fast forward to 1921, Ms. Jeppe was appointed the “League of Nations Commissioner for the Protection of Women and Girls in the Near East” and started the Rescue Home in Aleppo, Syria.
I am closing my eyes to envision this encounter and am feeling all my senses coming alive. The aromas of the stuffed grape leaves, pickled vegetables, assorted cheeses, and freshly baked Armenian breads are adding to the excitement. We start by holding hands and saying a prayer of gratitude for the feast we are about to enjoy. We lift our glasses of Oghi, look in each others eyes, exclaim ‘G’nats’ Cheers, as I taste the memory of family gatherings from years ago.
”You have left a strong legacy with named remembrances throughout the globe and a final resting place in the Armenian Orthodox cemetery in Aleppo. You have been called a Protestant saint, pioneer peacemaker, liberation philosopher and beloved mother. And yet, you explicitly stayed away from the designation of being called a missionary. Why?”
“I didn’t want to fall under the stereotyped perceptions by people in power who would underestimate my value and ability to create change. I was blessed to be born as the daughter of a progressive, Danish Christian intellectual who taught me Latin, German, French, Old Norse and English. He prompted me to read books about science, anatomy, history, and math. Rather than being considered a missionary, I dedicated my life to be as a MISSION-DRIVEN LEADER.
“Following the 1915 Armenian Genocide, there were 100,000 destitute survivors in Aleppo alone. Many were women and children who survived the death marches through the Syrian desert and were held in Muslim households and often subjects to slavery and abuse. How could you possibly be prepared for the conditions of Armenians arriving at your doorstep of the Rescue Home?”
“The vast majority of women who arrived suffered the unique trauma of rape and many were traded against their will between multiple men as concubines and wives. Some of the physical wounds were the result of the escape or the tattoos branded by their captors. As you may imagine, every single arrival was traumatized physically and emotionally by the abuse they had endured. Furthermore, most arrivals were suffering from gonorrhea, blinding trachoma, and life-threatening dysentery and typhus. This demanded urgent medical treatment and a higher level of rehabilitation. We also realized the importance of meticulous record-keeping. The arrivals received a medical examination and a chance to briefly tell their story. A photo was taken, and the details of their lives, to the extent they could remember, were recorded into a systematic register. We used this identifying information to track refugees and to help reunite them with relatives searching for them in Aleppo. We reunited women and families as far away as the United States, including Rhode Island and Massachusetts where your family rebuilt their lives!”
At this point, we were both in tears and needed a pause in the conversation. We stretched our legs outdoors to take in fresh air. She held my hand as we strolled through the gardens and talked about our personal lives and loves. The trees swayed in the breeze, birds were noisily chirping, and the buds in the ground were beginning to peep and show colors. It was as if Mother Nature joined our walk, held our hands, and gently reminded us of the miraculous circle of life. It was time to get back to the question I have been uniquely interested in asking.
We cleared the table and reset for a sumptuous feast with mixed aromas from savory roast lamb, buttery rice pilaf, and roasted vegetables. A heavy main course to complement the meat of the conversation.
Me: “You broke traditional roles of women during this era and from my view, accomplished extraordinary results despite gender oppression. You have a talent for business and negotiating that makes me smile every time I read about your success. You have been credited by Henriette “Henni” Forchhammer (1863-1955), a fellow feminist and an influential figure in her own right, with saving the art form of Armenian embroidery from annihilation as a hard-nosed business manager in local and international trade. You were even treated with courteous trust by the Sheiks and Muslim leaders who were known for their role as perpetrators and respected in your position as a League of Nations commissioner. It has been said that only you at that time could possess a level of influence few could have imagined. From where did you find this enormous confidence and knowledge?"
