By Sahag Dakesian
Born on Oct. 25, 1914, in Kghi, Western Armenia, Berjouhi (Berj) and her mother, Alem Alemian Siroonian, escaped the Armenian Genocide and immigrated to the United States in 1919. On one of the forced marches and deportations from Kghi through Erzerum, through the desert, on through Kars, Ardahan, Tbilisi, and finally Yerevan, her brother and sisters were lost and never heard from again. The only reason Berj survived was that she was tied on to her mother’s back.
They left Yerevan in 1919 after receiving funds from her mother’s two younger brothers, Ghevont and Haroutiun (living in Weymouth, Mass.), and escaped through the northern mountains in Russia to travel via the Trans-Siberian Railroad to Vladivostok, Russia, and then to Yokohama, Japan. There they boarded the ship Mexico Maru to Seattle, and then by train traveled to their uncles’ home in Weymouth.
During this time, Berj’s mother, Alem, had married Dickran Seferian, who became her step-father. In 1922, a son, John, was born into the new family, and in 1924 a girl, Varsenig, was born into the family.
Berj enrolled in the Weymouth school system. After graduating from Weymouth High School in 1932, she attended and graduated from the Vesper George School of Art in Boston in 1936. From art school, she went into the retail field, which included traveling to New York, where she visited the great museums.
In 1940, Berj married Vahan Kailian, a survivor from Kharpert. With their two young sons, Vaughn and Gregory, the family eventually moved overseas and lived from 1949-56 in Germany and France while Vahan performed diplomatic duties at local U.S. embassies. During this period, Berj attended the prestigious Julien School of Fine Arts in Paris, and her two sons enrolled in the Mekhitarist’s schools in the local areas.
In 1957, the family moved back to the U.S., and Berj opened and operated an art gallery—Treasure Shoppe—in Hingham, Mass. For 20 years, the gallery catered to local area artists and the South Shore Art Center where she taught once a week. In the 1970’s, she continued her art studies at the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, Mass. At the age of 65, she sold her Art Shoppe to attend the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and from there enrolled at Tufts University, graduating in 1984 with a B.F.A. in Fine Arts. Berj held positions on the board of advisors and faculty of the South Shore Art Center in Cohasset and the Weymouth Arts Council, and on the board of directors of the Copley Society in Boston.
Berj made three trips to Armenia including, one in 1986 with a group of four artists, invited to an exhibit in Yerevan. During those trips she developed a strong desire to make rubbings on Japanese papers of the khatchkars in Yerevan and surrounding areas. Her various art works can be found hanging in the permanent collections of the Armenian State Museum of Fine Arts and the Museum of Modern Art in Armenia, as well as the Armenian Library and Museum of America (ALMA) in Watertown.
Berj also served the greater Boston Armenian community as a lecturer, teacher, benefactor, and major fundraiser. Her favorite charities were the Armenian Museum of America (AMA), the Children of Armenia Fund (COAF), and the Berj Jamgochian Gomidas Organ Fund founded in the 1970’s by Berj Jamgochian, the internationally acclaimed organ soloist with the Boston Symphony and Pops Orchestras. The Gomidas Fund was established to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Gomidas Vartabed (Soghomon Soghomonian), an Armenian priest, musicologist, composer, and founder of the Armenian National School of Music.
Berj Kailian was also a staunch advocate for local Native American issues. She gave generous donations of plaques and memorial stones at the Wessagusset Beach-Sea Memorial in Weymouth. She found many similarities between the Armenian and Native American backgrounds, because they both went through similar experiences.
God bless the soul of my warm and close (second) cousin.
Every human, who survived a genocide will have a level of sadness till the end. May God bless he sole.
Auntie Berj was a very talented artist. I remember visiting her as a child and marveling at her work as she would show us different mediums. I treasure the piece she gave us as a wedding gift along with other pieces we have.
Dear Berjouhi, Exceptional noble heart, noble soul, charming person with excellent humor you will be always remembered by all those who ever had a chance to meet you.R.I.P.
What a survivor !! There is a German saying “when it can’t kill you , makes you stronger “