A Schindler for the Armenians

An Ottoman naval officer refused to take part in the genocide a century ago

A Schindler for the Armenians
In Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, a torchlight procession takes place in April 2019 to commemorate the 1915 genocide / Karen Minasyan / AFP via Getty Images

I believe that it was really due to Lorenzo that I am alive today; and not so much for his material aid, as for his having constantly reminded me by his presence, by his natural and plain manner of being good, that there still existed a just world outside our own, something and someone still pure and whole, not corrupt, not savage, extraneous to hatred and terror; something difficult to define, a remote possibility of good, but for which it was worth surviving.

These are the words of Primo Levi from his book “If This is a Man (published in the U.S. as Survival in Auschwitz).” A Holocaust survivor who was sent to Auschwitz in 1944, Levi was speaking of Lorenzo Perrone, whom he called his rescuer.

The American director Steven Spielberg brought this story to life through Oskar Schindler, a businessperson and member of the National Socialist Party who sought to rescue the Jews he hired at the factory he owned during the Holocaust. A significant niche within Holocaust literature details the actions of non-Jews who endangered their own lives to rescue Jews.

While the literature may be less extensive, the era that encompasses the 1915-17 Armenian genocide brims with tales of Muslim Kurds, Arabs and Turks who protected and saved Armenians and put their own lives in danger by hiding them in their homes until nearly the end of World War I.

These individuals took vital risks by ignoring the declaration from the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), then the ruling Ottoman government, that Muslim “homeowners who have hidden and protected Armenians in violation of government decisions be executed in front of their residence and their houses burned.”

Ottoman naval Lt. Cemil Bahri Kunneh was one individual who resisted this order from the CUP, saving approximately 2,000 Armenians from certain death.

Kunneh was born in Aleppo in 1892. His father was from the village of Kurdan in Jendires, a Kurdish settlement unit that is part of the Afrin region located in the northwest of the Syrian province. His mother, Emine Ali, was from Hopka, a village connected to the Rajo region. Kunneh was 4 when his father died, and his mother raised him by herself.

He enrolled in the Naval Military Academy (Mekteb-i Bahriye) in Istanbul in early 1906 and graduated as a mechanical mülazımevvel (lieutenant) from the academy in 1910. This was where he obtained the title of bahri (marine). That same year, Kunneh enrolled in the Law School at the Darülfünun (present-day Istanbul University). He studied there for a year but later quit his law education and went to England to gain expertise in mechanics at the John Thornycroft motor factory in Basingstoke. In 1912, with the outbreak of the Balkan Wars, Kunneh was enlisted in the Ottoman Army and rewarded for his bravery in the battle.

Kunneh was assigned to Birecik, part of Urfa, in the Great War as the Armenian deportation and genocide ensued. Here, he served as the manager of a maritime workshop, building military transport vessels for Turkish troops on the Euphrates River. He executed his duty under the command of the Ottoman Seventh Army. Birecik contained one shipyard that belonged to the Ottoman state, and Kunneh managed a sizable ship construction sector established there during WWI.

He assisted as many Armenians avoid deportation as he could. Some were en route to their deaths in the Syrian desert (they had to cross the Euphrates River along with Turkish military convoys traveling to Syria and Palestine) when Kunneh signed them up to work as laborers and craftsmen in the shipyard. Here, they found salvation working in the blacksmith’s section of the yard, working the bellows in the workshop, operating as stonemasons, painters and clothiers.

Deportees from the largely Armenian city of Aintab were able to set up tents along the river with their families and were saved. Kunneh also ensured the distribution of food, clothing and medication procured from the Red Crescent and Red Cross. Fugitive Armenian soldiers, women sold at slave markets, the elderly and orphans were also among those he helped.

Hagop Muradian was a key Armenian figure whom Kunneh rescued. Born in 1872, Muradian was a famous photographer in Aintab who dedicated himself to community work in the city. During the genocide, Muradian was in Birecik, where he found work as a carpenter at the Ship Construction Workshop with Kunneh and was thus spared deportation to Deir ez-Zor. Muradian went to Aleppo immediately after the Armistice in late 1918. He assumed the representation of the Armenian National Union Protestant Congregation there and became one of its founding members.

