Johannes Ehmann was born in November 20, 1870, in Wurtmberg, Germany. He got pedagogical and psychological education. After 1894-1896 Hamidian massacres of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, a pro-Armenian movement was emerging In Germany the foundation of the German Union of Assistance to Armenia was established (July, 1896). As one of the first representatives of the foundation, teacher Johannes Ehmann, doctor Herle, and agronomist Max Zimmer went to the Ottoman Empire at the end of 1896. At the beginning of 1897 the first German missionaries arrived in Turkey. Teacher Ehmann founded a centre for his missionary activity in Mezre, which was located 5km south-west of Kharberd, and was the administrative centre of Kharberd province in 1878. In 1914, the population of Mezre reached 16,000, half being Armenians.
In Mezre, Ehmann rented two buildings to start his missionary activity. As a skilled pedagogue, Ehmann understood that, in order to communicate with the local population, to recognize the morals and customs of Armenians, it is necessary to learn Armenian. So he started to learn Armenian from Professor Melqon who was a teacher at the Euphrates College, and graduated from the Basel (Switzerland) missionary school.
After the Hamidian massacres, there were many Armenian orphans in the Ottoman Empire, the care and upbringing of which was undertaken by foreign missionaries (American, Swiss, German and more). So, he immediately undertook orphans’ gathering activities. Already in autumn 1898, about 280 children found refuge in the Mezre center, where there were workshops, polyclinics and a pharmacy. The Mezre Centre also included substations in nearby Hussein and Perchench villages (totally 9 buildings). The founders of the Centre were the Ehmann couple. Orphanages were for males and females, and the children were divided into groups, called “families”
. Each family
had it’s “Mother”
, who worked in the orphanage and acted like mother. Ehmann attached great importance to the role of Armenian employees in the education and upbringing of orphans in Armenian way.
In German orphanages great attention was paid to education and upbringing of students. In this regard, Haykazun Aramyan, an employee of the orphanage, recalls:
“There was no need to enforce discipline. Institutions initially adopted a disciplined, healthy and well-founded principle, calling on the students to self-fulfillment and self-control. They were orphans but very honourable people. When they had breaks from classes, they played games, Herr Somer had introduced a football”.
At the initiative of Ehmann, Mezre also had a higher education institution, teaching center. Here, people studied from various corners of the Empire, from Mush, Van, Marash and so on. The male students of the teaching center studied for 4 years, and female students for 2 years. After graduation, they were sent to work at schools chosen by the institution.
Ehmann couple (Johannes Ehmann in 1898 married to Helen Reifkolle: they had four children) was in close relations with Consul of the USA Leslie Davis, Danish missionary Maria Jacobsen, American doctors Herbert and Tacy Atkinson in Kharberd.
Referring to the activities of the German mission in Kharberd, before the First World War, Ehmann writes. “In 1914, when the facility owned six orphanages, two glorious schools, hospitals, ironmongers, shoe, tailor-made shops, and we were waiting for the new activities, horrible things happened, and destroyed everything”.
In 1915, when the Young Turks carried out deportations and massacres of Armenians, Ehmann as a representative of allied country to Turkey had “eye witnessed terrible scenes”. Trying to use Germany's allied relations with Turkey, Ehmann wrote many letters to German Ambassador Wangenheim, then to Hohenloh who replaced him. He aimed to stop the deportations of Armenians.
To save Armenians from exile and death in Kharberd, Ehmann collaborated with US Consul Leslie Davis and a few other foreigners. On July 23, 1915, Ehmann, L. Davis, an Austrian employee at the Bank Ottoman's Pichiotto, presented to valli, asking not to exile and kill a few remaining Armenians.
They also sent telegrams to American, German and Austrian embassies, asking for a motion to suspend the deportation of the Armenians.
Already in the first days of deportation Ehmann Understood, that he had to safe his Armenian students and employees from a possible exile. Taking advantage of his reputation among the local Turkish officials, he was able to prevent the exile of his students. There were cases when father
(this was the students called him) entered prison with his list and saved those who were already arrested. Mariam Yusufyan recalls:
“In the afternoon the warder and father entered with the lists in their hands. They began to read names, and when the list finished the door was opened. It is impossible to describe the yell. Already many people were taken and killed”.
Hovsep Yusufyan who was saved by Ehmann tells:
“Mr. Ehmann made various applications to save his orphans from deportations, because he knew that the deportation meant also death. The applications of Mr. Ehmann were successful. The government issued an order for the orphanage, orphanage office and school teachers not to be deported. After when this order was taken, they prepared the title of the office outside the orphanages and presented them to the Government, and according to this list, papers were put on the Governmental buildings. According to this list, those houses had to be saved from deportations”.
