Armenian Golgotha: A Memoir of the Armenian Genocide, 1915 – 1918

Armenian Golgotha: A Memoir of the Armenian Genocide, 1915-1918, by Grigoris Balakian, and Peter Balakian.By Grigoris Balakian, Translated by Peter Balakian with Aris Sevag
A Borzoi Book, published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2009 Click to Buy this Book!

Grigoris Balakian (1876–1934) was a priest and later a bishop in the Armenian Apostolic Church. He had studied engineering in Germany, entered an Armash Seminary in Constantinople, and had served as a minister before being called to administrative and diplomatic service by the Apostolic Patriarchate. He was a divinity student at the University of Berlin in July of 1914 when the assassination in Sarajevo led to World War I. In the midst of the initial chaotic war frenzy he managed through many difficulties to return to his home in Constantinople, aware that the war had also “stirred the Armenophobic feelings of the Turkish people.” Throughout the entire book there is never a lessening of his compassionate sense of responsibility for the Armenian people and the preservation of their national and folk identity, nor of his soul’s spiritual foundation, a source of strength that becomes essential during a sojourn extending over years through conditions almost too horrific to comprehend. Some of his responses are similar to those revealed in the witness literature of the World War II Holocaust survivors. In Chankiri, where the deported Constantinople Armenians were held for a time, Balakian, with great conviction, tells a distressed friend that “… at whatever cost, I had decided not to die, so that I could see the emancipated dawn of a reborn Armenia.” Later he has cause to write: “Oh, my tribulation is unbearable …” and if he managed to survive he would “… attest to this great crime to future generations.”

At the worst moments during the extreme deprivation and unrelieved horror on the journey by foot from Chankiri toward Der Zor in the Syrian desert, where there would be no chance of survival for any possible emaciated survivors, the ever-present fear of painful death from government-sanctioned murder — that becomes inflamed by cupidity — is overcome through visualizations of climbing higher on the hill of Golgotha. As in the Holocaust literature, near the end of all endurance, death is no longer to be feared and becomes the friend.

Balakian’s renown and capable leadership saves his particular group of exiles many times.  However, his physical strength nearly gives out on one occasion when Shukri Bey [Captain Shukri], by way of stressing the dangers of the vicinity through which they are passing, leads him to a small valley that is full of the massacred (page 160): “… It is difficult to describe the shocking sight of these martyred compatriots, and I don’t remember ever having found myself this close to my grave. Such proximity to death made me feel weak, and as my already tired legs became wobbly, I fell to the ground. I did not, however, lose consciousness. In the wink of the eye, all the notable events of my life flashed before me like a motion picture, and I became bewildered, imagining that from one minute to the next we could be subjected to the same black fate.” Shukri Bey helps him to his feet: “Don’t be afraid, murabhasa effendi [respected bishop], there’s no danger for our caravan …” As on past occasions, a generous bribe was necessary.

Grigoris Balakian was the great-uncle of Peter Balakian. From the Introduction: “The literature of witness has had a significant impact on our understanding of the twentieth century. What we know about our age of catastrophe we know in crucial part from memoirs such as Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz, Elie Wiesel’s Night, Michihiko Hachiya’s Hiroshima Diary, Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Hope Against Hope, and many others, stories that have taken us inside episodes of mass violence and killing, genocide and torture. They have allowed us acquaintance with individual victims and perpetrators, offering insights into the nature of torture, cruelty, suffering, survival, and death. By the end of the twentieth century some scholars had referred to our time as an age of testimony. Grigoris Balakian’s Armenian Golgotha, for decades an important text of Armenian literature, belongs to a group of significant books that deal with crimes against humanity in the modern age.” Grigoris Balakian wrote his memoirs of the Armenian Genocide in two volumes: Volume I, The Life of an Exile, July 1914 – April 1916, and Volume II, The Life of a Fugitive, April 1916 – January 1919. Volume I was published in 1922 in Vienna, but Volume II, “found among his sister Rosa Antreassian’s papers after her death in 1956,” was not published until 1959, in Paris. Peter Balakian has added helpful supplemental material to the accounts, including a Glossary, Biographical Glossary, Appendix (Author’s Preface: To You Armenian People), Notes, Chronology, Bibliography and Index.  The book also offers 16 photographs — many are graphic — and 5 maps.

