Karen Jeppe

Karen Jeppe (photo from Wickipedia) is virtually unknown in the UK yet achieved remarkable things a century ago. Her missionary and social work concentrated on Armenians relentlessly persecuted by the Ottoman Empire (and later Turkey) during the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1923 (see magazine March 2015).  This systematic destruction of large parts of Turkey’s Armenian population was in two phases: the first saw the expulsion and later mass-murder of male Armenians, the second saw women forced into death marches into the Syrian desert. At least one million Armenians are thought to have died. Jeppe saved thousands more by disguising them as Kurds and Arabs. She also organised food and water for the caravans of desperate Armenians driven through Urfa on their way to the desert, and sheltered as many as she could in her cellar for 2 years. Jeppe, who suffered frequent bouts of sickness, particularly malaria, had to return to her native Denmark in 1917, but she returned in 1921 to Aleppo with the backing of the League of Nations to track down Armenian girls who had been trafficked as slaves during the Genocide. Having raised money in Europe during her recuperation, she bought back many of the women and children sold into slavery from their Arab owners.

Jeppe was born in July 1876, the daughter of a German doctor who took a keen interest in her education, sending her to a boarding school where one evening the head read aloud a newspaper article by the Missionary Aage Meyer Benedictsen on the pogroms instigated by the Turks against the Armenians. Jeppe, who was already fluent in German, took just a year to learn Armenian, Arabic and Turkish using a special sound and vision method. In the mission field she created workshops where the children, from an early age, learnt different crafts, a weave shed with corresponding dyeworks also got started. She also had plans for silk production, aiming at sale. The mission needed money for schools, food and housing. She taught her young charges the same way and cut the time they took to learn a second language by two thirds and joined a German mission in Urfa in 1903. Five years later she returned to Denmark and delivered lectures but was to return to the mission-field  when the Armenians were once again targeted. She was assisted by Misak Melkonian, and Lucia, Armenian orphan survivors whom she had adopted.

Jeppe’s farmstead and teaching was progressing well when the First World War broke out,  and the Armenians were in sore need of a friend once more: the new Young Turks ruling Turkey had betrayed promises and the idea of Armenian Christians being able to live peaceably with the Muslim majority Turks was just that – an idea. France, post- World War One, withdrew from Cilicia and the old boundaries of Armenia were swallowed up by Turkey and the newly formed Soviet Union. Their pre-war population of nearly 2 million had dropped to 500,000 by the time Jeppe developed an invaluable link in the 1920s with a Bedouin Arab called Hadjim Pasha who owned a stretch of land east of the Euphrates region. Karen Jeppe negotiated enough agricultural land to support 30 families. She continued to organise and re-build the shattered Armenian survivor communities until her death from malaria in July 1935.

Obituaries were written from many sides – one of the most touching comes from an Armenian writing:

”Mother, your dust will still shield, and when we build our own capital at the foot of Ararat, we will build a memorial shrine to you. The heart of any Armenian is really a Pantheon to you. Armenians, let us bare our heads and fall on our knees – a messenger from God has left us.”

In 1991 Armenia was granted its independence in an area roughly corresponding to its historic lines.