In 1915, the infant Berj Kailian escaped the Armenian Genocide in World War I while lashed to her mother’s back. Five years after Kailian’s death, the Armenian Museum of America in Watertown presents the exhibition, “In the Shade of Branches,” an occasion for looking at the past through the lens of an artist committed to life moving forward.
During the Turkish massacre and deportation of over a million Armenians, Berj Kailian’s mother miraculously survived her husband’s murder and the loss of three older children and
crossed in safety to Yerevan with her baby, Berj. After four desperate years working with the Red Cross in the refugee-swollen city, Kailian’s mother finally secured funds from her American brothers to emigrate to Weymouth, Massachusetts.
Their path took them across Siberia by rail. From Vladivostok, they were rescued and brought to Japan by the writer Diana Agabeg Apcar, an Indian-born Armenian who had settled in Yokohama with her merchant husband. A pamphleteer for years about Armenia’s plight, after the genocide, Apcar campaigned strenuously for international support of the refugees. She was experienced in running a business and proved a logistical wizard. She networked with the American Red Cross and the Japanese government to obtain temporary asylum for more than 600 refugees. With her own means, she funded, housed, fed and schooled them in Yokohama. She negotiated American visas and procured scarce berths on steamships in wartime. In 1920, the new Republic of Armenia appointed Apcar as Far Eastern consul.
Kailian’s heirs donated a group of the artist’s paintings dating from the 1970s to the Armenian Museum of America (AMA). While Jennifer Liston Munson, the director of the AMA, was researching Kailian’s background, she came across Diana Apcar’s life-saving contribution. Munson tracked down a documentary film by Apcar’s great-granddaughter of her exploits and then found her personal relics nearby at the Armenian Cultural Foundation (ACF) in Arlington. A clinching link persuaded her to unite these women’s crossing paths in a dual exhibition: “They were both doing their work, not for notoriety, but because they couldn’t not do it.”
The objects and papers loaned by the ACF dramatize Apcar’s passionate advocacy and extraordinary intervention by which roots and branches of a doomed people were transplanted to a new world. Her concrete documents and tools — books, pamphlets, letters to her daughter and diplomatic correspondence, down to the Waterman pen she wore hung from her neck — historically ground Kailian’s own saga of survival and artistic exorcism.