The Forty Days of Musa Dagh – An Epic of a Genocide
A question I have to ask myself is why I often read and write about difficult topics such as torture, slavery and now genocide. I was asked once by a parishioner why I didn’t write about “nice” topics, and I had no clear answer for her except to say that piety will always have its authors, but people often avoid troublesome topics. Some authors such as Franz Werfel do both well.
Recently I have been reading a novel by Werfel (1890-1945), a Jewish author who for us Catholics is best known for his Song of Bernadette, the 1941 novel that tells the story of Saint Bernadette Soubirous, and which perhaps falls within the pious category of writing.
His earlier novel, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, is what has caught my attention. The Forty Days (contrary to the title the resistance described lasted fifty three days) describes events in 1915 at the beginning of the Armenian genocide and the self-defense of a small community of seven Armenian villages in the north of Turkey in Hatáj Province at the Mountain of Moses (Musa Dagh).
Originally published in German in 1933, Werfel took what might have been a footnote in the history of World War I and made it into an important piece of literature by creating the best and most historically accurate Holocaust novel ever.
He describes how the Young Turk government orchestrated the deportations, concentration camps and massacres of the empire’s Armenian citizens. Despite the inflammatory nature of the material with which he was working Werfel took pains to represent both Turks and Armenians with objectivity.
The Nazis, in power in Berlin by the time the book was published, were quick to realize that the book was not only a work of historical fiction about one genocide, but also a clear allegory about another, the impending murder of the Jews, and so they proscribed Werfel’s novel.
The human person is a mysterious combination of good and evil. On the one hand, there is Saint Bernadette, and on the other hand there are the perpetrators of genocide. We need to pay attention to both aspects because if we reflect carefully we can find them also in ourselves.