“Before me stands the incarnation of infinite, inexpressible suffering. An eternal flame burns in the center of a wide circle, perpetuating that day of horror. Facing the monument is a man, alone and weeping, trembling with emotion. He has come to pay tribute to his parents. I contemplate the symbolic image of Golgothan horror, trying not to break into tears. I had been a hair’s breadth from that icy death, my child’s heart as yet unaware of the extent of the tragedy.”
Claude Armen Mutafian’s father, painter Zareh Mutafian, was 67 years old when he stood before the Genocide Memorial in Yerevan, newly inaugurated on Tsitsernakaberd Hill overlooking the city. Born March 15, 1907 in the Ottoman Empire in Ünye, 90 kilometers from Samsun on the shores of the Black Sea, Zareh was only eight years old when his entire family was massacred. Left for dead, he later joined a column of deportees, and when the convoy arrived in Malatya, he was hired by a Kurdish tinsmith.
Zareh owed his survival to a Near East Relief orphanage. Set up by the Americans in Samsun at the end of the war, it was moved to Greece a few years later under the onslaught of Kemal forces.
Gifted in the arts, particularly in classical music, Zareh was destined for a career as a violinist when, in 1923, the Greek island of Corfu was bombed by an Italian fighter plane. Mistaking its target, it hit the Near East Relief orphanage housed in abandoned barracks and caused many casualties. Anxious to avoid a diplomatic incident with the United States, the Italian dictator Mussolini offered to transport to Italy and finance the educations of a hundred orphans with the Armenian Catholic Mekhitarists. Thus Zareh was sent to Milan.
When he fell ill with pleurisy, Zareh had to give up the violin and turned his sights toward painting, in particular the school of the great Venetian masters. He was a lover of Italian painting and studied at the Brera Academy in Milan from 1927 to 1931. The critic Gustavo Macchi said of him, during his exhibition in Milan in 1933, “The great seductress awakened in him his true vocation; Venetian nuances penetrated his soul.”
Besides being a painter, Zareh Mutafian was also a talented art critic. His writings were published in Armenian diasporic press, popularizing his name at home and abroad. After his death in 1980, his son, Claude Armen Mutafian, undertook the task of making his father’s heritage better known by publishing posthumous texts in Armenian.
Claude Mutafian was born in 1942 in the Parisian suburb of Clamart. Mathematician turned historian specializing in medieval Armenian history, his name is intimately associated with that of the ancient Armenian kingdom of Cilicia. His mother, Haïgouhie Damlamian, born in Samsun in 1911, was from a family of shopkeepers originally from Caesarea, now Kayseri. In 1915, she lost her father and four of her uncles. By a stroke of luck, two survived, absent at the time from the scenes of the crimes.
“She lived through unspeakable horror, fought to survive before fighting for life and achieving a spectacular rebirth,” says Claude.
Haïgouhie never missed an opportunity to say how much she owed her uncles and especially her mother, who died prematurely in 1938. Among the episodes she liked to recall one had left a deep and permanent impression. It occurred when she was only four or five years old. “During the deportation toward death, the column crossed a small Turkish town in which the mayor’s wife was about to have a baby. There was no midwife, so they asked if there was one among the deportees. My grandmother, who in her whole life had never delivered a baby, understood that it was her only chance of survival and claimed it was her profession. The birth took place normally; what’s more – it was a boy. My grandmother was hired, we remained in town, and thus the family was saved!” Claude remembers his mother as saying.
In 1917 the family returned to Samsun. At the time, Claude’s maternal grandmother regularly invited orphans cared for by Near East Relief for a once-a-week meal. It was there, as children, that Claude’s parents met for the first time. On the road that would eventually lead them to France, the Damlamian family stopped in Constantinople, where Haïgouhie attended the prestigious Essayan school. From there they went to Clamart, in the suburbs of Paris, where one of the surviving uncles was a doctor.
Because of their two older sisters, who were seamstresses, Claude’s mother was able to continue her studies. Thus in 1934, at the age of 23, Haïgouhie obtained a degree in dentistry, having overcome a number of handicaps: being a girl in a field usually reserved for men, being a foreigner, and not yet fully mastering the language. “Accept the struggle, you’ll win the battle,” she wrote on a page in her notebook, a motto very much the story of her life. The family’s material means were limited, but thanks to the doctor uncle who paid for her studies, she led a brilliant career as a dentist until the age of 78.
