by Muriel Mirak-Weissbach
BOCHUM, Germany, MARCH 15, 2021 — Under normal circumstances we would have organized a huge birthday party. There would have been music — Armenian music — and poetry and dancing, shish-kebab, with all the trimmings, paklava and Ararat cognac. Friends would have come from all over Germany — Armenians, Turks, Kurds, Germans, young and old, colleagues and students, as well as family members. No one would want to miss Heide Rieck’s 80th birthday party.
But these are not normal times, so friends had to scotch any plans for such a gathering. Lockdowns are not conducive to festivities. And yet, celebrate we must. The best substitute we came up with was a tribute to our friend, and in an Armenian publication; for among the many, many friends of Armenia there are in Germany, Heide Rieck is at the top of the list.
I remember well how it all began. It was a cold January day in Cologne, in 2013. Guests of the Turm Theatre were glad to be inside, out of the cold. The play they had just seen was chilling but it ended with a warm kiss. “Anne’s Silence” was a monodrama composed by the German-Turkish author Dogan Akhanlı, who had fled political repression in his homeland. His play tells the story of a Turkish-German girl Sabiha, who has been engaged in Turkish nationalist political rallies. After her mother’s death, she discovers that she was Armenian, and the drama depicts Sabiha’s struggle to come to terms with her identity. Her recovery of her Armenian roots unfolds as a process of confrontation with the truth of the 1915 Genocide, in part reflected through the story of Hrant Dink. Actress Bea Ehlers-Kerbekian, who provided the concept for the play, portrayed Sabiha and all other characters in a tour de force performance. Her Armenian heritage lent her added insight into the psychological turmoil experienced by the protagonist.
Heide Rieck was in the audience, and it was the first time she had found herself among Armenians. She stayed for the round table discussion that followed, during which the question arose, whether or not the German government would ever recognize the Armenian genocide. As a participant, I ventured to say that they might indeed do so; after all, there were two years to go to the centenary, and “a lot could happen.” Heide was profoundly moved by the play, the stunning performance and now this note of optimism, which, she later wrote, “inspired me to dedicate three years to reading and writing about the fate of the Armenian people and to introduce Armenian culture to my region.” She would bring the production to Bochum a year later.
As a result the German-Armenian Culture Project came into being and the three years have stretched into seven, with no end in sight. In the coming days or weeks, her new book will appear, compiled and edited together with her colleague, Azat Ordukhanyan, director of the Armenian Academic Society (AAV 1860), the oldest Armenian organization in Germany. The new volume, titled Wurzeln in der Luft: Völkermord und Lebensspuren (Roots in the Air: Genocide and Footprints of Life), is an anthology of personal stories, written by children and grandchildren of the Genocide generation. Most of the 20 accounts are by Armenians, but there are also Pontic Greeks and an Assyrian, Turks and Germans. The book is just the latest contribution to educating the public in Germany, especially youth, introducing them to the history and culture of Armenians and thereby building bridges between the two peoples.
Author Rieck was well equipped, both personally and professionally, to undertake such an ambitious cultural enterprise. Born in 1941 in Stettin (today Szczecin, Poland), she and her family were forced to flee in 1945 to Krefeld, a city on the Rhine. Expulsion, deportation and war are not vague historical references but lived realities. Her love for literature and drama developed early, and she studied acting at the Keller Theater; later she set up a students’ theater group at the Pedagogical College, where her own first plays were performed. In 1963, she moved to the Ruhr region and taught theater and pedagogy there as well as in France. Theatre continued to be central in her teaching experience, during which she developed and produced more than 70 plays with her pupils.
Since 1999 she has been a freelance writer, has published 12 books and contributed to over 20 anthologies, her works spanning several genres, from poetry and short stories, to essays and novels. Many books have been translated into other languages, and she has travelled widely. On tours in Italy, Poland, Russia, Mexico and South Korea, she presented her book Doch seht wir leben –Vom inneren Widerstand — Zwangsarbeit 1939-1945 (Vechta 2005: Yet look, we are alive -On internal resistance – Forced Labor 1939 – 1945), containing the literary and artistic testimony of forced laborers during the second World War. In her 2012 novel, Aber die Schatten… (But the Shadows…), she follows the life story of a man from an extended Jewish-Christian family, who, though spared in the Holocaust, lives forever in its shadows. In addition to novels, she has published numerous collections of short prose pieces, like her Herzverlies. 17 Episoden von Trost und Liederlichkeit in 2006 (Heart Dungeon. 17 Episodes of Consolation and Chaos) and the very recent Am Rand – Innere Landschaften und ein bisschen Wüste (2020) (On the edge – Internal landscapes and a little bit of desert). She has won two prizes for poetry, is a member of the Union of German Writers, the European writers group Die Kogge, and is spokeswomen of the Bochum Writers.
In this most recent book, she records her very first meeting with an Armenian. He is a young scientist in Vienna for a conference; they meet in the hotel dining room at breakfast and exchange few words; schedules prevent further contact, there is an appointment and she has an early morning departing flight. It is a brief encounter, a cameo appearance, but one that will have far-reaching impact on her future work.
