Mirak-Weissbach Foundation
Mirak-Weißbach Stiftung

Germans Celebrate Paruyr Sevak

WIESBADEN, Germany, DECEMBER 3, 2015 — The saying goes that “there is no more beautiful woman than the Armenian language.” If that is the case, German author Jochen Mangelsen writes, then the two women who have just published a new German translation of poems by Paruyr Sevak “have tackled a really audacious task.” It is an adventure, he goes on, not only for the translators but for the reader who encounters this language “full of secrets, surrealistic images, dreams and dreamlike playfulness.” Mandelsen, who has published on the Armenian Genocide, made these remarks in his introduction, or rather, “greetings,” to the new book.


Paruyr Sevak

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Lisa Berkian-Abrahamian and Agapi Mkrtchian

Indeed the slim volume, Paruyr Sevak: And It Pierces My Soul: 24 and 4 Poems Armenian-German published by Schiler Verlag in Berlin, is a huge achievement. The sub-title symbolically recalls the tragic date of 24.4, or April 24, 1915, when the leading members of the intelligentsia were rounded up in Constantinople, arrested and almost all put to death. Heide Rieck, a prize-winning German author of 12 books, including drama, poetry, prose and essays, worked on this project for two years together with Agapi Mkrtchian, an Armenian author of numerous volumes of short stories and poems, in both German and Armenian. Mkrtchian, who studied in Yerevan, Jena and Frankfurt and teaches German literature in Wiesbaden, was recently honored in Yerevan by the Armenian Writers Union with the Vasdakovor order, as an author of outstanding merit. The book concludes with two appreciations from Armenian scholars, literary critic Ani Pashyan, and Prof. Samuel Muardyan, from the Yerevan State University Chair for Armenian Literature.

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Lisa Berkian-Abrahamian and Hartmut Borchers

The translators have succeeded in producing a work that is rigorously faithful to the original, in content and rhythm, yet at the same time poetically effective in German. This was demonstrated with great power during a musical reading of selections on November 20 at the Literaturhaus in Wiesbaden, Germany. The event at this meeting place for writers, housed in the beautiful, historic Villa Clementine, was a benefit evening sponsored by the Mirak-Weissbach Foundation, which supports Armenian youth in education, including musical education. The participants who recited poems donated their talents to the cause, and Dinges & Frick printers produced beautiful posters and flyers as their contribution.

Although unfortunately illness prevented co-author Heide Rieck from attending, Agapi Mkrtchian presented the book project and gave an overview of Sevak’s life and work. She stressed the fact that Sevak was not only a poet, but also a literary scholar and translator. Although he is the most beloved poet for Armenians, young and old, he is unfortunately not very well know abroad. It is in an attempt to make his art and ideas available to a German public that this new translation has come into being.

Tigranuhi Howhannisyan, a young Yerevan-born singer who has completed her studies in Frankfurt, opened the presentations with a song by Komitas, a composer whose life played an important part in Sevak’s work. Other pieces performed were compositions by Romanos Melikyan and Melik Mavisakalyan. Accompanying her on the piano was Diana Sahakyan, a prize-winning musician, also from Armenia and working in the Frankfurt area. Further musical offerings by Komitas, Ruben Hakhverdyan and Aram Khachaturyan came from the very young Arpi Nazaryan, who has won prizes as a soloist on the transverse flute.

Lisa Berkian-Abrahamian recited in Armenian, her mother tongue. Berkian-Abrahamian is also the author of a book on her late husband, Ara Berkian, who was an architect, sculptor, painter and philanthropist. She wrote her thesis on Sevak, her favorite poet, a fact which helps explain the particular power of her delivery. Presenting the German translations were three members of a poetry-lovers society, the Dichterpflänzchen (which has been performing in the region for over 20 years), Hartmut Borcher, Gabriele Liebig and Lutz Schauerhammer.

