Armenians in Bulgaria and Romania
Armenians in Bulgaria and Romania


by Vladimir Rodina

When Prince Alexander decreed the establishment of an Armenian Diocese in 1401 in the eastern provinces of Romania, he was in effect only granting official recognition to an already 300-year-old community presence.

Historical documents and archeological studies of Armenian churches trace back the roots of the community to around 1045 when the first wave of "refugees" arrived in the area after the fall of the Armenian Kingdom of Ani.

They came through Crimea, and according to historians, settled in regions along the Hungarian-Romanian border and some traveled further northeast to Poland.

For decades, they lived with the hope of going back to their homeland. But by the early 1300's the situation had changed. "It seems at some point they gave up on the idea of going back to Ani," says Reverend Hagop Baronian.

According to recorded history, the first Armenian Church in Romania was built in the town of Botoshani in 1350, consolidating the foundation of a community which today is considered to be the oldest in Europe.

With time, more and more Armenians began settling in the region, building churches across modern day Romania and its outlying borders with Hungary.

The majority of the early comers assimilated with the local population, but the Armenian ethnic continuity was maintained through the numerous religious institutions they built across Romania. "Armenians cannot do without their churches, and this pattern of behavior is universal. Once the feeling of permanence sets in, they get together and build a church," Rev. Baronian says. There are 22 Armenian churches in Romania today, built in the 1300's, 1500's, 1600's and 1700's.

The newest is the Church of the Holy Archangels in Bucharest, built on the same site which has served as an Armenian place of worship for the community since 1581.

Several structures have crumbled, including a church built in 1743 by Haroutiun Amira Hovvian, a prominent Armenian from Constantinople. The cornerstone of the church as it stands today was laid on July 24, 1911, and consecrated on September 6, 1915 - the year of the Armenian Genocide in Turkey which triggered a new wave of Armenian "refugees" settling in Romania.

It is the ancestors of this latest wave of "refugees" that constitute the cornerstone of the Armenian community today; a group which spread across more than a dozen Romanian cities such as Bucharest, Constanza, Suceava, Bacau, Gherla, Piteshti, Botoshani and others.

At the height of its development, the Armenian community numbered as much as 70,000, a figure which started shrinking dramatically after World War II. In wave after wave, Armenians left for the United States, many via the Middle East. Most were first generation Armenians, survivors of the Great Genocide, who could not "acclimatize" to the difficult years under communism.

"The Armenians of Romania had been the aristocracy of the Armenian diaspora. The community was full of intellectuals, businessmen and professionals," a Bucharest elder said.

Explanations and sentiments vary on the "exodus" of thousands of Armenians from Romania starting from the 1950's, but all agree that the loss of numbers had a negative effect on the community's natural progression.

"The movement out of Romania was not as a result of an anti-Armenian campaign. On the contrary, we have always enjoyed the respect of local governments," said a Bucharest resident.

The first wave was in 1946 when hundreds of families left Romania voluntarily and re-settled in Armenia like others from Bulgaria, Greece, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and other countries in the region.

But the real blow came after the introduction of communism which, starting 1947, launched a massive and devastating nationalization campaign of private enterprise.

"The Armenians were industrialists, factory owners. The community had many millionaires who lost everything almost overnight," reminisces New Jersey resident George Philibossian.

While himself not a direct "victim of the communist system", Philibossian said his younger brother Artin paid such a high price that it eventually cost him his life.

Philibossian left six months before the communist takeover. "We were in the textile business, but the government nationalized everything. My brother was given a job running a supermarket. I was already in the United States at the time, and we could not even write to each other freely. My brother was jailed, and was ill for a long time. Eventually he made it to America, but in poor health. Although my junior, he died 10 years ago," Philibossian said.

"I cannot say there was any anti-Armenian persecution per-se, but Armenians by nature hate communism and prefer free enterprise. The main reason for the departure of Armenians from Romania was economic. The communists destroyed everything which the Armenians had built. Armenians just could not live under those circumstances," he added.