“You are so kind and you also make me smile. From the beginning, I knew that the only solution involved the simultaneous goal of integrating women into the workforce to revive and produce high-quality embroideries and dyed silks to celebrate and sustain Armenian culture and identity. Indeed, it is the handicraft and skills which has always assisted the Armenians to recover every time they are knocked down. And yes, I may have been a hard-nosed business manager to create demand and secure export markets based on a reputation for delivering the finest products. My staff and I worked tirelessly to grow the size of the sewing hall and warehouse while maintaining a standard of excellence using only the best materials and those made to closely match the colors and texture of Armenian originals. The skills training grew even larger with the addition of a tannery and carpentry workshop in later years. We were determined to provide the Armenians with the skills to become self-supporting.
Me: It has been said that you are known as the “Mother of Armenians”. From my view, I see you as the Mother AND Father of Armenians”. Your position allowed you to cross gender norms and socio-cultural boundaries. When Armenian clergy were either killed or in hiding, you assumed the role of a priest and conducted an ecumenical mass and final rites for fallen Armenians. Additionally, as a single woman, you adopted two children from the orphanage, Lucia and Misak, who joined your home and eventually worked at the Rescue Home as part of the Aleppo Family. None of this would have been acceptable for an Armenian woman. How do you feel about being referred to as term of endearment so sacred as the “Mother of Armenians”?
Being called “Mayrig”, Mother, has been one of my greatest privileges. I devoted my life to the calling of Christianity and was blessed and proud to consider having hundreds of people in my family. I hadn’t thought about your reference to a fatherly role model and will need to reflect and pray on that. On one hand, the world has changed and made tremendous progress in the past 100 years or so. On the other hand, there continues to be limiting beliefs that remain unchanged.
We both felt nourished, and our hearts were full. Once again, we took a break and reset the table with sweet desserts and Armenian coffee.
Me: "Would you be able to tell me a story of one of your rescues?"
Ms. Jeppe: "Ahhh. The sweetness of this delicious paklava and boldness of the coffee brings to mind a bittersweet story of Astrig. While gathering water, one of my rescuers met Astrig who was living in a nearby Muslim tent and was soon to be sold in marriage. Through hushed voices, my rescuer was able to get Astrig to agree to escape from the desert to Aleppo. My son, Misak, met her at the agreed upon time and drove off in our car with the Tribe leaders chasing them on horses. Thank God, it was a successful escape and they arrived safely to the Rescue Home. Keep in mind that not all rescues were successful. However, this one had a hopeful ending. Astrig was recognized by a friend visiting the Rescue Home and was ultimately reunited with her mother. Having a Ford car in those times was a privilege and we considered ours as a critical part of our missions. In fact, we lovingly named ours as Anna. Thank you for giving me a moment to recall this comforting memory."
Me: "Before I ask one last question, I want to sincerely thank you for making this dream come true. I am in awe of your resilience, leadership, and Christian faith and want to learn from you. What words of advice would you share to followers like me on how to be a strong mission-driven leader?"
Ms. Jeppe: “Thank you, dear. Be part of something greater than yourself. God has blessed each one of us with an abundance of talents. Don’t waste them, use them to live a purposeful life. When you need a reminder, read and say these words out loud.
“She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come. She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue.” Proverbs 31: 25-26
Back to the original question! If you could have dinner with anyone from history, who would it be? What would you want to ask them? What would you envision eating and where would it take place?
It is important to note that this conversation is a work of fiction based on my research and imagination. It was made possible with excerpts from the following sources of a memoir, research, and published articles.
Bjornlund, M., & Semerdjian, E. (2020). Karen Jeppe (1876 - 1935): "Mother of Armenians". Houshamadyan.
Jeppe, K., & trans. ed. intro. Kauffeldt, J. (2015). Misak: An Armenian Life. London: Gomidas Institute.
Jinks, B. (2014). Karen Jeppe's film: Astrig's story. The Past Under Our Skin.
*Source: Gregoire Takankedjian collection, Valence. This photo, originally in black and white, was digitally colorized using DeOldify and was retouched by Houshamadyan.
**Source: Collection of the Armenian Genocide Museum Institute.