In 1911, in one of his letters, Armenian poet and doctor Ruben Sevak wrote: “I would like to go to Venice before the final return to home and spend at least one spring there, one of the few springs of my life. I want to live, to feel that I am alive… in anticipation of death. “
This was in August 1914. WWI had already begun. At the pier in Constantinople, the wife of the poet Yanni (Helene) was unpleasantly impressed by the prevailing atmosphere: “Ruben, we’ll come back on the same steamer, I really don’t like this country… It’s terrible – you don’t see a smile on a single face here.”
A few months later, on April 24, 1915, the Young Turk government arrested and deported the elite of the Armenian intelligentsia of Constantinople. More than two thousand figures of Armenian culture, science, art, religion, and politics were secretly taken out of the capital and brutally murdered.
A little later, in May, Sevak was also arrested. He was sent to the village of Changiri in Anatolia, where a large group of deported Armenians was already located. Eyewitnesses say that in the exile, Sevak behaved incredibly courageously, encouraging others and remaining faithful to the Hippocratic Oath to the end…
It so happened that he had to treat the daughter of a high-ranking Turkish official. She was dying. The doctor did his best to save her life. Her condition improved with each passing day; moreover, she fell in love with her savior. The girl’s father, wishing gratitude in his own way, said to Sevak:
“Doctor, you all must die, none of you can be saved. But if you accept Islam and take my daughter as a wife, I will save you…”
Sevak, horrified, replied that he was already married and had children.
“It’s okay,” said the Turkish official, “For our religion, this is not a hindrance.”
Sevak’s fellows persuaded him to agree and go to a temporary feigned apostasy in order to save his life. But Ruben Sevak understood that he would destroy his soul, trying to save his life.
Interestingly, Sevak, being a consistent atheist scholar, nevertheless considered apostasy a betrayal. A betrayal to his people and his mission as a poet and an intellectual.
“We are the leaders of the people. If we betray our ideals, people will lose faith in the justice of the struggle. We have to be an example. We must die in the name of the immortality of our people,” he said.
In general, for him, a man of the highest morality, a knight-poet, a moral maximalist, any deal with conscience was unacceptable. That is why he preferred conscious death. “The knight sacrifices himself and his well-being,” Berdyaev wrote, “but never sacrifices his values and is absolutely faithful to them.”
Sevak considered Christianity to be the highest value not so much in a religious as in a universal sense. The mission of the artist as a carrier of great ideals – this was the value that was higher than physical existence.
On August 26, 1915, at dawn, a group of five people in carriages was sent to the neighboring town of Ayash. Among them was Ruben Sevak and another major Armenian poet Daniel Varoujan. The story of an eyewitness, a Turkish cab driver named Hasan, revealed the circumstances of their murder.
On the road, they were stopped by unknown individuals. They seemed to be robbers, but a policeman servilely greeted the stranger who was followed by four armed men.
The relocation was thus a drama, a trap. The hands of the five victims were tied, and they could not resist it. The police searched them, robbed them, and left. The cab driver watched everything from a distance. The five executioners attacked the tied people, stripped them, and tied them to the trees.
“Then, the leader of the robbers and his men drew their daggers and began to cut them, slowly and calmly. The cries of the victims and their desperate rage tore my heart” (“Hayrenik”, Boston, 1930, No. 1). Among the executioners was the father of the girl whose life was saved by Sevak.
The sad news reached Yanni who had stayed in Constantinople trying to get her husband out of exile. The Turks had no right to deport her as she had German citizenship.
She also addressed the German Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire Wangenheim. The ambassador responded to Yanni’s plea to save her husband as follows: “You are an unworthy German woman, you betrayed your nation, married an Armenian, and dare to come and ask me for a rescue! He must not return. They left to die.”
Shuddering from such a response, Yanni threw her German passport into the ambassador with the words: “I have a son, I will bring him up so that he avenges his father on the Germans” (O. Chilinkirian. “Ruben Sevak”, Paris, 1985).
Yanni Sevak refused German citizenship, stopped speaking German, and gave her children an Armenian education.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Yanni played on the stages of Parisian theaters and released several of her poetry collections in French. She passed away in Nice on December 28, 1967. According to her will, she was buried according to Armenian traditions.
The fears of Ruben Sevak were not in vain. Yanni really had to “open up” to the cruelest storm that befell the poet and his people and had to share their tragic fate. And she did it surprisingly worthily.