Armenian Golgotha: A Memoir of the Armenian Genocide, 1915-1918 (Vintage)
by Grigoris Balakian and Peter Balakian
Reviewed by Benjamin Moser
The Armenian genocide is a "controversial" issue that can always be counted on to annoy the Turkish government, which has dedicated its considerable diplomatic and economic resources to repressing its memory. This endeavor is helped by our distance from events that took place during the First World War: I suspect most people are as hazy on the details of the events as I was when I picked up Grigoris Balakian's Armenian Golgotha (Vintage, $20).
Balakian, a priest from Constantinople, was arrested with other Armenian notables on April 24, 1915, the "Red Sunday" commemorated as the beginning of the genocide. Balakian should have died on almost every page of this appalling and magnificent book, half the chronicle of a murdered people and half the story of Balakian's own desperate escape. It owes its existence to his determination to survive to write it, to recount the disaster to "future Armenian generations," a sacred task that gives him the strength to persevere through the impossible circumstances that killed well over a million of his countrymen.
Written in Armenian and published in 1922, the book does not seek to camouflage the bungling of certain Armenian leaders. It is meant, after all, only for Armenians, and had he been writing for a Western audience, he might have succumbed to the temptation to gloss over these failures. But "Armenian" does not mean parochial: Balakian's ease in the "gentile" world -- he was educated in Berlin, where the book opens to a capital cheering the declaration of war -- allows him to place the tragedy within the more familiar context of World War I. In the eyes of the perpetrators, however, this internationally educated intellectual is just another Armenian, and it is not so much the copious evidence he airs of plotting pashas, lazy patriarchs, and covetous generals that makes this story so shocking; it is the image, repeated in chapter after chapter, in village after village, of Balakian and his fellow deportees arriving late at night, starving and exhausted, in a place where all doors are closed to them, and where the local peasants refuse to sell them so much as a fistful of bread or a sip of water.
Benjamin Moser is a contributing editor of Harper's magazine and the author of Why This World.