Sometimes the poem was recited first in German, then in Armenian; and sometimes, the Armenian came first. This way, bilingual Armenians in the audience (who probably were the majority) could appreciate the quality of the German version, while the Germans could develop an ear for the rich sounds of the Armenian. Among the poems selected, some developed philosophical themes, like “The One-eyed” and “Sand a Leopard”, others treated human relations and love, like “One of us.” Still others pondered the meaning of life and death, as in “One Meets in Life by Chance” and “Dying (or: To Die).” A good example of the poet’s sense of irony came in “I Am Going Crazy.” Several dealt with the homeland and the fate of Armenians, a dominant theme in Sevak’s works, for example, “The Mother’s Hands,” and, as a triumphant finale, “We Are Few, But We Are Called Armenians.” The recitation of this last beloved poem, both in the original and in translation, moved many to tears. Its final line (in English translation) is: “We are. We shall be, and we shall become even more.” Arpi Nazaryan’s concluding flute solo sang a lyrical reflection on this proud, yet modest assertion of Armenian identity.

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Soprano Tigranuhi Howhannisyan performing 
with Diana Sahakyan

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POTSDAM, Germany, SEPTEMBER 17, — On September 20, the Gyumri music school (“Octet”) will officially celebrate its reopening. And, if all goes as planned, a brand new grand piano will arrive from Germany for its new concert hall, a gift from the Mirak-Weissbach-Stiftung, a recently established foundation.

As co-founder with my husband, I had the opportunity to present the foundation and its project on September 7 at the Lepsiushaus in Potsdam, outside Berlin. The question I addressed was: why should a new foundation choose this as its first big project? Why a grand piano? Why Gyumri? And why a Blüthner grand piano?

The idea to set up a new foundation has a family background: both my parents were orphans who survived the Genocide and made it to America. Although economic conditions in the Depression prevented them from attending college, they understood the importance of education and urged us to study hard. As a successful businessman, John Mirak sponsored youth education both in the Boston area and abroad. He supported the Armenian Cultural Foundation in Arlington and set up the John Mirak Foundation, which is active in Armenia sponsoring kindergarten playgrounds or school projects, as well as reforestation efforts.

When my husband and I first visited Armenia in 2008 with my brother Bob (who has taken over direction of both foundations), we visited several of the projects. We also went to Gyumri, which along with nearby Spitak, had been almost obliterated in the 1988 earthquake. We had the chance to visit the music school and to meet Director Harytyun Asatryan und his staff. The structure they had been using for classes was a metal shack, a domik. The teachers told us proudly that classes had been suspended only for two weeks after the catastrophe, and that, first in private homes, then in this “temporary” building, they continued to graduate students every year. The young musicians treated us to a concert, performed with seriousness and passion. We were struck by the warm hospitality shown us, and the optimism the teachers exuded. Somehow, sometime — they were confident — the school would be rebuilt.

Last year my husband and I started a small private foundation to help Armenian youth and deliberately formulated the statute to allow flexibility: its purpose is to provide “support and promotion of children, youth and adults through ideal and financial backing; especially individuals in and from Armenia as well as individuals of Armenian descent who have lost their parents or who have been abandoned by their parents (orphans, street children) should be supported.” This includes sponsoring material aid, such as equipment for kindergartens, orphanages and schools; educational opportunities, through scholarships, or providing living expenses for students; enhancing educational facilities, for example, by contributing instruments to music schools, and the like.

In late 2012 we learned that a group of rock musicians, among others Ian Gillan (Deep Purple), David Gilmour (Pink Floyd) and the former Australian tennis champion Pat Cash had launched a Rock Aid Armenia campaign to raise funds for a new school in Gyumri, through benefit concerts and special CD’s. Mediamax, the Australian organization “Do Something” and the Fund for Armenian Relief (FAR) contributed significantly to the effort. The Mardigian family, which has sponsored music education programs in Armenia, tripled the sum raised, and work began on the new construction. The Gyumri optimism was well-founded. What was missing were instruments. Provided with a list by Asatryan, we began collecting both donations and instruments.

Shortly before leaving for Armenia last May, I learned from the FAR office in New York that they were just organizing the shipment of a large gift of new instruments from Canada; in short, Gyumri did not need our violins and flutes. On arrival in Yerevan we contacted FAR’s Deputy Country Director Margarit Piliposyan, who arranged for us to take our gift to the new music school in Oshagan, which FAR had helped finance. Naturally, we were treated to a concert by the students, featuring piano music and a kanon ensemble.

