Karen Maria Petersen – Witness To The Armenian Genocide

Many missionaries who have dedicated their lives to saving Armenian women and children became witnesses to the Armenian Genocide. Among them were dedicated members of a Scandinavian missionary organization.

We are talking about the Danish evangelical organization “Women’s Missionary Workers” (Kvindelige Missions Arbejdere, K.M.A.) founded in Copenhagen in 1900. The organization’s motto fully describes its goals: “Women working for women”.

The main source that inspired the creation of the ‘Women’s Missionary Workers’ was the eponymous Swedish organization founded in 1894, as well as the contemporary social movements of the Danish revival – the Inner Mission and the so-called International Protestant whose purpose was to spread the gospel and enlightenment.

An important incentive for the formation of the organization was the massacres of Abdul Hamid which had occurred in the Ottoman Empire in the first half of the 1890s.

At the first stage, the Danish mission focused on disseminating information about the poor situation of Armenians, as well as caring for Armenian orphans who were under American and German dependence in Bitlis, Van, Mush, Kharberd, and Constantinople. However, they soon realized that they needed their own orphanage and active missionaries.

Thus, in 1902-1903. in the village of Mezire, Kharberd province, the Danish orphanage Emaus was established. One of the missionaries sent by K.M.A. to Kharberd for missionary work was Karen Maria Petersen who in 1909 was appointed the director of the Emaus orphanage.

Petersen was born in 1881 in the Danish city of Nykøbing into a socially average family. Although we know little about her, we know that Petersen devoted her young years to the salvation of Armenian women and children. Towards the end of the war, she adopted a little girl whom she named Huys (“Hope” in Armenian).

Like other missionaries, Petersen witnessed the 1915 Armenian Genocide, recorded evidence of its barbarism, and saved many lives. Anticipating the danger threatening Emaus, Petersen also provided for the most necessary needs of children and women in her care – food and clothes.

Petersen was one of many who received permission to “accompany” her Armenian friends along the road of deportation. She would thus become a witness to their demise.

In her diaries, Petersen describes her state of mind at the time, even noting that she had lost the desire to live for a long time:

“… Many, especially in poor neighborhoods, did not want to believe that all this was serious. They didn’t want to leave, cried, and begged: ‘Let us die here’. But they no longer had a home and were forced to follow others… ‘We took our cross and will follow Jesus…’ ‘We are going towards death, pray for us’. These words made our hearts tear apart from the thought that we were seeing a tragedy but couldn’t do anything…”

As a witness to the deportation of Armenians, Petersen was able to collect numerous facts about the survivors in 1915. But her diaries are preserved only in the form of several publications that are now in the archives of the Danish K.M.A.

In one of the publications from 1920, Petersen mentioned a poster issued by the Ottoman authorities that fully reflected the policy of persecuting Armenians: “Everyone, whether a Muslim or a Christian, who was hiding an Armenian in his house, will be hung on the door of his house, and the house will be burned and turned into ashes.”

In another publication from 1932, Petersen in detail and colorfully presented the fate of Kharberd Armenians, their deportation, massacre, as well as the extermination of the culture and religion of the Armenian people:

“October 1915. A walk during the deportation… We deviated from the main road and were happy to feel the sunlight and fresh air.

However, our joy was soon darkened by the terrible sight of skeletons, freshly dug graves, and bones scattered across the field… In the villages, all churches were being destroyed. It was difficult to break down centuries-old walls, but they were to be destroyed. All signs of Christianity were to disappear…”

Petersen not only described her beloved Kharberd in words but also left paintings of it. The most expressive of them is the painting “Mezire” painted in 1917 which shows a panorama of Mezire.

The canvas depicts the golden fields of Kharberd, Lake Tsovk (Gölcük, now Gazar), Danish and German orphanages, the village of Yeghegi, and the building of the famous factory of the Fabrikatoryan brothers. It can be said that on the canvas, Petersen displayed the Armenian environment of Kharberd which became familiar and close to her.

All the devoted members of the K.M.A. were ready to come back and continue their activities after the war. However, the rise of the nationalist movement led by Mustafa Kemal impeded their intentions. Thus, Karen Maria Petersen would continue her activities in Syria and Lebanon within the framework of K.M.A. activities, devoting herself to the care of Armenian refugees.

MIGA Junior Researcher Inesa Stepanyan, genocide-museum.am

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