This Week in Armenian History

Birth of Jacob Künzler (March 8, 1871)

Missionary, doctor and nurse, Protestant deacon, eyewitness of the Armenian Genocide and rescuer and caregiver of thousands of Armenian orphans and widows. That was the Swiss humanitarian Jacob “Papa” Künzler, who helped thousands of people in Urfa and Lebanon for about 50 years. 

Jacob Künzler was born on March 8, 1871, in Hundwill (Switzerland). He lost his parents at an early age and initially worked as a carpenter. After being trained in Basel as an evangelist deacon, he became a doctor’s assistant and nurse. He worked at the local hospital (1894-1899) and in 1899 Johannes Lepsius’ German Eastern Mission offered  him the position of doctor’s assistant at the organization’s hospital near the orphanage of Urfa. He continued to study medicine until he became an independent operating surgeon, and later in 1905 he married Elizabeth Bender, daughter of a Christian missionary in Ethiopia. He was able to gain the respect and trust of the local population thanks to his human and professional qualities.  

Künzler remained in Urfa during the Armenian Genocide. He was not just a witness, but also tried to help Armenians who fell victim to the Turkish authorities. He later took part in the liberation of Armenian women and children held by Muslims. The German Eastern Mission was forced to cease its activities in Turkey at the end of World War I. Künzler played an important role in preserving the buildings belonging to the German orphanage in Urfa and improving the situation of the Armenians who took refuge there.

After returning to Switzerland in 1919, he published his memoir Im Lande des Blutes und der Tränen (In the Land of Blood and Tears, 1921; English translation, 2007), which documented his testimony on the genocide. He was again in Urfa in 1922, where he had a pivotal role in the transfer of about 8,000 Armenian orphans to Syria.  

In February 1923 Jacob Künzler became director of the orphanage in Ghazir, Lebanon, which housed 1,400 Armenian orphans, on behalf of the Swiss Armenian Relief Society (1923-1929), and was a collaborator of Near East Relief (1929-1931). He continued to aid Armenians in need until his last days. He died on January 15, 1949, in Ghazir and was buried in the French Protestant Cemetery of Beirut. 

Throughout his career, Künzler surrounded Armenian orphans with care and warmth, trying to alleviate the suffering of children prepare the orphans under his care for an independent life by. Armenians refer to him as “Papa” because of his selfless activity spread over many years. His faithful wife, Elizabeth “Mama” Künzler, was equally loved by Armenians and always shared the difficulties and hardships of her husband’s life throughout his entire period of service in the Orient.