Huffington Post
Sept 2 2014

Lessons Not Learned? The Yazidis and the Armenians of Musa Dagh

Jess Olson , Associate Professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva
University in New York

The crisis faced by the little-known religious minority, the Yazidis
of northern Iraq, captured the attention of western humanitarians.
Their capitulation to their pursuers, the forces of the Islamic State
of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), whose strict interpretation of Islam
regards the Yazidis as polytheists, would mean physical destruction.
To escape, thousands of these practitioners of an obscure faith, who
have dwelt in the Ninveh region for centuries, encamped on the
desolate summit of Mount Sinjar, desperate for rescue by a foreign

A remarkably similar story was told a little over eighty years ago by
German-speaking Jewish novelist Franz Werfel, in his blockbuster novel
The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. Virtually unknown today, the 900-page
novel was widely read when it appeared. Just in time to serve as a
prescient critique of Nazism, it was optioned by studio giant MGM in
1934 to produce an epic film starring a young Clark Gable, then on his
way to winning an Academy Award for It Happened One Night.

Werfel's inspiration was a footnote to the Turkish anti-Armenian
atrocities of World War I. In June 1915, receiving news of mass
expulsions and murder, the inhabitants of six Armenian Christian
villages on the Mediterranean coast collected their few possessions
and weapons, and fled to the summit of Musa Dagh, highlands on the
coast of the Mediterranean, to escape the approaching Turks. The
leader of the revolt, Moses Der Kalousdian, a European-educated
Armenian gentleman, rallied the spirits of the villagers, held off
assaults on their stronghold until, on the verge of capitulation, they
were rescued by a passing French warship.

Although the revolt of 4,200 Armenians at Musa Dagh received scattered
attention in the press, it was a small event in a much larger
conflict. It was Werfel's novel, though, that humanized the crisis,
giving the western reader access to the perspective of the
humanitarian refugee, in particular through his intimate portrayal of
the protagonist, Gabriel Bagradian.

Modeled after Moses Der Kalousdian, Bagradian is a man of two worlds:
cosmopolitan Europe on the one hand, the earthy villages of his native
Armenian Turkey on the other. The well-to-do Bagradian had left his
village to seek refinement in Paris, but after a while his expatriate
life revealed an inner void, and he returns home on the eve of World
War I with his French wife Juliette and young son Stephan, seeking
shelter from the hostilities and his own existential doubt.

But the quiet life that Bagradian and his family seek evaporates in
violence and insecurity. Under his leadership, the villagers retreat
to Musa Dagh in the face of the approaching Turks. For forty days,
they endure deadly attacks by the Turkish army, mishaps that cost them
precious resources, and the collapse of morale against a hopeless
siege. Bagradian himself suffers terribly as the threads to his
European life are cruelly snipped one after the other. As the
situation becomes more desperate, the villagers' only remaining hope
is a swimmer dispatched into the Mediterranean, carrying letters
begging for intervention by the Allied powers, hopeful of a passing
allied ship.

Although not as familiar to western readers as his contemporary Stefan
Zweig, Werfel's associate who has enjoyed a renaissance, he was once
equally familiar to an international audience. Born into a remarkable
cohort of German-Jewish writers in Prague, Werfel counted among his
friends Franz Kafka and Max Brod; an enthusiastic supporter was the
caustic Karl Kraus. After his service in World War I, Werfel lived the
life of the interwar cosmopolitan, one lovingly dramatized in Wes
Anderson's recent film Grand Budapest Hotel. A lothario, his romantic
entanglements included an affair with the ubiquitous Alma Mahler.

But the war had changed him. Like Zweig (the inspiration for
Anderson's film), Werfel was an ethical hedonist, railing against
modernity's nihilistic trajectory; after the war, he added a deep
humanism to his urbane commentary. Living in the heady literary air of
Vienna and Berlin, Werfel's international breakthrough came with the
1933 publication of Musa Dagh.

Appearing early in the unfolding of the Nazi nightmare, Werfel's text
was a chilling prophecy of things to come. The villains in the novel
are not simply Turks, but a cohort of ideologically-driven racists who
displace their more humane elders in pursuit of national purity.
Werfel's Armenians would have resonated with the Jewish readership of
his time especially, tinged with the same air of romanticism that many
of Werfel's cohort felt towards the folkways of traditional Jewry.
Indeed, the novel's descriptions of the brutality faced by a community
pushed to its very limits are nearly indistinguishable from later
Holocaust narratives, woven into images of Treblinka and the Warsaw

As the Yazidi saga shows, the relevance of Werfel's work endures. The
Forty Days of Musa Dagh raises fundamental questions of moral duty for
modern man. When the evil of persecution rears its head with such
unfathomable horror, what do we do? How do we react? To Werfel,
whoever holds their morality precious must demand immediate
intervention and rescue. In The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, as with the
Yazidi crisis today, it the most powerful weapon of genocidal forces
is not a machine gun or a howitzer, it is time -- the time of
hesitation before action in the face of evil, the very time that dooms
many of Bagradian's friends and family to their deaths. Time is of the
essence; we hesitate at our moral peril.

From: Baghdasarian