"Armenian Golgotha: A Memoir of the Armenian Genocide, 1915-18"
By Grigoris Balakian
Alfred A. Knopf. 509 pp. $35
Armenian Golgotha is the astonishing memoir of Father Grigoris Balakian (1876-1934), a work from the 1920s shepherded into English by his great nephew Peter Balakian, the leading American expert on the ARMENIAN genocide. Grigoris Balakian witnessed the genocide from many angles and swore to document it if he survived. According to his great-nephew, Grigoris Balakian at times "lived like an animal” in order to do so.
With the approach of Armenian Remembrance Day, a commemoration held worldwide on April 24, Americans would be well-advised to read this memoir, which recognizes the Ottoman Empire's targeted killing of its Armenian citizens from 1915 to 1918 as genocide. Turkish soldiers, government-organized death squads and ordinary Turks, acting under orders and incitements from Ottoman Minister of the Interior Mehmet Talaat, massacred -- indeed, sometimes literally hacked to pieces -- up to 1.5 million Armenians.
Over nine decades, many wriers have tried to bring attention to what happened in Ottoman Anatolia between 1915 and 1918. Studies of the topic have included Peter Balakian's The Burning Tigris and Black Dog of Fate, Vakahn Dadrian's The History of the Armenian Genocide, the great historian Merrill Peterson's Starving Armenians, and Michael Bobelian's Children of Armenia. Most important of all is Turkish historian Taner Akcam's courageous A Shameful Act, a book that no less than Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk, defying legal threats, called "the definitive account of the organized destruction of the Ottoman Armenians."
From the moment Turkish forces arrested Father Balakian, a vartabed or celibate priest, along with approximately 250 other Armenian intellectuals in Constantinople on April 24, 1915, he disciplined himself over four years of forced marches, occasional starvation, infestation by lice and multiple last-minute escapes, to record what he was seeing and hearing, to articulate it to himself even when he lacked pen or paper, so that he could report the atrocities later.
This book thus honors the commitment made by Father Balakian to a number of fellow deportees who eventually died. They implored him: Write about this if you live. Tell people what happened. Over hundreds of pages we witness, through Balakian's eyes, Turkish police and soldiers deport and later, with the help of ordinary villagers and chetes (killing squads of prisoners released precisely to kill Armenians), ferociously behead, disembowl and mutilate countless Armenians with hatchets, axes, cleavers, knives, shovels and pitchforks as the prisoners trudge eastward on forced marches, at times accompanying the mayhem with shouts of "Allah! Allah!"
That savagery came on top of the rape of many young Armenian women, and at times their forced conversion to Islam, as well as expropriation of almost all Armenian property and wealth. Some scenes in Armenian Golgotha are unbearable. A small group that includes an American teacher and two Germans comes across a field WITH "pools of blood." It contains hundreds of naked Armenian corpses, most "with their heads and limbs cut off," and their entrails spilled out.
One of the Germans, a nurse, "jumped from her horse and ran to hug the decapitated body of a six-month-old girl. She kissed the baby and wailed, saying she wanted to take her, that she was her daughter."
Unable to stop the nurse, "who had gone mad," as she lept from one dismembered child's body to another, hugging and kissing them, the others had to forcibly restrain her. She was "tied to her horse" and eventually placed in a German hospital.
What she'd seen, Grigoris Balakian explains, wasn't unusual. After a massacre, Turkish village women would slit open Armenian corpses, especially the intestines, seeking swallowed jewelry. (They found a fair amount of it.) Sometimes, he writes, Armenian women abandoned their emaciated infants on death piles, still alive, deeming it a better death than being hacked to pieces. One witness reported that she saw starving Armenian "mothers gone mad who had thrown their newly deceased little children into the fire" and then eaten them, "half cooked or half raw."
Alongside such grisly tales, Grigor Balakian provides background, woven into his personal narrative, on Ottoman history. He analyzes with great subtlety not only the geopolitical assumptions and strategies of all groups involved, but also the psychology of individual players, including Talaat and his "goal of annihilating the Armenian race."
With its long overdue publication in English, Armenian Golgotha joins Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz and other stellar works on the Holocaust as a classic of genocide literature. Just as Levi’s classic guarantees that any reader who finishes it will shudder at questioning of the Holocaust, those who make it through Armenian Golgotha should feel moral fury at Turkey for how it has, over almost nine decades, denied and falsified its predecessor's massive crimes against its own citizens, never apologized for them, and never paid a lira of reparations.
Read Grigoris Balakian and weep.
Carlin Romano, Critic-at-Large of The Chronicle of Higher Education, teaches media theory and philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania.