THIS WEEK IN ARMENIAN HISTORY
(Prepared by the Armenian National Education Committee)
Birth of Maria Jacobsen
(November 6, 1882)
Maria Jacobsen was a key witness of the Armenian Genocide. She belonged to a group of missionaries of different nationalities who had been active since the years before in various areas of Armenian population and continued their work for years, helping victims and survivors with their humanitarian efforts.
Jacobsen was born in Denmark, in the town of Siim, near Ry, on November 6, 1882. She lived in Horsens with her parents. She learned about the Hamidian massacres of 1894-1896 through the Danish media. Feminist activist Jessie Penn-Lewis arrived in Denmark from England in 1898 and helped form the Women’s Missionary Workers (Kvindelige Missions Arbejdere, K.M.A.) two years later. Young Maria soon partook in the efforts to support and provide relief to orphans in the eastern provinces of the Ottoman Empire. In 1907, at the age of twenty-five, she departed to Constantinople with American missionaries, and then left for Kharpert, where she worked at the Armenian hospital. She also developed charitable activities in Malatia, Aintab, and other cities.
After a two-years sojourn in Denmark from 1912-1914 with a charity mission, she returned to Kharpert on the eve of 1915 and became a witness of the Turkish atrocities and the deportation of the Armenians.
Maria Jacobsen kept a diary in Danish from 1907-1919, which became a valuable source to document the day-to-day unfolding of the Turkish anti-Armenian policy. In a diary entry on June 26, 1915 regarding the deportations, she stated: “It is quite obvious that the purpose of their departure is the extermination of the Armenian people.” She added: “Conditions now are completely different from what they were during the massacres of 20 years ago. What could be done then is impossible now. The Turks know very well about the war raging in Europe, and that the Christian nations are too busy to take care of Armenians, so they take advantage of the times to destroy their ‘enemies.’”
Jacobsen adopted three children during this period. The first, Hansa, had fled the Bedouin family to which she had been sold, and was hiding in a tree until she became unconscious from sickness and fell. A Turk police officer and Jacobsen found her, and the Danish missionary chose to adopt her on the spot. The second child was Beatrice, and the third was Lilly, who she had found on the side of the road.
In 1919 Maria Jacobson left the Ottoman Empire after contracting typhus from the orphans. She first went to Denmark and then to the United States, where she gave a series of lectures and speeches on the plight of the Armenian people, and the massacres that they had undergone, and raised money for the orphans.
The Kemalist government prohibited the activities of all foreign missionaries, and in 1922, Jacobsen went to Beirut, where she continued to gather and care for the orphans. In July 1922, after moving to Saida, she helped establish an orphanage which sheltered 208 Armenian orphans. The Women’s Missionary Workers (K.M.A.) acquired in 1928 an orphanage previously owned by the Near East Relief, located in Jbeil, where Jacobsen moved with her orphans and would be known as Bird’s Nest (Terchnots Pooyn, in Armenian). She would be known to the orphans as “Mama.”
Jacobsen was also fluent in Armenian, and often read the Bible to the orphans in their mother language. She married an Armenian dentist. She became the first woman to receive the Gold Medal Award of the Kingdom of Denmark in 1950 for her humanitarian work. Four years later, on December 14, 1954, she was awarded the Gold Medal of Honor by the government of Lebanon on her 50th jubilee celebration for her service and dedication to the Armenian community.
Maria Jacobsen passed away on 6 April 1960 and, according to her will, was buried in the courtyard of Birds’ Nest. Part of her archives were deposited in the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute in 2010. Her diary was first published in a bilingual Danish-Armenian edition in 1979 by Archbishop Nerses Pakhdigian and Mihran Simonian, and years later, an English translation was published by the Gomidas Institute.