Globe and Mail, Canada
May 23 2009

Witness in the Armenian killing fields


A Memoir of the Armenian Genocide, 1915-1918
By Grigoris Balakian
Translated by Peter Balakian with Aris Sevag
Knopf, 505 pages, $42

More than one million Armenians were exterminated by the Ottoman Turks
in the first genocide of the 20th century, in what Raphael Lemkin (a
Polish Jew and legal scholar who invented the term after the Second
World War to describe race-murder) regarded as the template for
genocide in the modern era, and what we can now see as the paradigm
for the Jewish Holocaust and for genocides in Ukraine, Cambodia,
Rwanda, the Balkans and Darfur.

My father was Armenian, and one of a multitude of orphaned victims of
the Ottoman scourge. He was not yet 5½ when pan-Turkic ideology flamed
into race-murder on April 24, 1915. He barely remembered his own
father's face. He certainly did not remember any of his grandparents
or their names. What he remembered of his mother was a woman dying as
much of a broken heart as from starvation and thirst in the desert
leading to Der Zor (widely known as "the Auschwitz of the Armenian

My father had an older sister who survived with him, but their
youngest sister was given to a Kurdish farmer and his barren wife, and
their other sister, a girl also younger than my father, was abandoned
to her fate during the nightmarish trek. He could not remember her
name when he recounted the tale to me near the end of his
life. Children themselves, he and his eldest sister had had no
alternative but to abandon this little girl whom they could not feed
or care for while they were forced to eat grass or animal
excrement. His final image was of a little starving girl, with curly
hair, crying by herself beside an inhospitable tree, where she was
probably soon taken as prey by scavenging dogs or wolves.

There is irony in the fact that my father was named Adam, though I
believe he had his own views on Original Sin. For him, the fall of man
was dated April 24, 1915, when hundreds of thousands of Armenians were
forced from their homes to be tortured and slaughtered by Turks. My
father survived, but his survival, like those of other Armenians who
after the First World War dispersed to other countries - defeating the
Ottoman plan to exterminate their race, carried burdens of traumatized

The Ottoman plan for ethnic cleansing was brilliantly evil. The Turks
eliminated the intelligentsia so that Armenians would have no active
leaders. They eliminated able-bodied men so that Armenians would have
no militia. They eliminated the old so that Armenians would have no
memory. They eliminated the young so Armenians would have no future.

They were wrong in the final calculation. Memory and hope for the
future live in seminal texts such as Grigoris Balakian's Armenian
Golgotha, a massive memoir first published in Armenian in 1922 and now
making its debut in English via the graces of Balakian's distinguished
great-nephew, author Peter Balakian.

The long narrative starts in August, 1914, at the outbreak of the
First World War. Born in 1876 in Tokat (a small, multicultural Turkish
city), Balakian, whose father was a merchant and whose mother was a
writer, is in Constantinople after having studied engineering in
Saxony and theology in Berlin, making him fluent in German. Russia has
declared war on the Ottoman Empire, and the Muslims have proclaimed
jihad against Christians to incite religious war against the Allies,
but also inflaming anger toward Armenians, who are resented for their
skills and crafts and regarded the way Jews would be in Nazi Germany:
as despicable vermin contaminating the nation.

Draconian laws go into effect, radically curtailing Armenian civil
liberties and rights. In February, 1915, interior minister Mehmet
Talat informs German ambassador Hans Freiherr von Wangenheim that he
is going to resolve the Armenian Question by eliminating the
Armenians. As the Germans observe developments, Balakian, along with
about 250 other cultural leaders, is arrested and deported to a prison
in central Turkey.

Deportation was, of course, a code word, just as the phrase "take care
of the Armenians" was a euphemism. By the end of 1915, three-quarters
of the Ottoman Armenians were wiped out, and in many villages and
towns, entire Armenian populations were massacred. Balakian does not
censor the horrors: children forcibly Islamized; political leaders
hanged; death squads, armed with axes, cleavers, knives and rocks,
cutting and hacking away at arms, legs and necks, then throwing the
bodies into ditches and covering them with lime; young girls beheaded
like sheep when they do not submit to sexual advances; suckling
infants dismembered; faint screams of children being eaten alive by
wild animals after having been abandoned. The sequence of atrocities
is the Armenian Passion in the religious sense of suffering, and Der
Zor (where the killings exceeded 400,000) is the ultimate place of
skulls, or Golgotha.

Balakian's prose is hot, unlike Primo Levi's (in Survival in
Auschwitz), which is as cool as a scientist observing laboratory test
tubes and chemicals. It recreates wrenching moments: a scene of
schoolboys pleading with him to be rescued from Turkish mobs; a train
ride generating tormented anxiety and melancholy; a German nurse who
embraces the decapitated body of a six-month-old infant; Armenians
kissing skulls of the dead; four elderly Armenian women uttering a
vehement curse worthy of a tragic Greek chorus. The prose is not
overheated, however, except when Balakian is pious (quoting from the
Scriptures) or sentimental (indulging in purple prose or paeans to

Weighted with eyewitness accounts and distinguished by Balakian's
prodigiously sharp memory, this book is not a scholar's history, of
course, but an educated prelate's, with an enviable grasp of Ottoman
and European history. It explains German and European imperialist
designs on Turkey and Turkish resentment, and how Turkey exploited the
chaos of war (as Peter Balakian shows in his introduction).

But the author points his finger as well at his own people, condemning
a minority of Armenian traitors, but also revealing how the Armenians'
openness of mind and heart victimized them. Many Armenians found it
hard to believe that they could be so viciously hated. There were a
few brave uprisings - in Zeytoun, Musa Dagh, Van and Sardarabad, for
instance - but the Ottomans used these isolated cases as a pretext for
their atrocities.

Despite times of utter despair and pessimism, Balakian survives after
living like a wild animal for almost four years in mud, rain and
snow. Three things help him: his patriotism, of course; his role as
unofficial leader of the deportees; and his knowledge of German. In
the course of his adventure, he poses as a German worker on the
Berlin-Baghdad railway, a German Jew, a German engineer, a German
soldier and a Greek vineyard worker.

But there are also good-hearted, sympathetic Turks who come to his
rescue and to that of some other fortunate Armenians. So his book is
not a wholesale condemnation of Turks, though it probably won't be
read by most Turks, who still can't accept responsibility for one of
history's greatest crimes against humanity. It should be, of course,
for how could a people be expected to understand and atone for a story
they have never been officially permitted to know?

Keith Garebian is completing Children of Ararat, a poetry manuscript
on his father and the Armenian genocide.

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