A family humanitarian legacy born in the tragedy of the Armenian Genocide

  • Opening slide of Ani Hovannisian's presentation.

  • Ani Hovanissian.

  • Ani Hovannisian with a photo of survivors of the Armenian Genocide taken in the late 1910s.

  • UCLA Professor Emeritus of History Richard Hovannisian presents an overview of the Armenian Genocide.

  • Stanley Kerr, Elsa Reckman, Marion Kerr (sister) and other members of the American Near East Relief, Marash,1921.

  • Celebrating PAI's gift of a historic NER poster (with protective tape) to Ann Kerr. From left: PAI Deputy Director Hasmik Baghdasaryan, UCLA Professor Emeritus Richard Hovannisian, PAI Director Ann Karagozian, Ani Hovannisian, Ann Kerr, Susan Kerr van de Ven and Dr. Eric Esrailian.

  • Ann Kerr (right) with Ani Hovannisian upon being presented with the gift from the Promise Armenian Institute.

  • Susan Kerr van de Ven and Ann Kerr.

UCLA International Institute, April 27, 2023 — In a feat of superb storytelling, documentary filmmaker Ani Hovannisian delivered the inaugural Kerr Family Lecture of the Promise Armenian Institute (PAI) at UCLA on April 12. Her subject was the humanitarian work of Stanley and Elsa Kerr, who saved thousands of survivors — the majority of whom were orphans — of the Armenian Genocide in Ottoman lands, together with the legacy of humanitarianism that they left to their descendants.

The event was cosponsored by PAI, the Ararat-Eskijian Museum and the National Association of Armenian Studies and Research.

“The extraordinary life of the Kerrs came to life for me about six years ago, when I picked up Stanley Kerr’s ‘The Lions of Marash,’” said Hovannisian. “[I]t wasn’t until I read [his] jaw-dropping eyewitness accounts of Marash under siege and his heroic efforts to save the Armenians, that I realized that there was a much deeper story to discover.

“I am working on a documentary about the incredible Kerr family legacy that continues to impact and uplift people across the world,” she added. The video clips that punctuated her remarks accordingly featured interviews with the descendants of Stanley and Elsa’s four children: Marion, Dorothy, Douglas and Malcolm.

Stanley and Elsa Kerr met in the late 1910s in the waning days of Ottoman Turkish Empire, where they and Stanley’s sister Marion had traveled to participate in the U.S. government-funded Near East Relief, or NER, program to help survivors of the 1915–18 genocide.* Stanley began his work as a medical officer among Armenian refugees in the town of Marash in the Ottoman Empire, and later in Aleppo, Syria, one of the Armenians’ destinations of escape. Elsa initially studied Turkish in Constantinople for a year under the aegis of NER.

The dedicated young people eventually served together in Marash at a time of great uncertainty and continuing violence against the decimated Armenian population. There, together with other NER staff, they oversaw five orphanages and the schooling of young Armenians who had lost their parents in the genocide, later helping thousands of those same orphans evacuate to Syria and Lebanon when the town came under full-scale attack by Turkish nationalist forces in 1920.

“Stanley became Near East Relief’s unofficial photographer [in Aleppo],” said Hovanissian. “He took thousands of photos of orphans and identified them and documented daily scenes of people, places and important events, including the rescue of Armenian children from Bedouin and other tribes who had taken [them in and were raising] them as their own.”

Stanley and Elsa Kerr (née Reckman) moved to Lebanon in 1921, where they established new orphanages for some of the evacuated survivors of Marash along the coast. They married there a year later and, after a brief spell in the U.S. during which Stanley earned his Ph.D. in biochemistry, returned to Beirut in 1924. They worked at the American University of Beirut (AUB) for the next 40 years; Stanley, as a professor in the medical school and Elsa, as the dean of women students.

In 1973, over 50 years after the tragedy and tumult of his work with NER, Stanley Kerr published his first-hand account, “The Lions of Marash.” Richard Hovannisian, then a young historian and UCLA colleague of Kerr’s son Malcolm, wrote the introduction to the book.

Now the Armenian Educational Foundation Professor Emeritus of Modern Armenian History at UCLA (a chair that was renamed in his honor after his retirement), Hovannisian gave a brief historical overview of the genocide and extensive U.S. humanitarian efforts of the era prior to his daughter Ani’s presentation. “Stanley [Kerr] was generally a quiet and soft-spoken man,” said the elder Hovannisian. “And Elsa was a formidable, calm and confident woman.”

In the 19th century, the American Board for Foreign Missions — largely created by Congregationalists — drew “hundreds of dedicated young, educated [Americans], including physicians and missionaries and nurses and teachers, who voluntarily traveled to the difficult life in underdeveloped countries for a mission that they felt was significant,” said the historian. In Ottoman Turkey, “these hundreds of American men and women became witness to the greatest tragedy in the turbulent centuries of Armenian history.

“Stanley and Elsa were living witnesses to these events in their letters and their writings. They left nothing to imagination — they are compelling. And they put faces on people, which makes it all so warm,” he said.

Malcolm Kerr was raised on the AUB campus in Beirut, where he met his wife Ann while she was on a study abroad program. He eventually became a political scientist of the modern Arab world and worked at UCLA for some 20 years, during which he served as chair of the political science department, director of the Center for Near Eastern Studies and dean of social sciences. The Kerrs’ four children grew up largely between Los Angeles, Beirut and Cairo. Malcolm Kerr became president of AUB in 1982, but his service to the institution to which his parents had devoted their lives was tragically cut short when he was assassinated in 1984.

Ann Kerr was also in attendance at the April 12 lecture, together with her daughter Susan Kerr van de Ven, an elected county councilor (Liberal Democratic Party) in Cambridgeshire, UK. Ann is the author of two books (“Come with Me from Lebanon: An American Family Odyssey” and “Painting the Middle East”) and has been a member of the AUB Board of Trustees for over three decades.

Now the matriarch of her own Kerr family, Ann has coordinated the Visiting Fulbright Scholar Enrichment Program at UCLA since the early 1990s, and regularly teaches a UCLA Fiat Lux class in which visiting international Fulbright scholars speak to undergraduate Bruins about their cultures, countries and impressions of the U.S.

“[Ann] has humankind in mind with just about everything she does,” remarked Ani Hovanissian. “She believes that with knowledge, mutual understanding and compassion, people and nations can learn to cooperate and live better together. This comes from a woman who... lost her husband to an act of terror, but refuses to lose faith in humanity.”

After the presentation concluded, Promise Armenian Institute Director Ann Karagozian presented Ann Kerr with an original Near Eastern Relief poster as a gift from the institute. “I want to say how much I appreciate your including my whole family,” said Kerr to Ani Hovannisian. “And Elsa [was recognized] as much as Stanley — some of you remember that it was just the man who used to be mentioned,” she continued, expressing gratitude that her mother-in-law’s contributions and legacy were finally receiving the attention they deserved.

At a reception following the lecture, UCLA faculty, students and members of the greater Los Angeles Armenian community — including a former biochemistry student of Stanley Kerr at AUB — shared their thoughts and traded family stories of survival of the Armenian Genocide.

*According to UCLA Professor Emeritus Richard Hovannisian, the killings actually began in 1914. Attacks against surviving Armenians in Turkish Ottoman lands continued sporadically through 1923.

Photos of the lecture by Peggy McInerny/ UCLA.

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Published: Thursday, April 27, 2023