Encountering the Armenian genocide

March 5, 2006

A few years ago, I stopped by Grant’s Bookshop in Prahran, Vic., and wandering through the shelves, as you do, I happened across a book called The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, by Franz Werfel. I know of Werfel, of course, but only as the author of The Song of Bernadette and as the third — or was it fourth? — husband of Alma Mahler, widow of the composer Gustav Mahler. Because I had, much against my expectations, really enjoyed The Song of Bernadette, I bought this new-old volume, about which I knew nothing.



The book was my first exposure to the tragedy of the Armenian genocide, which, up until then, had simply been a phrase from the early years of the 20th century. Beginning on 24th April, 1915, between 800,000 and two million Armenians were killed in the course of a forced relocation from the villages and provinces of the Ottoman Empire, where they had lived for generations, across Anatolia to the Syrian desert, where they were killed or died of starvation and disease. It was the remnants of this pitiful caravan that Werfel witnessed with horror some years later, and which inspired his book.

Werfel wrote:

This book was conceived in March of 1929, in the course of a stay in Damascus. The miserable sight of some maimed and famished-looking refugee children, working in a carpet factory, gave me the final impulse to snatch from the Hades of all that was, this incomprehensible destiny of the Armenian nation. The writing of the book followed between July 1932 and March 1933.

The mountain of Musa Dagh, in what is now Lebanon, was the only place where the Armenian villagers made a stand. After forty days’ siege by the Turks, the survivors were eventually rescued by the French Navy. Eighteen villagers were killed in the course of the siege.

One survivor says: I remember. I remember everything.

Musa Dagh Memorial,
Anjar, Lebanon.

A very moving evocation of the holocaust visited upon the Armenians by the Turks can be viewed here.

Turkey still has great difficulty accepting the actuality of its genocide of the Armenians, as witnessed by recent moves by the government against a prominent Turkish journalist. It is an condition of Turkey’s entry to the European Union that it acknowledges its past.

Neither do all Turks accept the story of Musa Dagh, as told by Werfel. See here for more.


The Armenian homeland, long subsumed into the Soviet Union, has existed since 1991 as the independent sovereign state of Armenia, after a bloody rebirth from the chaos that followed the collapse of the USSR.

Armenian music survives both in its traditional, classical and popular genres. See here and here.

Armenian art has a great history and continues to flourish.

An 18th C. rug from Hadroud, Karabagh

An engaging Armenian blog — one among many — is at Life In Armenia.


And overall, Armenia is a place that, prompted by a completely serendipitous visit to a surburban bookshop, that I very definitely want to see before I die.

One comment

  1. […] Where Delvaux takes you back into dreams, Kokoschka calls you out of them. In his paintings the waking, everyday world recalls the resonances of the dreams we would rather forget. Behind every brushstroke lie torment, nightmares, horrors. Perhaps his WWI experience of being gassed contributed to his macabre vision. Perhaps it was his succession of traumatic love affairs, not least with Alma Mahler, widow of Gustav, later the wife of Franz Werfel, and the female subject in Windsbraut (Bride of the Wind, also called The Tempest), below. The tortured male is Kokoschka himself, his agony the counterpoint to her serenity. […]

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