Music with meaning: Bar Harbor band plays for Armenian refugee relief

Maine – Nov 16 2023

    By Nan Lincoln | Special to The Ellsworth American

The Kotwica Band will be performing a concert of international folk tunes to benefit Armenian refugees at Saint Saviour’s Church in Bar Harbor Sunday, Nov. 26 at 2 p.m. Pictured, from left, are: Kevin Stone, Carolyn Rapkievian, David Quinby, David Rapkievian, Eloise Schultz, Frances Stockman and Anne Tatgenhorst.

BAR HARBOR — About 125 years ago, the town of Bar Harbor became galvanized by the plight of the Armenian people, who were being slaughtered in the hundreds of thousands by the Ottoman Turks and forced from their historical homeland, between the Caucuses and the Caspian Sea.

Bar Harbor summer resident Henry Morgenthau, the U.S. ambassador to the declining Ottoman Empire, was the first to sound the alarm about this ongoing genocide. He eventually resigned in protest over what the Turks (eventually joined by the German army at the outset of World War I) were doing in Armenia and the lack of a cohesive, official American response.

In 1897, the Bar Harbor Record reported, “A most interesting lecture was given at the Congregational church by Rev. A. S. Abraham on the Armenian question. The church was filled, and the audience listened with rapt attention to the recitation of the wrongs done the race.”

By 1915, an estimated 1,500,000 Armenians, more than half of the total population living in their ancient homeland, had been massacred and thousands more displaced.

“I am firmly convinced that this is the greatest crime of the ages,” Morgenthau told Congress.

There are some who believe the reluctance of Europe and America to hold the Turks responsible for their war crimes against the Armenians emboldened Hitler to implement his extermination of the Jews. If the world could look the other away at the mass destruction of its oldest Christian nation (301 AD), would it come to the rescue of Europe’s Jewish population? The Holocaust may have been the terrible answer to that question.

If the world’s governments failed to act in time to prevent the Armenian disaster, the American people in big cities and small towns like Bar Harbor did pay attention. According to the Bar Harbor Times, in 1917, the Congregational church donated $91 to Armenian relief; the Sewing Circle voted to contribute its refreshment money, and in 1919, even the Sunday School pitched in $5 a month to support one of the thousands of children orphaned by the Turkish pogroms.

Led by Morgenthau and fellow Bar Harbor rusticator Cleveland Dodge, with the help of author Julia Ward Howe, Charlie Chaplin, child star Jackie Coogan and many others, Americans would raise $116 million in funds and supplies (worth more than $2 billion today).

A century of uneasy peace followed the fall of the Ottoman Empire, including two world wars and the rise and fall of the Soviet Union. On the one hand this exacerbated the tension between the Islamic Turks and the Christian Armenians by creating the Turkic state of Azerbaijan on the large oil- and mineral-rich section of historic Armenian lands bordering the Caspian Sea, and on the other hand managed to prevent further mass slaughter (although not deadly pogroms) with its iron-fisted control of the region.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, in 1991, Azerbaijan became increasingly emboldened to reclaim the region of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh), an autonomous ethnic Armenian enclave within its borders. In 2020, when the world’s focus was on the COVID pandemic, Azerbaijan launched a major attack on Artsakh, creating a new humanitarian crisis as the ethnic Armenian population fled what they fear will be another genocide.

So once again Bar Harbor and area residents at large are being asked to help as they did a century ago when local church congregations and schoolchildren contributed to Armenian relief.

The Kotwica Band, led by David and Carolyn Rapkievian of Bar Harbor, will be giving a concert to benefit Armenian refugees on Sunday, Nov. 26, at 2 p.m. at St. Saviour’s Church in Bar Harbor (41 Mount Desert St.). The concert will feature music from Armenia and the neighboring countries — Poland, Macedonia, Ukraine, Romania and Greece — where many Armenians settled after the last diaspora.

For the Rapkievians it is personal. Carolyn’s Armenian relatives were among those who fell victim to the Ottoman slaughter, and the horrors they endured are part of her family lore. A photograph of her grandfather’s handsome family is not simply evidence of her Armenian heritage but a memento of loss.

“When the photo was taken, my grandfather Hovnan Okoomian had already been sent to America for safety,” Rapkievian said. “My great-grandparents who are pictured seated in the photo were beheaded in front of the children, and the youngest children were killed along with the eldest sister’s husband. The sisters were taken into a harem and raped.”

She says American missionaries eventually helped her surviving family members escape. U.S. missionaries also helped her then-infant maternal grandmother escape by pretending she was their own child and her mother their maid. Sadly, such horrors are no longer a part of the Armenian people’s past.

“Just this past September,” Rapkievian said, “120,000 people — nearly the entire population of Artsakh — fled across the border to Armenia in an arduous three-day exodus to escape attacks on their villages and towns. These refugees, who left behind their belongings, their livelihoods and their lands, are undernourished and have medical needs.

She said Armenia, now a small democratic republic wedged between modern-day Turkey and Azerbaijan, is a poor country and unable to support a refugee crisis of this magnitude.

Rapkievian hopes people will once again rally to support the Armenian people by attending the Nov. 26 concert.

“We hope they’ll enjoy our music, too,” she added with a smile, picking up her drum to resume the rehearsal.

Carolyn and her husband, David, play a variety of instruments themselves including fiddle, guitar, oud (a precursor of the lute), balalaika and drum; they have recruited button accordionist Kevin Stone of Waterville, bass player David Quinby of Sedgwick and three singers, Anne Tatgenhorst of Winterport, College of the Atlantic grad Eloise Shultz and Conners Emerson School eighth-grader Frances Stockman (whose aunt, the late Kirsten Stockman, co-founded with Tatgenhorst the Maine Women’s Balkan Choir).

Kotwica plans to perform 15 songs that speak of love, loss and yearning.

“Many of the songs have a dual meaning,” Rapkievian said. “For instance the first song, ‘Gorani,’ is Armenian and the words are about the loss of love. But it is also about the loss of a homeland.”

As they practice, one can hear that thread of longing, interwoven into often lilting tunes that beg to be danced to and most often are.

“At this Thanksgiving time we are especially thankful for our town’s support of the Armenian people — both in the past and present,” Rapkievien said. “Our songs and our music have survived, and we are thrilled to be able share them and our story with everyone.

“And, yes,” she added, “there will probably be dancing.”