During WWI, the Young Turk government initiated the deportation, the concentration camps, and the massacre of the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian citizens. This led to the death of 1 to 1.5 million people from 1915 to 1916, which is known as the Armenian genocide. This book, which is based on true events, focuses on a community on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea near Aleppo whose members decide to flee from their villages to the near mountain Musa Dagh, and to take up a seemingly futile fight.
This took me months to read, and not because it is so long (it is) or so difficult to read (it isn’t), but because it is such a terrifying and harrowing tale of the annihilation of a people that I just had to put it down for a week or two sometimes because it is so emotionally trying. It is almost unbelievable how these events mirror the persecution of Jews and the Holocaust, since this book was first published in 1933. The extent of its impact is further increased by the expansive background information provided on the history of the Armenian people and their treatment in the empire, on their costums and social structure, and on the lives of the villagers in particular.
Werfel is a great writer, and thus expertly brings the villages and their inhabitants to life, with all their strengths and weaknesses. He makes you live with these people, makes you learn and care about them, and when the noose inevitably tightens more and more, you feel their terror and suffering intimately. Some falter in the face of adversity while others rise to the occasion, but there is no glorification of anyone or anything, because even the heroes are painfully human and commit terrible errors. Some chapters focus on the Turkish government and its officials and show not only the fanatism involved in the genocide, but also the kind of opportunism paired with the gleeful humiliation and exploitation of others, and the cold bureaucracy that together clearly present another uncomfortable parallel to Nazi Germany. The feeling of dread that only increases the nearer the end draws is almost unbearable and the last pages are gut-wrenching because reality intrudes even in times of victory.
This is a great book from a literary standpoint, but more importantly, it is a memorial for a historical event that should be burned into humanity’s collective memory forever. Werfel researched everything very thoroughly, and the book’s importance especially to Armenians, of course, but really to all victims of genocide cannot be overstated.
CBR11 Bingo: Banned Books
The book was banned in Nazi Germany in 1934, and in Turkey in 1935. Only in 1997, it was finally translated into Turkish and published in Turkey.