Exhibition at California University to feature American humanitarianism in Armenia, 1918-1920

The Armenian National Institute (ANI) and the Armenian Assembly of America (Assembly) are partnering with the California State University Northridge (CSUN) Armenian Studies Program, CSUN’s West Gallery, the CSUN Office of Government and Community Relations, the CSUN Armenian Student Association, and the YMCA of Metropolitan Los Angeles to present an exhibition titled “The Lifesavers: American Humanitarianism and YMCA Philanthropy in Armenia 1918-1920,” premiering in the Western United States on Saturday, October 26 from 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. at CSUN’s on-campus West Gallery.

The exhibit showcases the role of the YMCA and American relief work during the first republic of Armenia (1918-1920), and focuses on John Elder and James O. Arroll, who arrived in Yerevan in January 1918 to open a YMCA center. Neither Elder nor Arroll had anticipated being stranded as the only Americans left in the country’s capital city with all communication to the outside world cut off when the front line faltered. World War I was still raging at the time and Allied forces were in retreat on the Caucasian front. The November 11, 1918 Armistice that ended World War I was many months away. By the time they left Yerevan in August 1919, Elder and Arroll had become responsible for the entire humanitarian operation set up by U.S.-based charities, which ultimately earned them special tribute from U.S. President Herbert Hoover.

The exhibit will remain open for the public through Thursday, November 7. “The Lifesavers: American Humanitarianism and YMCA Philanthropy in Armenia 1918-1920” exhibition displays 95 images total – 64 from John Elder’s photo collection, 8 contemporaneous records and documents, and 4 maps. With 32 quotations from Elder’s journal authenticating the photographs, along with introductory and explanatory text, the exhibit opens a window into life during the first year of the newly independent Armenian republic in 1918. The exhibit includes the entire set of photographs Elder attributed to his time in Armenia.

Several American relief workers are also mentioned in the exhibit, including Reverend Ernest Yarrow, Gertrude Pearson, F. Tredwell Smith, and Mabel Farrington. Mary Kifer, whose life was cut short after leaving the Caucasus, improbably found romance while conducting relief work in Armenia. Her story parallels “A Farewell to Arms” before Ernest Hemingway wrote his WWI era tragedy.

“The CSUN Armenian Studies Program was the recent recipient of a $2.1 million anonymous gift, and congratulations are in order. The gift is a tribute to the excellence of its program and the leadership of its Director, Dr. Vahram Shemmassian,” stated Assembly Western Region Director Mihran Toumajan.

“We are thrilled to be partnering with such a distinguished program, which plays a significant pedagogic role at a university that is educating more Armenian American students than any other institution in the United States. I would also take this opportunity to thank James Sweeters, Director of the CSUN West Gallery, and his staff for their guidance and support in realizing this valuable exhibit,” he said.

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