By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach
Special to the Mirror-Spectator
BOCHUM, Germany — Exactly one year ago, as Germans celebrated Pentacost, a massive storm “Ela,” swept through the industrial heartland of the Ruhr, destroying thousands of trees. As Azat Ordukhanyan, Chairman of the Armenian Academic Society 1860, witnessed the devastation in Bochum, he was reminded of the 1988 earthquake that struck his native land in his student days in Yerevan. Germany — both east and west — had at the time joined many other nations worldwide to provide relief, and in a spirit of gratitude and compassion, he decided to organize a donation of 155 trees from Armenia to plant in Bochum. It was to celebrate the 155th anniversary of the founding (in Leipzig) of his Armenian Academic Society that he chose that number.
Bureaucratic technicalities proved to be of no consequence, as the city’s mayor, Dr. Ottilie Scholz, and the city council readily agreed. In December 2014 Ordukhanyan flew to Armenia for talks with the relevant ministry officials dealing with ecology and agriculture, and they offered to supply the trees from their nursery at the Sangesur Institute in Kapan in southern Armenia. Consideration of where the trees should be planted in Bochum gave rise to the idea of setting up two friendship gardens, one in Bochum and the other in Yerevan.
On January 21, 2015, the President of the German Bundestag Prof. Dr. Norbert Lammert (the same who was to chair the historic parliamentary debate on the genocide on April 24 this year) met with citizens in Bochum and decided to place the donation and the friendship gardens under his patronage. On April 11 Ordukhanyan planted the first tree for a German Garden in Yerevan and flew back home with 155 saplings (plus 50 more). Following talks with the city officials responsible for public parks and visits to possible sites where the storm had wrought massive damage, it was decided to plant the first official Armenian plane, walnut, willow and lilac trees in fallow land in a park near the city center on April 18, 2015. In a sign of friendship, the city was to plant a linden tree there.
Letters went out to schools, church parishes and cultural institutions of all kinds, asking if they wanted an Armenian tree on their land. On April 18, schoolchildren armed with shovels and spades joined with other Armenian and German friends of the project. Scholz planted the first Armenian plane tree and following her warm words of dedication and other greetings, Armenian brandy and sweets were served, after which 40 trees were set into the ground. In the afternoon the zoo grounds received 4 weeping willows and 4 walnut trees, the Schliekerhaus Museum was graced with a walnut tree and willows were placed in front of the city archives building.
There followed the planting of Armenian plane trees, plantanus orientalis, in 19 cemeteries of the city. Armenian plane trees at German cemeteries, one might ask. There is very good reason for this choice: to commemorate the liberation from terror and war 70 years ago. With the help of the cemetery authorities, all those locations were selected (among them two Jewish cemeteries) where forced laborers, prisoners of war and bombing victims of World War II are buried. Now, alongside German monuments there are Armenian trees that commemorate those victims of fascism and war.
It is known that up to 1.5 million Armenians perished in the genocide, and that hundreds of thousands of children and orphans who survived found refuge in countries scattered throughout the world. When those children became adults, almost all those who had not left Europe became victims of World War II. Over 600, 000 Armenians were drafted into the Soviet army, on the one hand, or the German army, on the other, if they lived in Bulgaria, Rumania or other countries allied to Germany. The precise number of Armenian forced laborers under the swastika has not been researched to the present day. What is known is that about 400, 000 Armenians died in the war or are were missing. Their relatives mourn them still.
In autumn, it has been decided to plant Armenian plane trees in Stuttgart and surroundings, because more than 250 Armenian forced laborers slaved away there at Mercedes and as many again at the Salamander shoe factory nearby. In the Ruhr region itself, countless Armenian forced laborers and prisoners of war from eastern, western and southern Europe lost their lives. Even the issue of art theft 70 years later has not been settled, and the fate of precious manuscripts and book illustrations from Armenian libraries, like the Nubarian Library in Paris and the Armawir Library in southern Russia/northern Caucasus, is unknown.
If students and teachers plant walnut and plane trees from Armenia in their schoolyards, and children of immigrants (from 40 countries) plant Armenian willows in their high-rise neighborhood Hustadt, as is the case in Bochum, then hope in a peaceful future will blossom.
Trees bring people together. In this sense, the head of the Bochum-Linden-Dahlhausen Nature Friends Jochen Hopmann planted a copper beech tree on May 13, in the Bochum-Linden local cemetery, in commemoration of the victims of the Armenian genocide. The name of the tree in German is Blutbuche – “blood beech.” This is the very first tree that a German organization has ever planted for the victims of the genocide — a comforting gesture for the descendants. The branches of the copper beech tree will soon brush up against the leaves of the Armenian plane trees that Ordukhanyan planted there in the name of peace.
This unprecedented tree project is one part of a multifaceted cultural program called the Armenian Spring, stretching across 2015 which has been organized by Azat Ordukhanyan and Bochum author Heide Rieck. In the words of Rieck, this represents “an attempt — on the centenary of the Armenian genocide and 70 years after the liberation from fascism and war in Germany — to lend the rolling wheel of history a new direction.” She added “the number of trees — 155 — refers to the year the Armenian Academic Society was founded in Leipzig (1860) and thus to the more than 100-year-old bond of friendship between Germany and Armenia.”
(This article is essentially an adaptation/translation of a press release written by Heide Rieck in German.)