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Armenian Golgothaby Grigoris Palakean
Synopses & Reviews
Never before in English, Armenian Golgotha is the most dramatic and comprehensive eyewitness account of the first modern genocide.
On April 24, 1915, the priest Grigoris Balakian was arrested along with some 250 other intellectuals and leaders of Constantinople's Armenian community. It was the beginning of the Ottoman Turkish government's systematic attempt to eliminate the Armenian people from Turkey; it was a campaign that continued through World War I and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, by which time more than a million Armenians had been annihilated and expunged from their historic homeland. For Grigoris Balakian, himself condemned, it was also the beginning of a four-year ordeal during which he would bear witness to a seemingly endless caravan of blood.
Balakian sees his countrymen sent in carts, on donkeys, or on foot to face certain death in the desert of northern Syria. Many would not even survive the journey, suffering starvation, disease, mutilation, and rape, among other tortures, before being slaughtered en route. In these pages, he brings to life the words and deeds of survivors, foreign witnesses, and Turkish officials involved in the massacre process, and also of those few brave, righteous Turks, who, with some of their German allies working for the Baghdad Railway, resisted orders calling for the death of the Armenians. Miraculously, Balakian manages to escape, and his flight — through forest and over mountain, in disguise as a railroad worker and then as a German soldier — is a suspenseful, harrowing odyssey that makes possible his singular testimony.
Full of shrewd insights into the political, historical, and cultural context of the Armenian genocide — the template for the subsequent mass killings that have cast a shadow across the twentieth century and beyond — this memoir is destined to become a classic of survivor literature. Armenian Golgotha is sure to deepen our understanding of a catastrophic crime that the Turkish government, the Ottomans' successor, denies to this day.
Last month, while I was visiting my father in Florida, we had dinner one night with my aunt. We were discussing the way Jim Jones had poisoned 900 of his followers with cyanide-laced Flavor Aid in 1978, and suddenly my aunt was explaining that another way to poison someone is with a yogurt smoothie. "That's how the Turks poisoned your grandmother's classmates in Constantinople in 1915," she said. "They... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) poisoned the tahn." This story was new to me, and I am 47. But as a second-generation Armenian American, I've found that it's not uncommon for one of these UFO horror stories to materialize out of nowhere over coffee. My childhood was a combination of suburban cliche and Middle Eastern exoticism. Although most of my boyhood in New York's Westchester County revolved around Little League baseball, "Star Trek" and coveting my older brother's record collection, there was also the powerfully alien aura cast by my grandparents, Leo and Haigoohi (pronounced Hi-Gui) Bohjalian. They emigrated to the United States from Paris in 1927, though both had been born near Constantinople just after the turn of the last century. I saw them weekly, either at our home (a development Colonial) or theirs (a three-story brick house that in my memory is a mansion, but that I imagine would strike me as rather modest if I were to revisit it now). My grandparents spoke a strange language, the characters that comprised the words in their books were impenetrable, and my grandfather used to wear a suit with a vest, even on Saturday afternoons. He would play his beloved oud for hours. Their sheer foreignness drove my father crazy, and he worked hard to be more American than a Ford motor plant. In hindsight, I shouldn't be surprised that he entered one of the more iconic American professions of the middle part of the 20th century: advertising. But there was also something tragic about Leo and Haigoohi. Though no one ever told me the precise circumstances, I knew that three of their four parents had died in the genocide of 1915, and Leo — who had left Turkey — went back after World War I to find Haigoohi. Sometimes I was told that she had been hidden by a Muslim family, other times that she had found shelter in a convent. Still, my father never spoke of what may have happened to his ancestors in 1915, and as a boy I never asked. And so their story emerges in unexpected, fitful thunderstorms — such as my aunt's yogurt smoothie story last month. Now, in a powerful memoir being published for the first time in English, I may finally be getting an inkling of what Leo and Haigoohi's parents endured in the Armenian nightmare of 1915-16. Originally published in 1922, "Armenian Golgotha" is Father Grigoris Balakian's account of his deportation from Constantinople with 250 other Armenian intellectual and political leaders on April 24, 1915 — now Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day — and the cruelties he endured over the next three years as he struggled to survive. Roughly 1.2 million Armenians would either be slaughtered by Turkish killing squads or would die of exposure or starve to death in camps in the deserts at the southeastern edges of the Ottoman Empire. Balakian was a great-uncle of the poet and memoirist Peter Balakian, who translated this account with Aris Sevag. The book presents a litany of barbaric savageries: the mobile killing squads (chetes) of pardoned Turkish criminals; the endless caravans of starving women and