Bishop Balakian’s Memory Upheld By His Descendent In France


Posted on November 10, 2011 by Editor

Peter and Jim Balakian at Bishop Balakian Tomb, St. Pierre Cemetery,
Marseilles The following is a speech that writer Peter Balakian
delivered at the National Center for the Book in France earlier this
fall on his book, Armenian Golgotha, the memoirs of his great-uncle,
Bishop Grigoris Balakian.

MARSEILLES, France – First I want to express great thanks to the
National Center for the Book for making this week-long Armenian writers
festival possible. It is an impressive part of the French government’s
commitment to culture and intellectual life (I wish we had such an
institution in the US) and affirms the importance of the book as
knowledge and artifact, and as act of imagination and scholarship,
and it celebrates the book as primary vehicle in bringing people and
cultures together across the planet.

For this festival which you have so aptly-called Armenie-Armenies,
I’m grateful for your bringing together the complex Armenian Diasporan
culture in its 21st century form. And I’m grateful to France for
valuing the Armenian intellectual voice and the richness of Armenian
history and culture, and the richness of that history between Armenia
and France. I’m delighted to be with so many Armenian writers from
the Republic and from around the world, as we make this trip together
for the next week by train to various cities, ending in Paris on
the weekend.

I want to thank the Armenian communities of Marseilles for their
hospitality and St. Sahag and Mesrob Cathedral for hosting me, and to
Father Dertad of St. Thaddeus church for taking me and my wife Helen
and brother Jim and aunt Lucille to Bishop Balakian’s tomb at the St.

Pierre cemetery, and to Sahag and Mikael Karalekian of the AGBU for
their hospitality.

It is of deep personal significance for me to be here with you
tonight. In coming to Marseilles for this Armenian cultural celebration
in France, and for the recently published French edition of my memoir
Le Chien Du Destin [Black Dog of Fate], I am also making a personal
and familial pilgrimage to the site of my great-uncle Bishop Grigoris
Balakian’s life and work – during the final phase of his career as
an international figure among Armenian clergy in the first part of
the 20th century, and as a leading Armenian writer and cultural figure.

Under the directorship of Bishop Balakian, the entire cultural
foundation of the region of southern France was planned and built
during those difficult years following the Armenian Genocide in the
1920s and ’30s. Out of the ruins of lost historic Armenia, Bishop
Balakian had as his central vision a rebuilding of Armenian culture
here where he was assigned as prelate in the late 1920s. This passion
to rebuild Armenia is expressed repeatedly in his memoir Armenian
Golgotha – even during the death march experience, the idea of Armenia
emerging out of the ashes as he put it, “like the phoenix,” kept him
alive through despair and anguish.

About 20 years ago my friend, the scholar and longtime editor of
Ararat magazine, Leo Hamalian, sent me an article from a French
magazine about a gathering that your community had at the Sts. Sahag
and Mesrob Church in honor of Bishop Balakian. And, I want to quote
a bit of the speech given that day by M.J. Chamanadjian because
reading his words more than 20 years ago I was gripped with emotion
and spurred to action. Reading that article I learned more about
how important my great uncle was to pre- and post-Genocide Armenian
culture, and I learned for the first time of his monumental memoir,
Armenian Golgotha, which I immediately ordered and began to translate
with various collaborators, and then finally with the superb translator
Aris Sevag. Our collaborative translation of Armenian Golgotha was
published in 2009 – by a major publisher in the US – and received
major reviews in the US and around the world including Jerusalem,
Montreal, London and Toronto. Here are Mr. Chamanadjian’s words of
that day in Marseilles:

“Here it is a half a century since an Armenian of such an exceptional
quality died in Marseilles, and here we are today gathered before
this sepulcher in order to pay homage to him. This Armenian’s name
was Monseigneur Balakian. But who still remembers Monseigneur Balakian?

Doubtless, very few among us, because even the stone cross that
used to rise above his grave lies on the ground. That cross which is
nonetheless the symbol of our national identity. Monseigneur Balakian
was during the 1930s the bishop of the Armenians of the south of
France, which is to say at a moment when the Armenian nation was
still under the shock of the first genocide of the 20th century and
of the great diaspora that followed. A man of conviction, animated
beyond any doubt by the spirit of God, he obstinately refused any
submission or giving in, and this is precisely what explains the sad
ups and downs on his mission. He was the very image of the obsidian
of Ararat. To all those who were full of despair he brought hope,
showing through his actions that to souls that are noble the word
impossible is not an Armenian word. And so it was that though he was
as much without resources as anyone, he succeeded in the fabulous
enterprise of building within the single region of Marseilles six
churches including the St. Mesrob Cathedral. No one more than this
man merits the title Gregory the Builder. But Bishop Balakian was
not only the person through whom Armenians were able to recover their
courage and become themselves once more, he was also a witness in the
most noble and Christian sense of the word; in fact he was one of the
very rare survivors of the 250 martyrs arrested on the night of April
24 in Constantinople… this is why the flame of memory that we have
just lit all together must be transmitted to our fellow citizens in
Marseilles for the years to come.

Bishop Balakian, sleep in peace; those whom you loved so well will
never more forget you.”

My great-uncle was found dead alone in his home at the age of 56,
apparently having died of a heart attack, penniless, having quit the
church shortly before his death because of various issues of community
infighting. He seems to have driven himself beyond the limits; how
could one bishop plan and oversee the building of eight churches
(including Nice) in five or six years? His passion to rebuild Armenia
seems to have defined his zeal; perhaps his ideals were impossible to
fulfill, and his vision unachievable, but his intelligence and skill,
and iron will resulted in a new Armenian province here in the south of
France. I see him more clearly now as a deeply-traumatized Genocide
survivor who turned his life into what the psycho-historian Robert
Jay Lifton has called a “survivor mission,” which is defined by the
survivor’s need to turn grief and trauma into a life mission focused
on ethical service to the world.

In my memoir I devote a chapter to my discovery of Bishop Balakian
and how the French magazine article about the ceremony you held here
in 1990 deepened my understanding of my family and of the experience
of the Armenian Genocide.

If there were more time I would discuss that chapter, but I would
rather spend the remaining time saying a few things about Bishop
Balakian’s memoir Armenian Golgotha, which I first learned about from
M. Chamanadjian’s speech in 1990. I believe Armenian Golgotha remains
the most comprehensive, richly-layered and complex survivor memoir
of the Armenian Genocide. When it appeared, the American literary
critic Adam Kirch in a review called it “an Armenian equivalent
to the testimonies of Holocaust survivors like Primo Levi and Elie
Wiesel.” I hope you in France and Armenians around the world will
continue to read it carefully and make sure that it finds its way
into the mainstream culture and curriculum wherever you live.

A talk about Armenian Golgotha followed.