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Diana Apcar-Writer, Diplomat, Humanitarian

By Isabel Kaprielian with Chad Kirkorian

Note: My attempts to learn more about Diana Apcar met with total failure, until a friend, Richard Kloian, gave me a list of her descendants in the United States.  Diana Apcar’s family has graciously provided me with very valuable information about this remarkable woman, and I am grateful for their cooperation. Luckily, this term, I have been working with a promising young historian, Chad Kirkorian, who has assisted me in researching the life and ideas of Diana Apcar.  The following is a brief account of some of our findings.

Portrait of Diana Agabeg Apar taken in Yokohama, Japan, c. 1922-1923. Photo courtesy of Lucille Apcar, granddaughter of Diana Apcar.
Portrait of Diana Agabeg Apar taken in Yokohama, Japan, c. 1922-1923. Photo courtesy of Lucille Apcar, granddaughter of Diana Apcar.

To understand the background of the Agabeg and Apcar families, it is necessary to refer to the relocation of Armenians from Julfa, Armenia, to New Julfa (Iran) by Shah Abbas in the early 17th century. Armenian merchants in New Julfa engaged in the lucrative trade from the Far East to Europe.  Successive shahs provided Armenian  merchants with special concessions, and the merchants, in turn, brought fabulous wealth to Iran. However, later shahs were not so favorably inclined to this non-Moslem, non-Persian, minority and imposed heavy restrictions.  Consequently many Armenians emigrated from Iran and a large number settled in India, primarily in Madras and Calcutta where they established churches, schools, and newspapers.  Among those immigrants were the Agabeg and Apcar families.

Diana Agabeg was born  October 12, 1859 in Rangoon, which at that time was called Burma Territory, then part of British East India, currently called Myanmar.  The Agabegs owned a flourishing dairy business.  Diana attended a convent school in Calcutta where she learned English fluently;  and when she graduated, an uncle – perhaps her favorite uncle Alexander, a prominent criminal lawyer- gave her a piece of prophetic advice, “Now that you have graduated from school, Diana, your real education will begin.”

She probably met Apcar Michael Apcar in Calcutta.  Born in New Julfa, Persia (present day Iran) he emigrated to India to join a large and renowned clan of Apcars who were already well-established in business including shipping, import/export enterprises, and rice farming in the Dutch East Indies.  After pursuing Diana for several years, Michael Apcar finally convinced her to be his wife.  They married in 1888 or 1889, perhaps in Rangoon, but more likely in Calcutta, and sailed to Japan for their honeymoon, probably aboard an Apcar Line vessel.  They decided to emigrate to Japan, and settled eventually in Yokohama, where Michael opened an import-export business, A. M. Apcar and Co.  Diana and Michael had three children, Rose, Michael, and Ruth.  Around 1906, Michael Sr. died and Diana, who had probably been involved in the family business before that time, operated it on her own, until young Michael was old enough to take the reins of authority.

Mrs. Apcar knew English, Armenian, Japanese, and Hindustani. She had a keen mind, an astute grasp of world politics, and uncanny foresight. A brilliant conversationalist, articulate and convincing, she gave lectures in Japan and wrote extensively on the Armenian Question, diligently trying to bring the world’s attention to the fate of the Armenian people. For many years, she carried on correspondence with political, religious, and educational leaders throughout the world.  Her books, pamphlets, and articles reveal a person of firm convictions, “passionately pro-Armenian.”

Some of her books include: Betrayed Armenia: These are They Which Came Out of Great Tribulation (1910), Peace and No Peace (1911), The Peace Problem (1912), The Great Evil (1914), and On the Cross of Europe’s Imperialism: Armenia Crucified.  Apcar’s pamphlets include: “The Anguish of the Near East” (1912), “The Armenian Massacres” (1912), “Armenia’s Needs” (1920), “The Armenian Republic” (1920), and “The American Mandate for Armenia” (1920). Apcar attempted to promote the Armenian cause throughout the world, especially in Europe, and pleaded for support on behalf of her people. Her main concern was that in order to protect their economic interests, the imperialistic European powers would betray the Armenians under Turkish domination.  She was well aware of British imperialistic drives in India.  Her anti-imperialism is clearly expressed in The Great Evil, where she responded to Rudyard Kiplings words”

“O thou, whose wounds are never healed
Whose weary race is never run.
O Cromwell’s England, must thou yield,
For every foot of ground, a son?”

The answer to this rattle of Kiplingism is – Why make the wounds?  Why attempt the race?  Why steal the foot of ground, which demands the toll of a son? Even before 1915, Apcar was convinced that the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire were in danger of yet another holocaust.

She believed that although liberty, justice, and equality were the basis of the Young Turk party ideology, the liberal faction was only a small minority, and the evil influences of chauvinism would eventually take power.  When the Turkish government launched the Genocide against the Armenians, Apcar appealed to civilized Christian nations to intervene to prevent further slaughter of Armenians and appealed to the United States, in particular, to adopt the mandate for Armenia. In On the Cross of Europe’s Imperialism, she wrote: “Armenians have contributed their share [to the war effort]; they have fought suffered and died; they are fighting, suffering, and dying still: they cannot do more…”

“It has been clear for a longer time that without the co-operation of the United States there can not be Stable Peace in Europe. Having entered actively into the war, and having not put aside or been compelled to put aside the old policy of non-interference in European affairs, shall we not hope that the great American people will carry the work to a finish , and assume a Protectorate over an Autonomous Armenia?”