It was during the last years of the declining Ottoman Empire that the Armenian Genocide occurred, perpetrated by the “Young Turks” and the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP, Ittihad ve Terakki), overseen by the Minister of the interior, Mehmed Talaat Pasha (1874–1921). Previous massacres of the Armenian people were the Erzerum massacre of 1890, the Hamidian massacres of 1894–1896, the Sassoun massacre of 1902, and the Adana massacre of 1909. During the 1915–1918 Armenian Genocide, 1.5 million men, women, children and elderly lost their lives. The history of Armenia, the countries surrounding it, and the Ottoman Empire is very complex and while Balakian’s memoirs include historical information and reflections on early 20th century political life, the serious reader may want to delve much further into additional resources. Armenian Golgotha offers an extensive Bibliography. The briefest search on the internet and with YouTube viewings will reveal serious dilemmas and great controversies surrounding these events today, notably for modern Turks. The second Republic of Armenia was established in 1991; the traditional highlands of the people are located near sacred Mount Ararat.

In Volume I, Chapter 33, “Islahiye: A Field of Mounds for Graves [1916],” Balakian describes a conversation he had with two Turkish majors, in which he offers an answer to the question why: “Having walked four-fifths of our road to death, it didn’t seem necessary to speak reservedly,” he writes, and so he tells the majors:  “… The leaders of the Ittihad government had made a threat, both verbally and in writing, on which they made good by taking advantage of the world war: When the European powers, after agreeing among themselves, attempt to destroy the Ottoman Empire for good, then we shall also destroy all the Christian minorities beneath our ruins.” The two majors refused to accept his explanation, and further attempts toward understanding were of no avail. “Those of us with faint hopes that our misery might be relieved a bit by the visit of these two Turkish majors again became submerged in a sea of despair.”

Another important passage for better understanding is found on page 79: “Not one of the Ittihad’s projected 400 million Muslims heeded the cry of jihad; on the contrary, the king of Arabia, Hussein, at the suggestion of the British, issued a counter fatwa [an Islamic religious decree]. Thus Talaat, after having Behaeddin Shakir’s Armenian extermination plan approved by the Ottoman Parliament, had the Sheik-ul-Islam issue a fatwa declaring the Armenians to be enemies of Islam and of the fatherland …” From the Biographical Glossary: “Dr. Behaeddin Shakir (1877–1922). Doctor and chief of the political section of the CUP’s Special Organization, which planned and organized the extermination of the Armenians … Following World War I he was sentenced to death in absentia by a Turkish court-martial but escaped to Berlin.” He was assassinated in Berlin in 1922. Mehmed Talaat Pasha, 1874–1921, was assassinated in Berlin. The post-war fate of Shukri Bey (who said “Killing people during war is not considered a crime now, is it?”) is not given. The meaning of Sheik-ul-Islam from a footnote: “Appointed by the Ittihad leaders as the highest Sunni religious authority, his role was merely ceremonial. The position of Sheik-ul-Islam was abolished in 1924.”

From Volume II, Balakian had been urged by friends to abandon the journey of exile, take every opportunity to escape and find refuge through employment on the Berlin-to-Baghdad railway that was then being constructed by the Germans (to serve their own interests, of course). This he refused to do until, finally, in Islahiye, a railway border crossing into Syria, two Armenian soldiers told him that not even five percent of the exiles reached Der Zor alive. After again raising money for the surviving members of his group he at last parts from them and succeeds, with the help of sympathetic accomplices, in escaping to Ayran. He remains determined to carry the story of the Armenian Golgotha to the civilized world. With his knowledge of the German language and his background in engineering, he changes his name and appearance and finds employment with the railway. From this time until the end of the war he is a fugitive, always on the run to escape identification, which would mean certain death, changing his name and residence, his appearance and his occupation many times. At one point along the way he wears the uniform of a German soldier and travels by horseback. At the end of the war he returns to Constantinople and soon thereafter begins writing his memoirs “… to attest to this great crime to future generations.”

From the Introduction: In 1933, embittered by church politics, Grigoris Balakian resigned from his position as architect and civil engineer in the construction of Armenian Apostolic churches in southern France. After resigning “… he lived in seclusion in Marseilles until he died in 1934 from a heart attack, which he suffered after lifting a foundation stone at the construction site of a new church. His death seemed inseparable from his love of building.”

On page 127 comes this striking passage that describes the exiles’ encounter with an elderly woman who prophetically curses the Ittihad government at the top of her lungs: “As we were passing by the last vegetable gardens on the edge of town, we saw 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.” – Review by Martha Keltz

Other books by Peter Balakian include Black Dog of Fate: An American Son Uncovers His Armenian Past, 1998; The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response, 2003; and Ziggurat (Phoenix Poets), 2010.

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