Armenian Genocide on Film: Forty Days of Musa Dagh

“The Forty Days of Musa Dagh”: The first story of the Armenian genocide

Written by a European Jew in 1933,this heartbreaking novel explores the eradication of a people from Turkey

This article appears courtesy of The Barnes & Noble Review.

In August 1939, to warm his commanders’ cold feet before invading Poland, Adolf Hitler is alleged to have asked: “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” Silence gainsays guilt. Today, in 2012, it is illegal in Turkey to speak about those deaths — more than a million during and after World War I — as genocide. In France, however,denying that Armenians were singled out for slaughter is a crime. The word genocide was coined, by Raphael Lemkin, only in 1944, but it is now applied not only to the liquidation of Lemkin’s fellow European Jews but also to campaigns of extermination in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur and elsewhere. Except in Turkey, it is widely applied, retroactively, to the Armenian bloodbath almost a century ago.

“The Forty Days of Musa Dagh”
 was first published in 1933, barely a decade after the Armenian genocide. Franz Werfel (1890–1945) was a German-speaking Jew born in Prague, and he and the readers of his meticulously researched novel realized that the eradication of Armenians in Turkish lands bore an ominous resemblance to what was beginning to happen to the Jews of Europe. Werfel’s book was banned in Germany, but it was a huge success elsewhere in the world and did more than the efforts of any diplomat, journalist or historian to encourage speech about the unspeakable. Histories, memoirs and fictions have since been published about the Armenian genocide, and, though Edgar Hilsenrath’s “The Story of the Last Thought” (1989) might be the most respected novelistic rendition, none has diminished the power of “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh.” The “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” of the Armenian genocide, it arrives today — when Syria and Congo are killing fields — as a timely reminder that savagery thrives in silence.

The 1934 American edition was truncated in order to fit into a single volume and the marketing plans of the Book-of-the Month Club. Translator Geoffrey Dunlop cut more than 10 percent of the novel, eliminating local details that Werfel had prided himself on getting right. The new, 894-page edition restores the missing sections, in a translation by poet James Reidel that is compatible with Dunlop’s. It allows English readers to experience the enormity of what happened in 1915 in eastern Anatolia, on a promontory above the Mediterranean called Musa Dagh — Mount Moses. Missing from the new volume, though, are the map, the inventory of characters, and the glossary that helped Americans make sense of Werfel’s wrenching story: how 5,000 Armenians abandoned the seven villages at the base of the mountain and held out against a Turkish military determined to evacuate and eradicate them. He fictionalizes actual events and characters, changing names and reducing the 53-day ordeal to a biblical 40 days.

Unlike other Central European authors of Jewish origin such as Hermann Broch, Elias Canetti and Alfred Döblin, Werfel was no formal innovator. Though written in the fourth decade of the 20th century, “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh” is a 19th-century novel, with an Olympian perspective and the occasional intrusive commentary characteristic of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Emile Zola. “Is there not in every Frenchman an inborn gardener and fruit grower?” asks the author, and, though a quibbler might cavil, it is best to accept the author’s omniscience, even when he is propounding inanities such as “Whoso sees his father sees God.” Werfel crosscuts between Turkish commanders, in Istanbul and Antioch as well as in the field, and their Armenian prey. He also follows the futile efforts of Johannes Lepsius, a German minister intent on keeping the Turks from perpetrating “an anti-Christian persecution of such dimensions that former persecutions under Nero or Diocletian bear no comparison.” But Werfel’s principal focus is on the defenders of Musa Dagh, who, as resolute and imperfect as the defenders of the Alamo and the Warsaw Ghetto, choose to fight rather than submit to death.

Chief among them is Gabriel Bagradian, a wealthy intellectual who returns to his ancestral estate with a French wife, Juliette, and a 13-year-old son, Stephan, after 23 years in Paris. Gabriel’s reacquaintance with Armenian life provides a pretext for explaining the customs of “a race of merchants, craftsmen, and bookworms, people averse to the military ideal.” Though mistrusted as an outsider, Gabriel assumes military command of Musa Dagh, in uneasy alliance with Ter Haigasun, the priest who exercises overall authority. Alienated from the doomed culture she has married into, Juliette becomes romantically involved with Gonzague Maris, a French-Greek adventurer whose American passport promises deliverance for both. Lacking food, ammunition, and hope, the Armenians continue their resistance until this prodigious novel’s dramatic, unexpected conclusion.