The mandate was defeated in the US Congress.  Economic interests and commercial relations with Turkey took precedence over promises to the “little ally” Armenia. The ancient homeland was emptied of Armenians – one and a half million abducted or massacred-and the remnants struggling in desperate conditions in neighboring countries.

In “recognition of her devotion to her fellow nationals, thousands of whom she helped during the World War, and of her high intellectual attainments and political ability,” the government of the Republic of Armenia named her consul between 1918 and 1921.  Diana Apcar is probably the first woman ever appointed as consul by any government.  This appointment gave official status to a woman who had already been assisting destitute Armenian survivors.  The appointment facilitated her efforts to help the refugees, for she could confer with foreign diplomatic representatives in an official capacity. She intervened on behalf of the refugees to furnish them with proper visas and other necessary papers.  This action was of critical importance, since most, perhaps all the refugees were without bona fide passports or identity papers at a time when governments, including the American government, were clamping down on immigration (1920s).

The refugees she assisted had fled ravage and murder in their homes in the Ottoman empire and had traveled weeks and months across Russia, during the height of the Russian civil war. Finally exhausted and weary, they finally made it to Harbin and Vladivostok.  Those who wished to travel to the United States, particularly those who had relatives in America, sought out Diana Apcar, in Yokohama, Japan.  She did not turn them away, but worked tirelessly on their behalf.  Using her knowledge of many languages and her contacts with steamship companies, government authorities, and other officials, she succeeded in making diplomatic and passage arrangements for her charges.  As she was known, respected, and loved in Japan, she was able to intervene to assist these forlorn and stateless survivors start a new life.

Information about her efforts, scarce though they are, reveal a true humanitarian. At her own expense, Mrs. Apcar provided the refugees with lodgings, food, and health care, often in the refugee houses she maintained in Yokohama.  She also arranged for children to attend school. George Goshgarian, Hamilton, Canada, was proud that he could still count to 10 in Japanese.  He was delighted to show the little card on which were printed the numbers 1-10 in Japanese and in Armenian – the only memento of a six year old boy’s school experience in Japan.

Diana Apcar did not request reimbursement, but some refugees repaid her out of their first earnings in the United States.  Others received funds from relatives abroad.  Alice Bedrosian, Fresno, for instance, relates that members of her family landed in Yokohama. Because her father, Paul Michigian, was already in the United States and sent funds to Japan, the whole group managed to pay their own way.  It was, however, through Diana Apcar’s mediation that they received proper visas and passage arrangements.

Many survivors of the Genocide have written their memoirs.  Those that passed through Japan remember the “little mother of Yokohama:”
“Now we numbered about forty of us.  We boarded a ship in Vladivostok to go to Yokohama. . . .  Mrs. Apcar, among other virtues, was a philanthropist.  She was always ready to lend a helping hand to those in need, and solved many of their problems.”

“This wonderful woman used to work miracles, helping poor strangers in difficult situations, especially when women and children were involved. . . . She was a woman of faith and prayer and a woman of positive action.  She wrote letters to contemporary kings, queens and governments, about the plight and persecutions, the ruthless murders.  The genocide of her race, and the prevailing poverty of the remnants in all parts of Turkey, pleading with a deaf, blind world… ” (manuscript written by Krikor Yeghoian, donated by Bryan Bedrosian)

“Taking the train from Moscow we journeyed across the frozen wastes of Asia on the Trans-Siberian Railroad to Vladivostok.  We remained in Vladivostok for several days waiting for a ship to take us to Yokohama. I waited forty days in Yokohama, meanwhile corresponding with my father-in-law to receive necessary funds to continue our journey.

“We met Mrs. Diana Apkarian, who was the organizer and director of a Refugee Aid Organization, whose purpose was to help emigrants with paper work, ordering food, finding lodging and in funding their travel to America.  She helped me also.  She loaned me forty yen.  I returned twenty-five dollars to her when I reached the United States.”” (Bob Der Mugrdechian, Anoushavan:  the Intrepid Survivor, p. 115)

“From Vladivostok we boarded a rather large boat and came on to Japan. Here in Japan there was a woman named Agabeg Apcar. . . .  She would find a large house and put a family on each floor.  We rented the upstairs and the other family had the downstairs.  Another house, nearby had three families in it.  She would arrange for the Armenians to be near one another so they would feel a little better about being here.  If one could not afford the rent, she would help them.  She helped the needy financially (From the memoirs of Verkin Saroukeshishian Manoogian, courtesy Nancy Sanoian).

Mrs. Apcar was a pious woman who said her prayers, read her Bible, and sang her hymns every day.  In 1920, she wrote to the Primate of the Armenian Apostolic Church in the United States how she had lived in a distant land for 29 years, and how she greatly longed for her church.  She had not found another church with the same dynamic spirit as the Armenian church, with such prayers to comfort one’s soul, with such a Mass to exalt one’s spirit.  “I don’t know whether the day will come,” she concluded, “when I will be worthy to enter, once again, my church and to join in the Holy Mass, to hear, once again, those prayers that will uplift my soul”.

Her fondest wish was not realized.  She died  in 1937, never having left the land of her adoption, never having stepped inside her beloved Armenian church again, but at least she was spared seeing the violence which befell her family during World War II.

We welcome any further information about Diana Apcar.  Please call (559) 278-6493, or send material either to the History Department at California State University, Fresno, 5340 N. Campus Dr, 93740 M/S SS21, c/o I. Kaprielian, or the Armenian Studies Program, at California State University, Fresno, 5245 N. Backer Ave. M/S PB4, 93740-8001 c/o I. Kaprielian.