We arrived in Gyumri empty-handed but shared the excitement of Asatryan and his staff with the progress on the building. Not yet completed, the structure appeared very sturdy with thick, earthquake-proof walls, numerous single rooms for private instruction and small ensembles, as well as a large hall for recitals and concerts. Here too we enjoyed a wonderful concert, performed in very tight quarters — a container being used for classes during the construction phase. Then, seated around a table with chocolates, coffee and Armenian cognac, we began to discuss future plans. Asatryan was delighted with the large contribution coming from Canada, but added that the school also needed a grand piano, suitable for concerts. He put it this way: Gyumri, though not the political capital of Armenia, is its cultural capital. Then he and his colleagues began to tick off the names of famous poets, composers, musicians, artists and so forth from Gyumri. “We want to educate world-class musicians,” he said, “and we would like the best instruments.” The piano he hoped for was a German brand, Blüthner.

In Yerevan, at the Aram Khatchaturian museum, there is a concert grand with the Blüthner-Leipzig logo on it — Khatchaturian was one of many great modern musicians who composed on this piano.

Back in Germany, my husband contacted the firm and Dr. Christian Blüthner, the descendant of founder Julius Blüthner, who runs the firm, immediately grasped the importance of the initiative and proceeded swiftly to cooperate. Part of the costs were covered by donations, including a contribution from the John Mirak Foundation, and many small and large gifts; the rest has been financed through a loan to be repaid through donations over two years.

Blüthner is one of the oldest piano manufacturers in the world. It was founded in Leipzig in 1853 and can look back over a successful, moving history. By 1903 the company had earned several awards and received prizes at 12 world exhibits, gaining international renown. In 1943 a bombing raid destroyed all but the foundation walls. In the post-war period, as part of East Germany, the firm was expropriated and expanded especially into countries of the Soviet bloc. Contact with China remained intact even after German reunification in 1990 when the family was able to repossess it.

Now the piano is on its way to Gyumri. Some have raised the question, whether such a project is appropriate. Isn’t it a luxury item? And if they need a piano, why a Blüthner grand? Why not a less expensive model from China? The answer lies in the role music has always played in Armenian culture. The saying goes that there are more pianos in Yerevan than TV sets and anyone strolling through the city can hear music from open windows. Even a small hotel my husband discovered had a piano in the dining room and employees would go to play it whenever they had time. In the Diaspora too: even my parents, who had no musical education, took it for granted that the children should learn to play an instrument. Without knowledge of the theories by Friedrich Schiller or Wilhelm von Humboldt, they knew that musical education was an important element in the aesthetic and moral development of character.

For Armenians, music, language and religion have always played a central role in society and in shaping the national character — a theme discussed at the Lepsiushaus event. Scientific Director Dr. Rolf Hosfeld had invited two special guests to participate: Prof. Ashot Hayruni, from the Yerevan State University, currently on a lecture tour in Berlin, and Anna Maria Pammer, a renowned Austrian soprano living and working in Berlin. Hayruni spoke of the “magical power” of music for Armenians, with reference to the impact of Armenian songs on orphans in Aleppo after the Genocide. Pammer, who has performed in the leading concert halls and opera houses of Europe, as well as in music festivals, is the co-founder and artistic director of the Austro-Armenian Music Festival. On the basis of her experience in Yerevan, Gyumri and Vanadzor (in 2009-2010), she could confirm the importance of quality instruments for students. Only the biggest concert halls or opera house had excellent grand pianos, and some in need of repair had been sent to Germany. A piano donated from Japan was so highly appreciated, it was kept under lock and key, “treated like a sacred object.” She also stressed the importance of new buildings for music schools, to ensure control over air quality and temperature, crucial to preserving instruments. Pammer, who has a repertoire stretching from Medieval works to contemporary pieces, underlined the wide variety of genres in Armenian compositions (including contemporary), generated by an extremely old continuous musical tradition, and prof. Hayruni explained the special role of Komitas.