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Sabbath Day – Armenian Martyrs

April 23, 2015

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I continued this week my reading of different national literatures. Having spent previous weeks reflecting on the Great Hunger (the Irish famine) and the Holocaust (via Anne Frank), I spent this week on a single novel about the Armenian Genocide. Throughout the week we both heard Pope Francis acknowledge the genocide and President Obama decline to use the term. Turkey continues to officially and aggressively deny the genocide, and Turkish groups attempt reconciliation without truth. But the Armenian Genocide was the first in the twentieth century, and served as a prototype for the Holocaust of the Jews.  When Hitler was asked if he was afraid that he would get caught it is recorded that he laughed and said, “Who remembers the Armenians?”

Tomorrow (April 24) is the 100th Anniversary of the Genocide. Most of the world will remember the 1.5 million lives ethnically cleansed in the name of nationalism. I will attend a local commemoration at St. Gregory’s here in White Plains, and join my friends everywhere in honoring those remembered as the Armenian martyrs.

More than a decade ago my friends Jan and Tom Kavazanjian gave me a copy of Franz Werfel’s The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, the novel that brought the story of the genocide to the world. Tom’s parents had given the book to them. Since then it has sat on my shelf, and for the last couple of years in a box. This week I worked my way through all 811 pages, only to learn that this English translation of the original German through which generations of Armenians were introduced to the story is an abridgement – and that a full translation was published two years ago.

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Musa Dagh means Moses’ Mountain, an important site of Armenian resistance. 5000 men, women and children from seven Syrian villages, including Yoghonoluk, refused to be marched to their deaths in the desert and instead disappeared onto the mountain. For fifty-three days they held out and fought back until rescued by a French ship. The forty days of the title draws out the several layers of biblical allusion in the text.

Werfel was a German Jew with a Catholic education and wide religious interests. As such he was a colleague of Kafka, Buber, Karl Kraus and Rilke. His book was published in 1933 and drew clear connections between the Turkish treatment of the Armenians and German treatment of Jews. Werfel is also remembered as the author of The Song of Bernadette.

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I spent my actual Sabbath Day today hiring a business manager at the church, climbing at the gym, enjoying beer and gumbo with a colleague, reading a novel with my coffee, having dinner with my family, playing RISK with August, and watching a few episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I ended my day reading several sermons of Peter Doghramji, pastor the Armenian Evangelical Church of New York, delivered over the years to commemorate Armenian Martyrs Day.

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