When the world commemorates the Armenian genocide on 24 April – the Ottoman government’s systematic extermination of its minority Armenian subjects within the territory of present-day Turkey – it is worth remembering Anna Hedwig Büll, an Estonian missionary of Baltic German descent, who helped save the lives of several thousand Armenian orphans during the genocide.
Anna Hedwig Büll (1887-1981) was born into a Lutheran family in 1887 in Haapsalu, Estonia, where her father owned a mud cure resort. She was the sixth of eight children in the family.
Büll attended a government school in Estonia until she was 15 and was then sent for continued studies to St Petersburg, where she for three years attended a protestant German school. While visiting her family in Haapsalu in 1903, she was inspired by a lecture given by a well-known evangelist, Johann Kargel, in her father’s house, and decided to dedicate her life to humanitarian mission work.
After receiving her baccalaureate in 1903, Büll spent some time in Germany where she learned about the fate of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. Motivated by her desire to work with the Armenian people, she continued her studies at an evangelical school. Soon she was invited to work at an Armenian mission station in Maraş; however, due to her youth she was first sent to work with women and children in German villages and then for a few months with the poor in St Petersburg.
In 1909, Büll again attempted to go to work with Armenians; however, this time, her trip was put on hold by the Adana massacre in Cilicia (modern-day Turkey). Instead, Büll attended for two years a seminary for missionary teachers.
After finishing her studies, Büll was finally able to proceed for Cilicia where she worked as a teacher at an Armenian orphanage in Maraş (Turkey) between 1911 and 1916.
Witnessing the genocide and establishing a refugee camp
In 1915, Büll witnessed the Armenian genocide in Cilicia and was instrumental in saving the lives of about two thousand Armenian children and women when Maraş was turned into “The City of Orphans”. Büll was recalled from Maraş in 1916.
In 1921, Büll was sent by the newly founded Action Chrétienne en Orient to Aleppo, Syria, where she established a refugee camp for the survivors of the Armenian Genocide. She also organised medical help for plague victims and the construction of two hospitals. Büll organised the establishment of weaving shops, gardens, an Armenian language school, and other enterprises to better the lives of the refugees.
In 1951, when most of the refugees under her care repatriated to the Soviet-occupied Armenia, Büll was refused a visa by the Soviet authorities. She then returned to Europe in 1951. She died at a nursing home for missionaries on 3 October 1981, near Heidelberg, Germany, after having spent more than 40 years of her life for the betterment of lives of Armenian refugees.
On 29 April 1989, a memorial tablet was dedicated for her by the Armenian-Estonian Cultural Society on her birth house in Haapsalu, Kooli Street 5. Her memory is also preserved by a monument in Armenia and at the Armenian Genocide Museum in Yerevan. Among the refugees she helped save and in Armenia she is sometimes referred to as the Mother of Armenians.
Turkey, the successor state of the Ottoman Empire, denies the word genocide as an accurate term for the mass killings that began under the Ottoman rule in 1915. As of 2021, 30 countries – including Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden and Russia – have officially recognised the mass killings as genocide, in which up to 1.5 million Armenians died, a view which is shared by most genocide scholars and historians.
* This article is an edited version first published in Horizon Weekly newspaper. The article was originally published by Estonian World on 11 May 2015 and lightly amended on 22 April 2021. Cover: Armenian orphans at the Anatolia College in 1918.