Heide Rieck is above all a poetess; even her prose works are poems in disguise. And the German-Armenian Culture Project, which she and Ordukhanyan have led over the years, is a highly poetical endeavor. In 2014, as a prelude to commemorating the centenary of the genocide, they organized an “Armenian Cultural Autumn.” Ordukhanyan explained, the intent was to celebrate Armenian life. “We want to show that we are still alive, making music, creating, working, producing. We want to present our culture.” From August 15 to November the program featured music dance, lectures, book presentations and a public colloquium. The renowned Armenian folk dance ensemble Geghart opened the program, the German translation of Dr. H. Martin Deranian’s book, President Calvin Coolidge and the Armenian Orphan Rug, was presented, and academics in the humanities gathered for a round table discussion on the fate of Armenians from Iraq and Syria now forced to flee again: “Out of the Diaspora into the Diaspora.”
When the German Shakespeare Society held its annual symposium in Bochum, and chose the theme of violence in Shakespeare’s plays, Rieck organized a session for literary readings by an Armenian, a Kurdish poet, Akhanlı and German-Jewish authoress Jay Monika Walther.
For the events marking the centennial of the genocide, Rieck and Ordukhanyan drafted plans for an “Armenian Spring” in Bochum. And springtime is the time for planting. On April 18, 2015 Lord Mayor Dr. Ottilie Scholz laid the foundation stone for a German-Armenian Friendship Garden. Just a week earlier, Ordukhanyan had been in Yerevan-Avan, Narekatsi district, to inaugurate a friendship garden. After planting the first tree there, he received 155 saplings to take back home — the number represented the 155 years of existence of the Armenian Academic Society, which was founded in 1860. In January, Norbert Lammert, then president of the German Bundestag, had met with Bochum citizens and decided to place the donation of plants for Armenia as well as the garden in Bochum officially under his patronage. Lammert was to lead the parliamentary debate later in April on the issue of genocide recognition.
Letters went out to schools, parishes and other local institutions, offering Armenian trees for their premises. On April 18, school children arrived with picks and shovels to join the effort, the mayor planted the first tree, and others followed there, as well as at the local zoo, the museum and the city archives building.
Days later, Rieck presented a reading of poems by Paruyr Sevak, from a new German translation that she had co-authored (Paruyr Sewak, Und sticht in meine Seele – 24 & 4 Gedichte Armenisch-Deutsch. Schiler-Verlag 2015). On April 24 official commemorations took place in several German cities. Artist Lisa Stybor opened the “Trail of Tears,” an exhibition of works created during a trip to historic Armenia, where she documented historic 1915 sites. In May a book, Die Armenierin, (The Armenian Woman) by Thomas Hartwig was presented.
In September, Rieck invited Ordukhanyan for an open dialogue, entitled “Gardens of Friendship link Orient and Occident – Yerevan and Bochum.” After that, she continued planting trees, this time in Armenia. Together with Ordukhanyan, she flew to Yerevan and on October 17 opened the garden in Yeghegnadzor.
“The German beech, juniper and pine trees were donated by German friends and flown to Yerevan,” Rieck later wrote. “There they were picked up by Armenian friends in their car. Helpers dug, planted and watered the young trees in the presence of the mayor and numerous photographers, and I watched as Armenian oaks were planted next to them — in front of the monument commemorating the victims of the war in Nagorno Karabagh.”
At the city school, they discovered that German was the most popular among foreign languages offered. Children greeted them with recitations of poems by Heine, Goethe and Schiller in excellent German. Rieck presented the book of Sevak’s poems in translation, her own contribution to intercultural exchange. She had the opportunity to visit the Sevak Museum in Sangakatun, and planted a rose bush in front of the house where he was born. She recalled that children helped plant it. “Each of them held an apple or a pear in their hand — from the trees that the poet himself had planted — a gift that certainly they will never forget: not far from Mount Ararat an apple from a poet’s tree awakens in the heart of children the love of poetry! This, too, is Armenia.”
Rieck has never missed an opportunity to introduce Armenian culture to a German public. In March 2016, she published an article on the traces of Armenian culture in Germany, a subject that Ordukhanyan has researched at length. If some Germans knew that the great musicologist and composer Komitas studied in Berlin at the Humboldt University, where a commemorative plaque was placed in 2013, few if any would have known that the Armenian presence began with the spread of Christianity in the 4th century AD. Relics of Armenian doctor and martyr St. Blasius were brought to Germany and it was the missionary Servatius of Armenia who proclaimed Christianity in Rhineland and Low Countries in the same century. Churches in Cologne, Bonn and Siegburg bear his name. It was an Armenian-Byzantine princess Theophanu who married German Emperor Otto II in 972, in St. Peters in Rome.
In 2017, Rieck and Ordukhanyan organized an event at the Evangelical church in Bochum-Linden, entitled “Armenia in Luther Year”—the centenary of the Protestant reformation that was the occasion for an ambitious program of events throughout Germany all year long. One central element of the debate was the historical significance of Luther’s translation of the bible into German. Few, if any Germans, could know that an Armenian religious figure had preceded Luther by centuries. Renowned Armenologist Prof. Armenuhi Drost-Abgarjan was invited to present a lecture on the “Invention of the Armenian Alphabet and Bible Translations in the Mother Tongue in the 5th Century.” Almost 1,000 years before Luther, Mesrop Mashtots had translated Bible into the Armenian vernacular, and, as she demonstrated, the two employed similar methods.
Heide Rieck has a lot to celebrate on her birthday, and Armenians have good reason to join in with a toast – Ararat cognac, of course. We raise our glasses (albeit at a distance) with warm thanks for what she has contributed so far to German-Armenian cultural understanding, and look forward to the coming years, wishing her good health, energy, and joy in her creative activities!