Jay Parini: A survivor of the Armenian massacre turns trauma to testament

Roundup: Talking About History

[Jay Parini is a novelist, poet, and professor of English at Middlebury College. His latest book, Why Poetry Matters, was published last year by Yale University Press.]

... Peter Balakian, a poet and professor of English at Colgate University, has written movingly about the Armenian genocide in Black Dog of Fate: A Memoir (Basic Books, 1997) and The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America's Response (HarperCollins, 2003). In the latter, he focused on the genocide itself, offering a good deal of fresh archival research (including interviews with survivors) revealing the origins and inhumanity of efforts to erase the population of Armenian Christians within the Ottoman Empire. It was a conflict that had simmered for two decades, although its roots lay deep in the Middle Ages, when Turks invaded what was the Armenian homeland, in Asia Minor. By 1915, Armenian Christians imagined themselves an integral part of the Turkish state. They served largely as merchants and middlemen, and their part in the economy perhaps gave them a false sense of their own position. Certainly the idea of "ethnic cleansing" was beyond their imagination.

Grigoris Balakian, the great-uncle of Peter Balakian, was a priest (later bishop) in the Armenian Apostolic Church. He was among the key intellectuals of his time and place, and he was one of the Armenian leaders arrested in 1915 and deported to the interior. In 1918 he wrote a shocking and brilliant memoir of the genocide, an eyewitness account of a high order. Now, at last, it has been translated (by his nephew, with Aris Sevag) in Armenian Golgotha (Knopf). It's a memoir that will fit well on a shelf beside the poems of Anna Akhmatova and the memoirs of Vasily Grossman, Primo Levi, and Elie Wiesel. And it defines what we have come to think of as "Holocaust memoirs."

It seems strangely ironic that, a couple of years back, the Anti-Defamation League, headed by Abraham Foxman, actually backed the Turkish government in its efforts to suppress historical truth by dissuading Congress from recognizing the Armenian genocide. Foxman, apparently under pressure, later changed his mind on that. Those who commit genocide bank on the fact that the future has a weak memory, or so it would seem. There is a natural instinct at work in the human mind, which tries to erase the memory of pain.

Pain suffuses this book by Father Balakian, his own and that of others. He recalls a conversation with a young Armenian woman who said to him, "Oh, Reverend Father. There's no pain that we haven't suffered; there's no misfortune that hasn't befallen us." Going on to lament that even bowing to pressure to convert to Islam did not save her people, she asks in anguish, "Oh, where is the God proclaimed by us? Doesn't he see the infinite suffering we have endured?"

In scene after scene, the unspeakable is spoken. The priest describes one ghastly massacre outside of Sungurlu that occurred on August 20, 1915. More than 70 carriages conveyed a cluster of Armenian women, girls, and small boys to a lonely valley by a bridge an hour and half from the town. When the caravan reached the appointed area, police officers and soldiers joined a wayward gang of Turkish slaughterers, setting to work with a vengeance that is scarcely believable. "Just as spring trees are cut down with bill-hooked hedge knives," writes Balakian, "the bloodthirsty mob attacked this group of more than four hundred with axes, hatches, shovels, and pitchforks, hacking off their appendages: noses, ears, legs, arms, fingers, shoulders. ... They dashed the little children against the rocks before the eyes of their mothers while shouting 'Allah, Allah.'"

The situation of the Armenians was often so dire, he wrote, that "in exchange for a piece of bread, Armenian mothers, known for their maternal devotion, sold their beloved sons or daughters to the first comer, Christian or Muslim." That wasn't cruelty or indifference; given the fact of certain death, there was at least a chance that the child could survive in other hands. There was also the fact of starvation, which was how so many came to grief in those terrible years, while the world turned a blind eye....

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Arnold Shcherban - 6/24/2009

One more claim (of "chosen people"?) of the exclusivity of German genocide against Jews. Surely, no other ethnic cleansings should not even dare to apply to similar historical definition, regardless of the
overwhelming evidence in favor of genocidal persecutions perpetrated against them and vast international acknowledgement of those.
When some nutty historian or politician dares just to question the genocide of Jews during WWII we hear the loudest scream of denounciation and anger possible coming from Israeli and Western quarters, and rightly so. One of those historians
was even prosecuted and sentenced by the Austrian court (no freedom of speech protection for these folks).
But such "historians" as Mr. Kaplan can freely damn historical truth, even put it upside down by claiming that it were the Armenians who committed genocide against Turks (and other ethnic groups) that same time, without risking any wide international condemnation, not men- tioning already prosecution.
It is quite a curious fact that the only folks who oppose the discussed
characterization of the murder of about million Armeninas by Young Turks' followers and other Turkish nationalists are the citizens of NATO
alligned countries (which Turkey is a part of) and those Zionists who treat
the religiuos myth of "chosen people " as divine truth.
I wonder whether Mr. Kaplan objected when NATO determined purely internal conflict in Serbian province of Kosovo, as ethnic cleansing of Albanians by Serbs. I bet he didn't.
Thus, denial of Armenian genocide by Turks in 1915 has nothing to do with the pertaining facts of history and is nothing more or less than politoco-ideological propaganda in promoting NATO (and especially -American) strategic interests.

Jonathan Dresner - 6/14/2009

Regarding persecution, the Ottomans had one of the most tolerant policies toward non-Turks of any empire of its day.

Germay was pretty cosmopolitan, too. Until it wasn't.

JJ H Kaplan - 6/14/2009

This was war. We Jews know what ethnic cleansing is. Probably more so than many other ethnic groups do. What happened to the Armenians was a horrific massacre and loss of life. Was every massacre throughout history motivated by ethnic cleansing? Certainly not. What Hitler tried to accomplish is a far cry from any Armenian so-called genocide. You cannot deny that many Armenians lost their lives as they were looking for a land of their own, however, what is not recognized is that the Armenians themselves inflicted as much damage as others in the hostilities of that time for their own selfish objectives. The Turks’ only policy was the removal of Armenians from the front line with Russia, where they were collaborating with the Ottoman Empire’s enemies. They were a threat to security. This is called war.

Regarding persecution, the Ottomans had one of the most tolerant policies toward non-Turks of any empire of its day. The three communities of Jews, Greeks and Armenians were virtually autonomous within the empire. It cannot be denied that throughout history the Ottoman Empire unlike any other empire of its time allowed Jews to practice their own religion as well as many freedoms of their time. When the Ottoman Empire had taken over Jerusalem, had they tried to annihilate the strong presence of the Armenians who had their own quarter? Never. Could you say that the Russians committed genocide against the Circassians and Adyghes? If you could, then the Armenians slaughtered 200,000 people including Turks and Kurds and Jews in Eastern Anatolia during Turkey’s Independence War while the Turks were fighting against the imperial powers of Europe on five fronts. Armenians took advantage of the Turks’ weak position and waged a war against them by opening a new front. But, this was war.