Kunneh’s marriage to Dikranuhi Gullizian was a critical factor behind his efforts to protect Armenians. Both Dikranuki’s father, a prominent clergyman in the Aintab Armenian community, and sister were victims of the genocide. Kunneh met Dikranuhi at the start of the genocide when deportations were underway. She was fleeing with her mother and younger sister first to Cerablus (now named Karkamış) and eventually ended up in Birecik. Dikranuhi encouraged Kunneh to hire numerous Aintab Armenians, including Hagop Muradian, at the workshop in Birecik.

After World War I, and with the consent of her husband, Dikranuhi settled in Aleppo, where she stayed for the rest of her life. Kunneh and Dikranuhi had four children to whom they gave both Arabic and Armenian names: Bahri (Antranig), Maazaz (Anahid), Meziet (Diana) and Nader (Noubar).

Kunneh’s actions during the genocide still left him at risk following the end of the war. His position in the army suggested he was a rule-following member of CUP (the Unionists) and therefore complicit in the persecution of Armenians. On May 24, 1915, the Entente (Britain, France and Russia) issued a declaration “promising to hold Ottoman leaders and officials accountable for atrocities against Christians.” Immediately after the war, an earnest hunt for Unionists began in Istanbul. Those identified as being involved in the atrocities against Armenians were arrested and then tried before the military courts (Divan-ı Harbi Örfi). A sizable portion of these individuals later faced exile to Malta.

Aware of this and grateful to Kunneh for saving their lives, a number of Armenians wrote a letter aimed at protecting him from arrest by explaining how Kunneh defied orders from the Ottoman government and helped not only Armenians but also British and Russian soldiers. The letter was sent to the Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul and to Patriarch Zaven Der Yeghian, requesting that it be forwarded to the occupying British and French forces in Istanbul at the time.

Kunneh was a conscientious, anti-Unionist, Ottoman military officer who used the power and authority he derived from his position to save Armenians from being sent to camps in Meskene, Ras ul-Ayn and Deir ez-Zor. He was also taking advantage of their labor, making rational decisions as a military bureaucrat.

The Armenian genocide was a mass violence event committed by a wide-ranging group of perpetrators. The individuals who were involved in this atrocity did so in line with their own decisions, and regardless of the circumstances, they hold individual responsibility. Alleging that this mass violence was carried out only by a group headed by Talat Pasha, the head of central government and the chief architect of the genocide, and the CUP would disregard the aggregate dimension of the genocide and the individual responsibilities of those who partook of their own free will. To execute mass violence on such a scale, the CUP needed an effective organizational capacity on multiple levels — psychological, ideological, economic, social, military — and cadres to carry it out. For this, the CUP relied on the support and consent of local elites.

Kunneh chose to not participate in this collective crime and not share complicity. He resisted group pressure, fear of ostracization, and the imperative to obey authority and the orders of his superiors. Kunneh was fundamentally motivated by his belief in humanity and his endless love for Dikranuhi. His Kurdish Arab ethnic background also likely played a pivotal role in his efforts to rescue the Armenians under his jurisdiction. Historically, Ottoman Kurds and Arabs were oppressed and treated unequally by the central authorities within the empire vis-a-vis Turkish people in numerous eastern, southeastern and Arab provinces. This created a sense of sympathy and empathy among these two ethnic groups toward Armenians. Kunneh was affected by that.

Kunneh died in Aleppo on May 25, 1967. He was survived by Dikranuhi, who died at the age of 93 on June 15, 1986. Dikranuhi was among the last of the Armenian women who married Arabs and started families during the Armenian genocide and massacres in Aleppo, which may have saved them from deportation and almost certain death in on of the concentration camps at Deir ez-Zor, Meskene, Rakka and Ras ul-Ayn. Many did not end their marriages after the war and continued on with their lives as Christians without pressure from their husbands. Although the Armenian community accepted these women, it wasn’t always wholehearted; they were given particular names — not pejorative ones — among the Armenian community.

Despite Kunneh’s extraordinary hope and courage to rescue Armenians during the genocide, for which Dikranuhi played no small part, the Turkish government and society has ignored their contribution to humanity and instead insists that the Armenian genocide is farcical. There are no books about Kunneh’s persona and his deeds, no films, no television series. Posthumuously honoring Kunneh and those Turks, Kurds, Arabs and Armenians who rescued those from genocide is fundamental to erasing a fixed notion of Turkish identity and deserves a place in Armenians’ collective memory.

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