BY CATHERINE SARKISSIAN YESAYAN
In the 1950s and 60s, two brothers from Tehran, Abdullah and Issa Omidvar, were traveling to the most remote parts of the world and reporting their adventures to our national newspapers.
As a young girl in Iran, I marveled over their weekly stories, published under the “Baradarane Omidvar,” as they called themselves — meaning “Hopeful Brothers.” Reading their reports and learning about their experiences in African villages was inspiring. Their actions gave me a longing that maybe one day I, too, could be an explorer. It has been my good fortune, somehow, to pursue that dream of world travel.
For the past six years, I have done some exploring with a focus on Armenian culture in different countries. Although my achievements don’t come anywhere close to the “Hopeful Brothers,” I’m tempted to call myself a modern-day explorer. This year, my adventures took me on a road less traveled, to Warsaw, Poland. Through my preliminary internet research about the Armenians of Poland, I discovered the rich and important roles that Armenians have played in the history of that country.
The Polish capital surprised me with expansive boulevards, vast parks and superb architecture. Warsaw is known as the Paris of Eastern Europe and indeed it has a similar grandeur and beauty.
Before arriving in Warsaw, I had made prior arrangements to meet with the Ambassador of Armenia to talk about the community’s history. The Armenian embassy is on the outskirts of the city. To get there, I called a taxi and it took me about half an hour from the center of town to arrive at the embassy. Fortunately, the taxi fare in Warsaw is not expensive — I think I paid $20 or maybe less. When I arrived at the embassy, Ambassador Edgar Ghazaryan greeted me. During our one-hour talk, he gave me an overview of Armenians arriving in Polish territories.
“The first wave of Armenian migration started in the 11th century following the fall of the Armenian Kingdom of Ani,” Ghazaryan said. “Armenians settled mostly in the cities, and they became the nucleus of the Polish bourgeois class.”
In 1367, King Kazimierz of Poland signed a Royal Decree granting special status to the Armenians of Poland. On September 19, 2017, Poland officially marked the 650th anniversary of the event with a conference in the Senate. The conference explored the country’s rich Armenian heritage and its contemporary relevance. Ghazaryan proudly said that, during 2017, there were 118 events organized to memorialize that important decree. Today, the original document is part of Poland’s national archives.
The Polish kings and dukes regarded the Armenians not only as their loyal subjects, but at times an elite segment of the population, giving them special privileges — including self-rule. There are no concrete details regarding the number of the early Armenian settlers, however the estimate of 200,000 often appears in the historical documents of the era.
“Armenians have been part of the Polish landscape more than 900 years,” Ghazaryan said. “Despite assimilation, many still see themselves as Armenians or, at the minimum, Poles of Armenian origin.”
Ghazaryan explained that modern-day Poles that have Armenian ancestry are aware of that fact and celebrate it.
“During the recent few decades, there’s been an awakening among the Polish-Armenians to stop the assimilation process and get back to their Armenian roots and heritage,” Ghazaryan said.
Today, the Armenians are one of Poland’s officially recognized minorities, and the descendants of the medieval community have preserved some of their institutions. One of the many cities where Armenians became part of local establishments is Zamosc, about 150 miles south of Warsaw. The city, which is imbued with Armenian heritage, was founded in 1580. Some of the beautiful and colorful buildings were built by the regions’ wealthy Armenians, and today those homes with facades displaying engraved writings in Armenian are part of the UNESCO World Heritage list.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, thousands of Armenians immigrated to Poland for better opportunities. It is estimated that there are currently between 40,000 to 80,000 Armenians in the country. Among the recent stream of immigrants from Armenia is Armen Afrikyan, who has opened a restaurant in downtown Warsaw called Erywan (Yerevan in Polish). After my meeting with the ambassador, I headed to Erywan restaurant to have lunch and meet Afrikyan. From the taxi, I noticed a blowing Armenian flag on the side of the restaurant.
As I stepped inside the restaurant, I was impressed to see that it was packed, and most of the tables were taken. It appeared to me that the customers mostly came from the nearby offices in the business district. I sat down at an open table and order Schnitzel. The food on the menu had European flavor. After about an hour, when the crowd got thin, Afrikyan came to my table.
The wealthy Afrikyan family, from which Armen is a descendant, is very well known in Armenia. I remember a few years back when citizens of Yerevan organized marches and protests to save the beautiful historic Afrikyan Building from demolition in Yerevan. However, all the efforts to prevent the bulldozing of the historical building were fruitless.
Armen Afrikyan was born in 1972. He said that when the demolition of their building started, he moved to Warsaw taking with him his young family. He has four kids: two girls aged 20 and 14, and two boys aged 10 and 6.
I was excited to meet a member of the famous Afrikyan family, curious about his roots and the origins of the family’s rare surname.
“A forefather of mine, in 1760, came to Tbilisi, Georgia from Bayazeth in Western Armenia,” Afrikyan said. “His name was changed from Apram to Aprik and then to Afrik — that’s how the family name was created.”
In 1829, one of Aprik’s grandsons opened a tavern in Yerevan. Then, other family members got involved with city government and ventured into businesses, growing the family’s wealth and influence. Afrikyan told me that he is part of the seventh generation of Afrikyan brothers.
Shortly after moving to Warsaw, Afrikyan found his current spot for Erywan. Being a restaurateur in Yerevan, he brought his experience to Warsaw, opening the restaurant three years ago.
The decor of his restaurant, with exposed red bricks, was charming. The building, Afrikyan said, was built in 1860. After copious remodeling attempts, the cement inside the walls was stripped down to expose the bricks, he explained.
As I left the restaurant, in the taxi, I thought to myself that this may very well be a good example of how genetic memory passes down through DNA to next generations.
I was very happy that my pursuit of Armenian communities had taken me to Warsaw, a city off the beaten path.
There are five Armenian Sunday schools in Poland: the Education centre of the Armenians of Poland (Warsaw), the Sunday school under the Armenian cultural society (Krakow), the Sunday school under the Armenian union (Lodz), the Sunday school under the Armenian communal union (Gdansk), and Courses of Armenian under the Cultural society of the Armenians of Poland (Wroclaw).
In addition to Armenian Sunday schools, some Polish schools have added extracurricular Armenian courses that teach Armenian language and culture on a supplementary basis.