Book Review: The Armenian Question

Grigoris Balakian

Jewish Exponent
July 23 2009

Peter Balakian is primarily a poet, with several acclaimed volumes
to his credit. But beginning in the late 1990s, with the appearance
of his prize-winning memoir, Black Dog of Fate, recently reissued by
Basic Books in a updated edition, Balakian began delving into his
family’s Armenian past, and especially the fate of certain members
at the hands of the Ottoman Turks. His goal, ostensibly, was to find
out what it meant for him, an all-American, baseball-loving boy who’d
been raised in Tenafly, N.J.

At the heart of this expansive, multi-layered volume is the author’s
personal discovery of the truth about what the Turkish government did
to 1 million Armenians in 1915, what Balakian has called "the first
time a state bureaucracy was mobilized against another people." He also
examined how his family dealt with the issue of the mass slaughter,
which had directly affected his relatives, his beloved grandmother
among them. His family’s wish, as his parents and others like them
sought to establish themselves in America, had been to repress the
memories and move on, to leave the pain and degradation behind.

Balakian continued his research into the Armenian genocide with
The Burning Tigris, another prize-winning work. But in this book,
he analyzed not only the tragedy but its aftermath — how the world
initially reacted to it, and then, like his family, how the public
buried it and moved on.

In fact, following the 1915 slaughter, the Armenian question was
a human-rights issue, championed by American citizens and their
leaders. According to Balakian, there was no ambiguity at the time. The
New York Times described the occurrence as "state-planned killing."

But once America began its push toward isolationism in the wake of
World War I, and as Woodrow Wilson’s postwar plans went down in defeat,
the intellectual and and political climate in the country turned away
from any sort of human-rights issues based in foreign places.

Turkey soon became a modern republic; Armenia was swallowed up by
the Soviet Union; and the genocide became lost as a cause. Turkey
also became adept at suppressing testimony about the killings. All
of these various developments are discussed in depth in The Burning
Tigris. Now, with the appearance of Armenian Golgotha by Grigoris
Balakian, the poet’s uncle, the younger Balakian has completed what
he’s designated as his trilogy (he has acted, in the current instance,
as a guide, in his splendid introduction, and as co-translator with
Aris Sevag). Even without its distinguished predecessors, this new work
would constitute a publishing event of significance — for Armenians,
undoubtedly, but for Jews and the world as well. This memoir, which
covers the years 1915 to 1918, is witness literature of the highest
order, to be put beside the great testimony from the Shoah. Despite
the horrors it describes, Armenian Golgotha, published by Knopf,
becomes, by its appearance alone, required reading for those who wish
to comprehend the 20th century and the modern world we inhabit.

‘Depth of Understanding’ According to the biography provided by the
publishers, Grigoris Balakian, who was born in 1876, was one of the
foremost intellectuals of his generation. Educated in Germany and the
Ottoman Empire, he was ordained a celibate priest in 1901 and served
the Armenian Apostolic Church as an emissary to Europe, and Russia
in particular. Aside from writing a number of books, he also became
bishop of the Armenian Apostolic Church in southern France. He died
in Marseilles in 1934. As his nephew says of his uncle’s considerable
achievement, Grigoris was the first survivor to provide the world with
a "depth of understanding" about what happened to his fellow Armenians
as they were driven from their homes and slaughtered en masse. He also
"portrays in detail" an "unexplored dimension" of the genocide —
"the second wave of massacres aimed at surviving Armenians (between
160,000 and 200,000) in camps in the summer of 1916." His uncle’s
statistics suggest that more than 400,000 "perished in Der Zor,
making it a kind of Auschwitz of the Armenian Genocide."

Those who consider themselves informed individuals — and those who
especially consider themselves well-versed in the dangers that still
face the world — will ignore Armenian Golgotha at their peril.