On an excursion to the island of St. Lazarus in Venice, quite by chance, Haigouhie encountered an orphan she had previously met in Samsun. She and Zareh were married in 1939 and had three children: Marie-Madeleine, Claude and Sylvie. “If war hadn’t broken out between France and Italy, I’d have been Italian!” says Claude with a smile.
During the German occupation, Zareh rented a painter’s studio on rue de Navarin in the 9th arrondissement, the Paris headquarters of the Armenian intelligentsia. Because there were restrictions on the right of assembly, his vast studio was often the scene of cultural activities staged by intellectuals who had escaped the Genocide. From that point on, Zareh fervently participated in Parisian Armenian life.
Claude remembers the writers Archag Tchobanian, Chavarch Nartouni and others he met as a child at Les Diamantaires, the restaurant his father frequented. In 1962, Zareh left on a tour of the United States, where he organized a series of exhibitions in cities throughout the country, from the East Coast to the West: New York, Milwaukee, Los Angeles and Fresno. It was there that he received a letter from his wife Haïgouhie announcing her decision to separate. In despair, Zareh wrote to his son and Claude took the first plane to be with his father. Though shattered, in the end Zareh again took up his brushes and worked harder than ever, as if despair pushed him to surpass himself and thus win back his wife. Claude was in Armenia when his father died in 1980. “He’d had a heart attack three years before and had asked to see my mother,” Claude says. Since then, Claude has worked tirelessly to pay tribute to Zareh, organizing posthumous exhibitions in France and abroad.
A meeting of Armenian intellectuals in Paris at Zareh Mutafian’s studio, 1944
After graduating from the prestigious École Normale Supérieure, Claude went on to teach mathematics for 42 years. In 1968, an era marked by intense student activism, he was at Princeton University in the United States.
“We were in the midst of the Vietnam War and I was an unrepentant anarchist!” he says.
Claude was unable to bear campus life, with its “genius on every street corner,” but it wasn’t enough for him to show his outright hostility toward “Yankee imperialism.” As a young teacher, he frequented the radical student organization, Students for a Democratic Society, sympathized with the Black Panthers, devoured the texts of Franz Fanon and Jean Genet, revered Martin Luther King and held Che Guevara in high esteem. “When I resigned from Princeton, I didn’t feel like going to France, which was an ally of the United States. So I went to teach math in Cuba; it was a mission in the context of the French University Committee for aid to the Cuban university,” Claude says.
On the flight taking Claude to Havana in 1969 he met another mathematician, Marie Duflo, also from the École Normale, also left wing like himself. They married 27 years later – Claude had already been married (for a week) and had an aversion to that “bourgeois institution.” It was in revolutionary Cuba that he wrote, in Spanish, his first math manuals, an experience that gave him a taste for writing books.
One might think that Armenia was far from his mind during those years, but that was not the case. In Paris in 1975, he had made the acquaintance of a young Armenian mathematician, Rouben Hambartsumian, son of Victor, the great scientist and academician. Five years later, Rouben invited Claude to teach – in Armenian – for four months at the State University of Yerevan. He made a number of contacts there and has returned regularly. In the aftermath of the 1988 earthquake, he was a strong supporter of humanitarian aid and used his network of French intellectuals to help focus attention on Armenia’s plight.
Although mathematics has been his main profession throughout his life, Claude was always, as the French say, “fort en theme” – good at writing and translating. At school, he was always first in Greek and Latin. Fascinated by the myths and legends of antiquity and by medieval history, it was at the suggestion of his wife Marie that he went to Anatolia in 1977. During that voyage, he crisscrossed the land of his ancestors, visited his parents’ native cities, and above all, fell in love with the chateaux of Cilicia. Journeys to the Middle East, Aleppo, Damascus, Beirut, Jerusalem and Cyprus followed. It was on those trips that he realized how well known his father actually was. “All I had to do was say that I was the son of Zareh Mutafian and all doors opened for me,” he remembers.
The author of an imposing academic work translated into several languages, Claude Armen Mutafian continues to welcome guests at his legendary library on rue Saint Jacques in the heart of Paris.
The story is verified by the 100 LIVES Research Team.