Life and death during the Armenian genocide

'Armenian Golgotha' is an extraordinary life story as well as a historical record of a massacre.

armenian genocide book 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
armenian genocide book 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Armenian Golgotha By Grigoris Balakian Knopf, 509 pp., $23.10 On April 24 Armenians and others around the world once again remembered the Armenian genocide. It has been 94 years since the beginning of that genocide which was to last from 1915 to 1920 and involved the destruction of almost every Armenian community living in what became Turkey. As many as 1.2 million people were killed. Grigoris Balakian was an unlikely witness of this mass slaughter. In August 1914 he was enjoying coffee in a Berlin coffee shop when war broke out in Europe. He saw the German "fanaticism unbecoming a civilized nation" as the people rushed off to war. With the foreknowledge that Germany had formed a German-Turkish society led by Baron Rudiger von der Goltz Pasha who had written that Turkey should remove the Armenians from Turkey and that Turkey was pro-German, Balakian elected to return to "be useful as possible to those [Armenians] whom I indeed saw as being in immediate danger." It was a fateful decision. On April 24, 1915, after Turkey had entered World War I on the side of Germany, at nightfall the Turkish police fanned out across Istanbul with orders to round up 250 Armenians activists, intellectuals, communal and church leaders. Balakian was roused from his bed and taken along with the others to the prison of Sirkedji. The genocide had begun. Balakian was born in Tokat, a multiethnic town near the Black Sea, in 1876. He was 18 when Sultan Abdul Hamid II launched a wave of Armenian massacres that resulted in the deaths of some 200,000. In 1901 he was ordained as a priest after studying engineering. Between 1906 and 1914 he became increasingly involved in politics, serving in the National Religious Assembly of the Armenians and engaging in negotiations with the German embassy on behalf of Armenian rights in the Ottoman Empire. It was for these reasons that he was targeted in the first wave of arrests aimed at decapitating the leadership of the Armenians in 1915. Balakian's narrative follows him from prison near Istanbul all the way to the desert wastes of Syria and then back again as he travels disguised as a German. The genocide was not carried out quickly, as was later the case in Rwanda where, although most of the killing was done with machetes, some 800,000 died in three months. It was also not carried out with the methodical precision, statistical banality and controlled murder of the Holocaust. It was perhaps closer in nature to what was to happen in Cambodia: There were mass deportations, starvation and massacre, with some 400,000 Armenians dying in forced marches and another 400,000 dying in the desert wastes. What makes it particularly horrible is the cruelty and violence, the gouging of eyes and mutilation of genitals and the sexual violence aimed at women. In addition, the destruction was not aimed merely to murder; some 5 percent to 10% of the Armenian population was absorbed into Turkish households through the adoption of Armenian orphans and the forced marriage of Armenian girls and young women to Turkish, Arab and Kurdish men. Balakian provides the reader with the milieu within which the Armenians lived. Some were wealthy businessmen with little communal feeling. Some were passionate patriots who rebelled against the Turks or joined volunteer units with the Russian army. Others were Dashnak politicians and cultural leaders who argued for the creation of an Armenian state. In 1914 "the Armenian population of Constantinople [Istanbul], believing that the hour of redemption was finally at hand, was in a state of great excitement." Balakian encouraged the people not to have false hopes of freedom. He couldn't know how correct his premonitions were. In his introduction to Armenian Golgotha, originally published in two volumes in 1922 and 1956 (the gap in years owing to the fact that the second volume was lost for many years), Peter Balakian says this book joins more famous "witness" literature, such as Elie Wiesel's Night. While this is true, the two books differ greatly. Wiesel's is a narrative of a young boy, whereas Balakian is not only a 40-year-old man but he was also a community leader with a great understanding of politics, history and the context of the events befalling him. In writing the book, which he did between 1918 and 1922, he went to great lengths to discover telegrams, archival records and biographical details about the acts he saw and the people around him. Thus Chapter 9 includes a list of all of the elite deportees with whom he spent April 1915 and records in detail their fates. This is more than an eyewitness account, it is a masterful history in its own right. Chapter 27 describes the declaration of the Armenian Republic and chapters 4 and 25 describe the conditions of the Armenian people before and after the war. In addition a special appendix includes Balakian's exhortation to the Armenian people he penned in Manchester in 1922. He writes: "This bloody manuscript is your holy book... how can we erect memorials for you, the countless martyrs of my poor and wretched race." There is thus something in Armenian Golgotha that transcends the witness narrative but nonetheless makes this book both an essential memoir, a lively and extraordinary life story and a history of the genocide. The writer is a PhD student in geography at the Hebrew University and runs the Terra Incognita Journal blog.