Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Forty Days of Musa Dagh

I finally finished The Forty Days of Musa Dagh by Franz Werfel this weekend. I had been reading this book for over a month. It was written in 1934. My translation (I don't know that there are any others) was done by Geoffrey Dunlop. The author's note stated that the book was conceived during a stay in Damascus in 1929. There he witnessed the situation of many Armenian refugee children working in a rug factory. Franz Werfel wrote the book between July 1932 and March 1933. This book is a novel based on actual events and historic records including a documented conversation between Enver Pasha and Pastor Johannes Lepsius.

Musa Dagh is a mountain located in Syria on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea not too far from the border of Turkey. The novel begins in the spring of 1915 when the deportation orders for all Armenians living under Turkish rule began. The deportation was used as a method of extermination. The men and boys were taken from the deporting columns and forced into labor. Once their task was complete, they were taken into the woods and executed. The weaker Armenians, the very young, old and infirm, died during the march and were left along the roadside. The few remaining Armenians who reached the deportation camps (it is believed there were 25), were given practically no provisions and most died of starvation. This was only part of the Armenian genocide by the Turkish government.

By the time that the six villages surrounding Musa Dagh received their deportation orders, they had become aware of the situation. The older Armenians remembered the massacres of 1895 and 1909 in which Kurds working for the Turks as well as members of the Turkish military slaughtered 115,000-330,000 Armenians.

The village leaders decided that if they were to die at the hands of the Turks, they would prefer to die close to home and fighting. In the novel, the master planner of the Armenian defense was a fictional former member of the Turkish reserves who had been educated in France and lived most of his life in France. Because of the death of his brother, he just happened to be at his family estate at the foot of Musa Dagh at just the wrong, or right time. Once the Turkish authorities demanded all travel papers be relinquished, he was trapped and unable to travel as well as his french wife and son.

Some 5,000 Armenians from six villages took what few weapons they had as well as provisions up the mountain after sun-down over several evenings. Some of the Armenians in the villages chose to be deported thinking that they had better chances of living if they did not resist. The villagers who chose deportation assisted the others in that, on the day of deportation, they reported the others had all run off into the countryside in the night.

In the novel, the resistance lasted 40 days but in reality it lasted 53 days. In the end, more than 4,000 Armenians were rescued by French and English ships who saw their banners "Christians In Need of Help." The ending of the book was changed slightly in order to accommodate the fictional drama that Werfel had created.

This book was more readable than I expected given the formality of the language during the time it was written. The fictional characters and their personal stories really brought the situation to life. I think the reason it took so long to read was the subject matter itself. It was horrible to read the Turks talking a mundane and, almost bored manner of the planned extermination of an entire race.

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of Armenia, Turkey or the region. Also, it would be a good read for anyone interested in learning more about genocide.

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