Musa Dagh began history that repeats itself

I rarely have a problem narrowing my choices for best novels of a year to three. The 1935 bestseller list, however, contains four very fine novels, each of which deserves to be one of my top picks.

Today I’ll devote to my topmost top pick from 1935, Franz Werfel’s The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. Tomorrow I’ll talk about the other three, all of which are by woman authors.

painting of Armenian genocide is background for title 'The Forty Days of Musa Dagh'

It’s hard today to imagine a time when there was no word to mean the premeditated, systematic liquidations of one racial, religious, ethnic, or national group by another, but until late in World War II there was no such word.

Surprisingly, when Raphael Lemkin coined the word genocide sometime in 1943-44, he wasn’t talking about the Nazi extermination of Jews but about the slaughter of Armenians by the Ottoman government during World War I.

One hundred years ago, there were about 2 million Armenians living in Turkey. By the early 1920s, three-quarters of those Armenians were dead. Many of those who survived had been forcibly removed from the country.

Most of the world uses Lemkin’s term to describe those events, but even today in Turkey it is illegal to call it genocide.

Turkey  fought in World War I on the side of Germany and Austrio-Hungary. The Turks declared Jihad against Christians, which included Armenians.

To keep Armenians in the Caucasus from supporting its Russian enemies, Turkey began “resettling” Armenians in great waves of refugees, like the refugees we see  today fleeing the Islamic State.

News of the atrocities reached the west in 1915. Armin T. Wegner, a German second-lieutenant, took clandestine photos of Armenians in deportation camps in the Syrian desert, smuggled them to the US through Germany.

Of all the Armenian villages whose residents the Turks ordered to move, only four organized to oppose the order. One of those was Musa Dagh, the Mountain of Moses, located near the Mediterranean Sea, west of the ancient city of Turkish Antioch.

Alone of the defiant Armenia villages, Musa Dagh was saved from slaughter by the Western Allies.

Franz Werfel turned the story of Musa Dagh’s fight into a novel. Published in 1933, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh became a bestseller, which drew so much attention to Werfel, who was Jewish, that he was forced to flee Vienna for France.

(At one point, Werfel and his wife took refuge in Lourdes, which inspired him to write The Song of Bernadette, which also became a bestseller.)

The Forty Days of Musa Dagh was banned in Germany and countries it occupied, but copies still circulated throughout World War II. In ghettos, the novel was read as a call to fight the Nazis.

The characters’ individuality, memorable though they are, seems to recede as the novel moves to its conclusion. Werfel leaves readers with an inspiring sense of people united in a cause.

Despite its enormous popularity, Musa Dagh was never turned into a movie. MGM wanted to do a film, but the Turkish government protested. The film was never made.

A updated version of Werfel’s novel was released this year, the centennial of start of the Armenian genocide. The new version of the novel, like the events it commemorates, is as contemporary as tweets from Tikrit.

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Linda Aragoni

I'm passionate about helping people learn through the medium of nonfiction writing. Although I occasionally have an idea of my own, I mostly build education tools by recycling and repurposing other folks' ideas.

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