Simon Vratsian’s Intuition
Vahe H. Apelian
Two prominent Diaspora Armenians, Vartan Gregorian and Richard Hovannisian reflected on Simon Vratsian extensively. Let me qualify my statement and state that it is Garin K Hovannisian, the grandson of Richard, who mentioned Simon Vratsian many times as he narrated the story of his prominent family in his book titled “Family of Shadows”.
Garin K. Hovannisian’s book does not have an index and therefore it is not possible to quantify the number of pages where Vratsian is mentioned unless one painstakingly notes the pages upon reading. Vartan Gregorian in his book titled “The Road to Home” mentioned Simon Vratsian extensively as well; seventeen (17) separate pages and a section of four pages, 76-79, out of the 338 pages long text, make reference to Simon Vratsian. No other name in the index has this many pages listed.
Vartan Gregorian’s book makes for a fascinating reading and engulfs the reader and at times raises a reader’s ire over the treatment this youngster received in the early days of his arrival to Beirut from his home in Iran. When he started attending the famed Jemaran, Levon Shant was its principal. After his death, on November 29, 1951, Simon Vratsian was invited to fill the vacated seat. Vartan Gregorian’s apprehension as to how the new principal would treat him, soon gave way to a close relationship as Vartan became Vratsian’s “eyes” as the latter chose Vartan as his trusted aid to read him the letters he received and copy his writing because Vratsian’s penmanship started losing its legibility due to his deteriorating eyesight. “Within a span of four years,” wrote Vartan Gregorian, Simon Vratsian, “had become a surrogate father to me, as well as a teacher, mentor, and friend.”
After graduation and having formed a family of his own, Vartan Gregorian returned to Lebanon in 1965, noting that he was happy that he could do his research and work again with Mr. Vratsian. His stay did not last long and he returned to the United States the following year after taking an emotional leave from Mr. Vratsian who passed away three years later. “He died in 1969,” wrote Vartan, “and was given a national funeral. He never saw Armenia again. I hoped that Soviet Armenia would welcome the remains of the last prime minister of Independent Armenia (1918-1920), but they did not. I hope the government of the newly independent Armenia will do that someday in the near future, for Mr. Vratsian belongs to Armenia. And without him, I would not be where I am and remain who I am.”
Richard Hovanissian’s life was altogether different from Vartan Gregorian’s. Richard’s parents were financially well off. He was living the American dream of a first-generation Armenian American who did not speak Armenian but was involved in Armenian affairs through his association with Armenian Youth Federation (AYF). He was also attending Berkeley where he had met a girl in her first year of medical school, named Vartiter.
Right after his appointment as the principal of the Hamazgayin Nshan Palanjian Jemaran, where Vartan Gregorian was already a student, Vratsian arrived in San Francisco in early 1952, touring the Armenian American communities for the cause of Armenian education. It is there that Richard Hovannisian attended his lecture and "afterward, approached the prime minister for a few words. Instead, he received the offer of a lifetime.” Mr. Vratsian suggested Richard should spend a year at the Jemaran to learn Armenian.
Three years later, on September 20, 1955, Richard arrived in Beirut. At the request of Mr. Vratsian, Antoine Keheyan, who taught English in Jemaran and was more known by his endearing moniker, “Sir” than his name, and medical student Hrayr Kabakian met him at the airport. “At the first sight of that clumsy American,” wrote Garin about his grandfather, both “wondered what the prime minister has seen in him?” Incidentally, in time Hrayr Kabakian would emerge as a prominent A.R.F. leader.
During Richard’s study in Jemaran, Mr. Vratsian prophetically confided to Sir that Richard, whom he called Dikran, would one day serve Armenian history and to Richard, he noted that upon his return he would marry Vartiter, with whom Mr. Vratsian was corresponding and had noted to her that no matter what, saluting the host country’s flag is one of respect and not necessarily a principled support of the country’s policies. The present days’ athletes should heed the advice of, according to Garin, “the unofficial warden of Armenia Diaspora”, Mr. Simon Vratsian.
What drove Vratsian to suggest the eager young man Richard Hovannisian was, to spend time in Jemaran? His motive has long been buried with him. Why did Mr. Vratsian take Vartan, the young student from Iran, under his wings? That also is a mystery. “I have wondered during the past forty years”, wrote Vartan Gregorian, “why I was chosen by Mr. Vratsian to be ‘a pair of his eyes’, or his ‘eyeglasses’. Was it due to the fact that I was alone in Beirut? That I had no family obligations, and practically no social life, and hence could spend inordinate hours with him? That I was from Iran and spoke eastern Armenian, his maternal language? That he knew first hand that I wrote well? That he trusted me and knew that I would never divulge his confidences? That he wanted to help me survive and help educate me? Or was it perhaps that I reminded him occasionally of his late young son, who had died during the 1921 exodus of the anti-Bolshevik Armenians from Armenia to Iran? Maybe it was a combination of all these things.”
Vartan Gregorian surely and rightfully ponders to find an answer for his unique relationship with Mr. Vratsian. But it appears that there was more to it. All the possibilities Vartan lists could have been legitimate reasons for Mr. Vratsian to treat Vartan as a son but cannot possibly explain why the other young man, Richard Hovannisian, had also caught Mr. Vratsian’s attention. Mr. Vratsian had no real reasons to bestow upon Richard the same attention, care and concern he bestowed upon Vartan Gregorian because unlike Vartan, Richard came from America and was independently well off financially and did not need to accompany Mr. Vratsian accepting invitations for dinner just to help him fill up his belly. But, in both of them, the last prime minister of the First Republic of Armenia had seen a potential to fill, in a way, his shoes servicing the Armenian cause and Armenian history.
Vartan Gregorian and Richard Hovannisian as youngsters became Simon Vratsian’s protégés because intuitively Simon Vratsian noted a promising potential in both. The prominence of these two eminent individuals over the subsequent decades attests, in my view, to Simon Vratsian’s intuitive understanding of men, in the genderless sense of the word.