The Epic of a Genocide


James Reidel in the NYRB:

The Forty Days of Musa Dagh made Franz Werfel (1890-1945) one of the world’s most celebrated and controversial authors after it first appeared in German in 1933. He had worked a miracle for Armenians around the world, taking what might have been a footnote in the history of World War I—the deportation and mass murder of the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian minority—and writing an epic that anticipated the ominous events unfolding in Germany as Adolf Hitler and the Nazis came to power. The erosion of civil rights, the singling out of a minority for the nation’s problems, and the state-sanctioned violence perpetrated against it were becoming a reality for German Jews and this made Musa Dagh seem the work of a prophet.

The Forty Days of Musa Dagh began with Werfel’s second journey to the Middle East in the winter of 1930. He had just published his third major novel, The Pure in Heart(1929) and married his lover, Alma Mahler, Vienna’s legendary consort of genius, the widow of Gustav Mahler and the former wife of the architect Walter Gropius. After touring the ruins of Karnak, Alma and Werfel traveled on to Palestine and Jerusalem. In Damascus, Werfel toured a carpet factory with Alma. He saw a number of children working the looms, many of them maimed and crippled. When he asked the factory owner about them, he was told they were Armenian orphans. Their parents had been lost in the massacres, forced deportation marches, and concentration camps of World War I. These events would not have been a surprise to Werfel. In the years following the war, the atrocities committed against the Armenians surfaced in the news stories, some tied to the revenge shootings of Talaat Bey, Jemal Pasha, and other wartime Turkish leaders, victims of an Armenian revolutionary assassination program with the chilling name of “Operation Nemesis.”

More here.