Today, the estimated size of the community varies between 2,000 and 5,000 - the 11th on a list of 13 minorities, which includes 120,000 ethnic Germans, 450,000 Gypsies, 40,000 Russians, and 30,000 Turks who are represented in the post-communist Romanian Parliament.

"Size is not everything," says community representative Varoujan Vosganian, a 35-year-old economist-turned-politician. One of the founding members and current President of the Union of Armenians in Romania, Vosganian not only has a seat in the Romanian Parliament but also chairs the Parliamentary bloc of 13 ethnic minorities.

A dynamic no-nonsense activist, Vosganian and a small group of individuals are busy consolidating the ranks of a community which has one of the oldest and wealthiest histories in the diaspora.

The numerous churches have meant an unbroken chain of an Armenian presence in Romania since the fall of Ani.

The Armenian Museum in Bucharest is full of church relics, publications, and artifacts including handwritten manuscripts dating to 1351, a Book of Psalms from 1596, an Armenian Bible printed in Amsterdam in 1666 and a rare copy of the Book of Djashots from 1686.

Preserved and meticulously maintained by the church along with Bucharest's Armenian cemetery which was built in 1856, the community's heritage is in good hands.

"Our history will not die, and I hope the community will not live only on its past glories," Vosganian says.

Thanks to the efforts of Archbishop Dirayr Mardiguian and his right-hand-man Very Rev. Hagop Baronian, the Church has a top-rate choir composed of 20 native Romanians and two Armenians.

If the church institutions are in excellent shape, a look at what the community has achieved since the collapse of communism in Romania is also encouraging. The Armenian tri-color is proudly hoisted outside the Embassy of the Republic of Armenia, two Armenian newspapers publish regularly in Bucharest, the faithful attend Sunday services, a small but well-maintained kindergarten teaches Armenian, the Union of Armenians in Romania is up and running and a "new and different" generation of Armenians is making a name for itself.

"Investing in our future is the key to our success as a community," Vosganian commented in a recent interview at the headquarters of the Union of Armenians in Romania, a building which was once nationalized by the communist government but returned to its "rightful owners" after the fall of the old regime.

Enter a handful of business-minded pragmatists who are directing the community toward self sufficiency.

With no interference from "traditional" Armenian political parties and organizations, the Union of Armenians in Romania is left alone to pursue the singular task of planning for a better future.

"We have no internal squabbles or the push and pull of some of the organizations at work elsewhere in the Armenian diaspora," Vosganian says proudly.

With the financial backing and encouragement of Romanian-born but Paris-based Kirmizian brothers, Hagop and Anoush, and their home-based business partner Jirair Ghiulbenghian, the Armenian community is on the way to "financial independence."

"At the moment, ethnic groups are entitled to financial aid from the central government. This supports our two newspapers, our Sunday language schools and most other costs," Vosganian says.

But these "privileges" can end overnight, and with that in mind, the community has set up a business entity under the name of the Union of Armenians of Romania Company (UARCO).

With seed money from the Kirmizian brothers, UARCO today has a small printing press, computers, an import-export division and is rapidly growing into a money-making institution complete with a full-time manager and 10 employees.

"We can now print our two newspapers, Ararat and Nor Gyank. We are also covering some of our other expenses like the school, aid to the needy. We even handed out four scholarships," Vosganian says, who is also the Editor-in-Chief of Ararat.

Nor Gyank, which has recently added a Romanian supplement, is published by engineer-turned-journalist Sarkis Selian, the newspaper's veteran Editor-in-Chief.

The struggle for survival is in full gear, and with the determination and stubborn perseverance of devoted community leaders, the battle cannot be lost.

"We have started climbing," Vosganian says with determination.

Originally published in the September 1994 ​issue of AGBU Magazine. Archived content may appear distorted on your screen. end character

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