Review of Armenian Golgotha: A Memoir of The Armenian Genocide, 1915-1918, Grigoris Balakian, Translated by Peter Balakian and Aris Sevag, Knopf, 2009, 509 pages, $35.00
During his year in Auschwitz, Primo Levi never stopped recording the world around him. Decades later he could recall people and events from the camp in striking detail. Observing and thinking were factors of survival. The same can be said of Grigoris Balakian, author of Armenian Golgotha—appearing in English for the first time, translated from the Armenian by Peter Balakian and Aris Sevag. During Balakian’s nearly four-year-long journey from a life of scholarship and service to exile and upheaval, he concentrated on “mental record-keeping, classifying and rooting firmly in [his] memory, one by one the frightful episodes,” at times ingratiating himself with Turkish collaborators, asking blunt unflinching questions, pushing the limit as if he were a neutral reporter.
The journey began in April 1915 when about 250 Armenian intellectuals, including Balakian, a respected Armenian priest, were arrested in Constantinople. They were taken in busloads to the central police station, where their names were checked against blacklists compiled with the help of Armenian traitors, then transported by train to north-central Turkey. Only a handful survived.
While on the train Balakian saw a woman through the window, “an elderly hunchbacked Turkish woman with disheveled hair, dressed in rags. She stood like a statue, sometimes raising her hands to the sky and then striking her knees, and shouting: ‘Cursed be they, it’s a world of doers and finders; they’re taking these innocent people away to murder them; the enemy to come, in turn, will treat us this way in the future . . . Look here, those who remain alive won’t enjoy the spoils . . . may God be with you, my children.’”
Balakian, still in a state of disbelief, interpreted incidents, including this one, in ways that did not lead to the obvious conclusions. Even weeks later, after being warned of what would happen by Turkish officials, he refused to believe it. Who could possibly imagine that the entire Armenian population and culture in Turkey were being wiped out? His self-control in the face of what he witnessed is stunning. A dual self emerged, the one stifling rage to protect the record-keeper within—paying attention, listing names, inquiring about scattered skulls and emptied villages, where and who and why.
How else do we explain the sober questions he asked of his Turkish escort, a captain of the military police: “Bey, where have all these human bones along this road come from? Are these the bones of the Armenian deportees who came from far-off places and passed this way, or are they the bones of Armenians from this area? How many Armenians were massacred along these roads? Upon whose orders were the massacres of Armenians committed?”
Balakian’s descriptions are precise, often lyrical. “Then the captain did something striking. Before continuing to tell his story of the actual massacre, he closed his eyes; in the special manner of performing ablutions [aptes], he raised his hands to his face and ran them down to his white beard as if washing up. And muttering a few prayers, he turned and said to me, ‘May God not show such death as this to anybody.’”
The captain answered freely, believing Balakian would not survive: “These are the bones of Armenians who were killed in August and September. The order had come from Constantinople. Even though the minister of the interior had huge ditches dug for the corpses, the winter floods washed the dirt away, and now the bones are everywhere, as you see . . . They were put on this road so that we could cleanse them. Killing people during war is not considered a crime, now, is it?”
Balakian traveled across vast reaches of Turkey, listening to countless eyewitness accounts by Armenians, Turks, and foreigners, and barely escaped with his life. His account is powerful in its immediacy, and more than memoir it embraces the historical. Interviews of engineers working on the Berlin-to-Baghdad Railroad (Balakian was educated at German universities and spoke fluent German) confirmed facts he’d gathered from other sources, lending a solid credence to the planned systematic killings.
There has never been a lack of evidence of the Armenian Genocide. In 1916, Viscount Bryce published a collection of letters, dispatches, reports, records of interviews, and narratives by neutral eyewitnesses in The Treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire 1915-1916 edited by Arnold Toynbee. “Facts of the same, or of a very similar nature,” Toynbee noted, “occurring in different places, are deposed to by different and independent witnesses. The volume of this concurrent evidence from different quarters is so large as to establish the main facts beyond all question.”
In 1920 Mustafa Kemal, founding father of modern Turkey, pronounced to parliament that the Armenian genocide was an “abomination of the past.”
Perpetrators of atrocities count on the silence of victims to cover their crimes. That, and the sheer enormity of the enterprise—“Even if you survive, even if you live to tell about it, no one will believe you.” Balakian’s determination to break silence runs like an unbroken thread through these pages, calling to mind other volumes where voices that might have been consigned to oblivion are preserved: The Warsaw Diary of Adam Czerniakow; Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky; the individual diaries, journals and reports collected in Words to Outlive Us, Eyewitness Accounts from the Warsaw Ghetto, edited by Michal Grynberg; Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl; and The Brown Book of the Hitler Terror and The Burning of the Reichstag.
The Turkish government still denies the Armenian Genocide, though a growing number of Turkish writers and scholars—Orhan Pamuk, Taner Akçan, Elif Shafak,and Fatma Muge Göçek among them—condemn it. Turkey lacks a sense of historical continuity. Academic texts begin with the founding of the modern republic as if Ottoman Turkey never existed. This important work may well become the galvanizing force to finally set the record straight.