It was almost exactly 5 years ago that I found myself sitting at the dinner table in an Upper East Side home whose walls were filled with an extraordinary collection of early European portraiture. I remember how the 17th-century Portrait of a Boy with a Red Beret by Sassoferato looked down upon our side of the table with a gently welcoming gaze. The dinner was hosted by Aso Tavitian, an Armenian-American philanthropist and inventor born and raised in Communist Bulgaria who — yearning to study — had managed to escape the compulsory army draft through a complicated exodus via Beirut. There, an Armenian teacher taught him English and, without his knowledge at the time, helped to facilitate his studies at Columbia University when he landed as a refugee in New York City in 1961 at the age of 19.
Among Aso’s dinner guests there was, on the one hand, a quiet Turkish philanthropist named Osman Kavala, who had studied at NSSR in the early 1980s and was now well known for his support of human rights organizations in Turkey. On the other hand, there was the widely respected Archbishop of the Armenian Apostolic Church in New York, as well as a few other Turks and Armenians.
The dinner was taking place just before the Centennial of the 1915 Armenian genocide in which one and a half million Armenians were exterminated by the Turks of the Ottoman Empire. As I listened to the dinner conversation I gradually became aware that I was observing a highly-sensitive effort to address the crimes of the past by trying to set in motion what came to be known as the politics of regret.
Would the Turkish government be willing to offer — in some emblematic moment one century later — a public apology?
As I headed home I remember admiring Aso’s remarkable talent for bringing people together, and the trust he placed in those around him. The guests at the table all seemed to sense the gravity and the potential of the moment. Shortly thereafter the gentle Turkish philanthropist took part in a commemoration of the Armenian Genocide held near Taksim Square in Istanbul. Little did we know then in 2015 that Osman Kavala would be arrested two years later, and would still be a political prisoner today in Erdogan’s Turkey.
Our host that memorable evening, Aso Tavitian, was a humanitarian to the core, and deeply shaped by his emigre experience. His talents and professional achievements enabled him to express his curiosity and love of life and people through the generous support of a wide range of initiatives and causes. He was on the Board of Governors of the New School for Social Research and appreciated its continuation of the University-in-Exile ethos.
As a special friend of the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies (TCDS), Aso got to know the young students from Armenia and Bulgaria whose visits to the New School or to our summer institute in Poland he had supported. They reminded him of his own younger self to whom somebody had once given a chance. Beneficiaries of the wide embrace of Aso’s generosity and warmth included school children in Massachusetts who had reading difficulties, promising future government officials in Armenia, and distinguished Visiting Professors at NSSR like Galina Starovoitova, Julia Kristeva, and Adam Michnik.
The heartbreaking news of Aso’s passing on April 21, already announced by the president of Armenia, first reached me in an email from Yerevan the next day with condolences from Alexander Markarow, NSSR’s very first visiting fellow from Armenia. Markarow, whose 1995 fellowship had been funded by Aso Tavitian, is now a professor of politics, Deputy Vice-Rector of Yerevan State University, and (appropriately enough) head of its International Cooperation Office.
A major source of personal joy for Aso was that extraordinary collection of pre-19th century portraits, which he would share with guests in a touching demonstration of utterly unpretentious pride, humor, and encyclopedic knowledge. I was privileged to enjoy Aso’s personal friendship, and my heart goes out to his wife, Isabella Meisinger, who has warmly co-hosted so many of us from The New School. As happened every year, their Christmas card featured a painting from Aso’s collection. This past year’s, still propped up on my desk, is that one of the Boy in a Red Beret, whose peaceful and tender gaze is only fully felt if you look at it often.
It is good to have it nearby these days.
Elzbieta Matynia is Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research and Director of Transregional Center for Democratic Studies.