Prepared lists were thoroughly examined by the Turkish police, the authenticity of the names were checked, and only after that, it was confirmed. Speaking about Ehmann’s Armenian activity, one of his students, Pagalyan writes:
“During those years of destruction and extermination, they broke, destroyed, and killed everyone and everything in their hands. Yes, in those days, people were peacemaker, labor-intensive, intelligent and creative people, and only smithereens was left them. Skeletons between life and death or “caravan of ghosts”, where it was still moving from the camps of blood and fire. To save one Armenian from the Turkish slaughter in those terrible days was a heroism and miracle. And Johannes Ehmann, this noble German missionary, saved not only one or ten or twenty, but also secretly more than thousands of Armenian boys and girls and took care of them with an unmistakable dedication. And with dozens of teachers, supervisors craftsmen, and various service providers were saved with them. And it was enough that those people who were saved from fire hunger called him father
and loved him”.
There was a new threat every day in Kharberd, for a few Armenians, who were saved from deportation. Police searched suspicious homes and institutions. Besides, in Kharberd, in the state of slaughter, the situation was getting worse. People were starving and epidemics were spreading. The German orphanage in Mezre became a shelter for the hope and salvation of a small Armenian survivors, and the father was their angel. The survivor of the genocide, Samuel Pashikian, a 12-year-old boy who escaped from deportation, writes many years later:
“Dark as a sword like a swamp in the gardens, I reached Dad's house. I knocked on the door with great tricks. My heart was trembling. I was afraid that he could refuse me. Very soon the door was opened. Herr Ehmann spoke to me. “What do you need my boy?” With gentle voice and tears, I told him. “Father I escaped from deportations, coma to your orphanage that you help me, my mother and brothers were deported to Urfa. My mother told me to come to you as a refugee. Please accept me”. Without any hesitation he answered. “ok my son, you are accepted””.
It has already been mentioned that in the German orphanage, Ehmann had the right to keep only his students and staff, whose names were exposed by the Turkish police in accordance with the pre-made list. Inserting someone outside was endangering the lives of many asylum seekers inside the orphanage. Despite this, Dad risked his own life by hiding others. In this regard, Varduhi Gabrielyan, a survivor of the Armenian Genocide, testifies:
“I am owed to Mr. Ehmann, that I was rescued. I am sure, Mr. Ehmann was a spiritual figure. Whatever he could do to help our nation at his opportunities, he did, despite the harsh command and threat of the government. He was not permitted to interfere in the government's internal affairs”.
During 1915-1918 Ehmann's efforts to grant Armenians asylum and thus save them from death can be considered as a true heroism, because the fearless missionary personally blocked the Turkish police entrance into the orphanage several times. The Danish missionary, Maria Jacobsen, who also worked in Mezre, refered to this in her diary.
In 1916 Russian troops liberated some settlements of Western Armenia. Dersim in the south of Harput, which was controlled by the Kurds who were not subjugated to the Turkish central government, became a way to salvation. That way, Ehmann organized the escape of already adult orphans from Kharberd. One of his pupils tells of this fatal episode of his life:
“On May 6, 1915, we decided to escape to Sasun with some friends. HAYRIK (father in Armenian) provided a special map as a way to explore the roads. In February 2, 1916, my thirteen friends and me, if I am not mistaken, gave three Ottoman golds, sending us to Dersim”.
An eyewitness to the Armenian Genocide, an American physician H. Rigs mentions about Ehmann:
“Johannes Ehmann, the German mission director, was such kind of a man, who During the 20 years, had saved the Armenian people and did everything possible to save Armenians from the massacres. She had about 700 orphans in his orphanage. With the support of the German Ambassador in Constantinople, he succeeded in rescuing deportation and death.”
The Ehmann’s family stayed in Mezre until March 1919. After the ceasefire, they were forced to leave their native territory where they lived for 22 years.
In 1924, Ehmann was the director of the German mission in Bulgaria. The contemporaries suggest that even Hayrik himself continued to keep his Armenian identity. speaking with his own children in the Armenian dialect of Kharberd, he ate Armenian dishes, preserved Armenian traditions.
In 1937 Ehamnn couple returned to Germany, were in 1950 died Helen, Ehmann’s wife.
To summarize pro-Armenian activities of Ehmann with his assessments:
Around 750 orphans were educated as Armenian and his pupils never dared to became Protestant.
He made serious reforms in Kharberd educational system, created a teachers’ department, best team of tutors, deepened English teaching, guided by the Eucrath's American Missionary Program.
He appreciated Armenian customs and morals, making Armenian as the official language of his establishment. Even his children were fluent in Armenian.
He opened workshops for mature male students.
He provided young singers with dowry.
Having perfect knowledge of Armenian, he never tried to learn Turkish.
Gohar Khanumyan, AGMI Researcher.