children; the grisly decapitations and dismemberments of unarmed Armenians by frenzied mobs using "axes, hatchets, shovels, and pitchforks." Balakian shares it all in a tone that vacillates between reportorial numbness and a grim determination to live to tell the world what he has witnessed: "On our second day ... we saw, in the fields on both sides of the road, the first decomposed human skeletons and even more skulls, long hair still attached to them, leaving no doubt that they belonged to females. Among our companions were young Armenian intellectuals. ... They often bent down to pick up the skulls and kiss them." When Balakian asks the Turkish captain guarding them why the victims hadn't been buried, he's informed that they had been tossed into a mass grave, but the winter floods had washed away the dirt. Then the captain adds offhandedly that these were the bones of some of the 86,000 Armenians who had been "put on this road so that we could cleanse them." (The word "cleanse" as a euphemism for genocide appears often in the text, as does the word "jihad," giving the account an eerie and disturbing contemporaneousness.) Balakian eventually escapes from the caravan, using his fluency in German to pass in a variety of guises, including that of a German engineer. In addition to being a poignant, often harrowing story about the resiliency of the human spirit, "Armenian Golgotha" is also a window on a moment in history that most Americans only dimly understand. Despite the enormous amount of new scholarship into the genocide (including work by Turkish scholars), some Americans view the killings as less calculated than the Holocaust and wonder whether the event should even be categorized as "genocide" — especially at the risk of antagonizing Turkey, a NATO ally. (Exhibit A? The current debate over a possible U.S. House resolution that actually places the words "Armenian" and "genocide" side by side.) In some people's eyes, particularly those who wish to deny what really happened, the Armenian ordeal was a series of chaotic, decentralized, nonbureaucratic massacres — the opposite of the systematic, state-centralized, bureaucratic slaughter of 6 million in the Holocaust. Balakian's account, however, is rich with evidence of the Turkish government's complicity and its leaders' premeditation. Deportation, in their vernacular, was always a subterfuge for extermination. So I hope that "Armenian Golgotha" will be widely read, both as a riveting tale of one man's survival and as a historical document. Chris Bohjalian is the author of 11 novels, including "Midwives," "The Double Bind" and "Skeletons at the Feast." Reviewed by Chris Bohjalian, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"[A] fascinating first-hand testimony to a monumental crime." The New Yorker
"[T]his rich historical document....vividly portrays Turkish brutality as it provides [Balakian's] and others' stories along with well-informed commentary on Turkey’s actions....a readable and moving account." Library Journal
"Grigoris Balakian's Armenian Golgotha is a powerful, moving account of the Armenian Genocide....told here with a sweep of experience and wealth of detail that is as disturbing as it is irrefutable." Sir Martin Gilbert
On April 24, 1915, the priest Grigoris Balakian was arrested along with 250 other intellectuals in Constantinople, in what was to be a systematic attempt to eliminate the Armenian minority. This is a dramatic and comprehensive eyewitness account of the first modern genocide.
Never before in English: the most dramatic and comprehensive eyewitness account of the first modern genocide.
On April 24, 1915, the priest Grigoris Balakian was arrested along with some 250 other intellectuals and leaders of Constantinople's Armenian community. It was the launch of a systematic attempt to eliminate the Armenian minority from Anatolia, an effort that would last through the First World War and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, not concluding before the annihilation of some 1.2 million people. Balakian, himself condemned, bears witness to the countless deportation caravans of Armenians tortured, raped, slaughtered, and mutilated on their way to death in the Syrian deserts; to the words and deeds of many survivors, foreign witnesses, and Turkish officials involved in the extermination; and also to some brave, righteous Turks and their German allies who resisted secret extermination orders. Miraculously, Balakian manages to escape, and his flight — through forest and over mountain, in disguise as a railroad worker and then a German soldier — is a suspenseful, harrowing odyssey that makes possible his singular testimony.
Full of shrewd insights into politics, history, and culture and destined to become a classic of survivor literature, this memoir is sure to redefine our awareness of a catastrophic crime that the Turkish government, the Ottomans' successor, denies to this day.
About the Author
Born in 1873, Grigoris Balakian was one of the leading Armenian intellectuals of his generation. Ordained as a celibate priest in 1901, he later became a bishop and prelate of the Armenian Apostolic Church in southern France. He died in Marseilles in 1934.
Peter Balakian is the author of The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America's Response, winner of the 2005 Raphael Lemkin Prize, a New York Times best seller, and a New York Times Notable Book, and Black Dog of Fate, winner of the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for the Art of Memoir, also a New York Times Notable Book. Grigoris Balakian was his great-uncle.
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