The haunting tale of an Armenian Genocide survivor

Q&A with Peter Balakian, who translated his great great uncle's memoir of deportation, massacre and escape

Reprinted from Armenian Golgotha, by Grigoris Balakian Published by Alfred A. Knopf, © 2009

Reprinted from Armenian Golgotha, by Grigoris Balakian Published by Alfred A. Knopf, © 2009

Armenian Golgotha: A Memoir of the Armenian Genocide, 1915-1918 was written by Bishop Grigoris Balakian, a survivor of the Armenian Genocide. Balakian was arrested along with other Armenian intellectuals and political leaders on April 24, 1915 (now the Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day), but was able to shepherd a small group of deportees he fought to keep alive by bribing Turkish officials during their four-year march toward the desert of Northern Syria—many of his countrymen didn’t survive the journey, dying of exposure, starvation, disease while other Armenians has been raped or killed by Turkish killing squads. After Balakian escaped he wrote about his agonizing journey chronicling the Armenian Genocide in painful detail. Decades later, the text was translated into English over a 10-year span by his great great nephew, author Peter Balakian, who sat down with Maclean’s to talk about the book.

Q: How did you come to find your great uncle’s diaries on surviving the genocide?

A: My great uncle was always a mythic figure in the family lore, but he was only known as a bishop. Nobody ever spoke about him as a survivor of genocide or a writer of a major memoir. That was very hushed up which struck me as very odd because I come from a professional literary family, and thought that my aunts might have mentioned he wrote these books. But nobody wanted to go there because it was too traumatic and that past was never talked about openly. So when I learned about my great great uncle from a French newspaper article that somebody had sent me, I read about these memoirs he had written that were quite famous in Armenia. I ordered the two volumes from Beirut and had friend of mine translate the table of contents. When I saw just the table of contents I was shattered–overwhelmed, and from there on it took me and a collaborator a decade to translate all 71 chapters.

Q: It’s a very important historical document, but why did you feel you should be the one to translate this quite depressing work that took 10 years to complete?

A: I have been writing about the Armenian Genocide for a while, much of my professional life. And having discovered that this was my ancestor and having come into the book it seemed almost inevitable. Like an inevitable responsibility to do this and there really was no way out.

Q: What kind of an effect did it have on you? There are some pretty depressing scenes in the book including one where a girl’s chest is crushed and she’s dismembered for not wanting to convert to Islam through marriage. And there are mentions of mass killings of women and children by ordinary villagers, who did the killing under a fatwa?

A: It is a book of relentless atrocities, this is true. But I have to say as a writer who has written about trauma and atrocity and genocide for several decades that I think the redeeming dimension here is the power of truth, of bringing to the world large truth and profound human experience even though that experience is a dark one. Excavating truth and profound experience is something that transcends anything that might seem debilitating about working on this kind of a book.

Q: Which part of your great uncle’s story stands out most?

A: I would perhaps point to several experiences. I think we are brought so close to the massacre and deportation experience because his writing is so vivid and precise and clear that one feels like one is there to some degree. That there is a sense of closeness to the daily experience of the deportation and death march. Secondly, the relentless witnessing of atrocity, gruesome as it is, again is powerful as a documentation of what the Armenian Genocide was and how well planned it was by the Turkish Government. We see it happening in village after village, town after town, city after city along my great uncle’s four-year march and escape. I also think a compelling part of the story is the witnessing of cultural destruction of churches, schools and buildings and a ruin of the whole great ancient civilization of what Armenia was in Anatolia.

Q: Let’s go back to that idea, that genocide is more than mass killing. It’s also about erasing a culture, a landscape, a group’s economy. What are the lasting effects of the genocide on the Armenian populous today?

A: I think the aftermath of the Armenian Genocide has been a bitter and cruel one, because the Turkish government has remained in a kind of aggressive denial propaganda campaign to cover up, deny, sanitize, falsify this history, and so the Armenian population world-wide has had to live with the denial, and the attempts of the Turkish government to evade responsibility for the extermination of the Armenians. So it’s a traumatic experience to have to both inherit genocide and have to live with the denial of it. Obviously there is also the issue of the eradication of the civilization, the loss of place, of all the beautiful and rich things that were made, the loss of life, irreplaceable loss of versions of the future and of variations of the future.

Q: If Turkey is trying to get into the EU, in your opinion, why are they so unrelenting on admitting the genocide?

A: At least on one level, the Turkish government has socialized the society to have no critical thinking about its past. It’s made all dark and violent episodes in its history taboo. If you socialize people to have no critical evaluation of their society you create a situation where no one can accept the truth and the complexity of the past. This of course results in a kind of totalitarian way of thinking of one society. I think the Turkish government is locked in a sick situation as it continues to punish, torture and jail its intellectuals and journalists. Until it can achieve a kind of open and democratic society it’s not going to get into the EU since those are cornerstones of democracy and the Armenian Genocide issue is at the very centre of Turkey being on trial as a democracy.

Q: There are a lot of similar problems with the Kurdish population there today. What is preventing them from learning from the past and moving on?

A: You cannot learn from the past until you allow and encourage critical cultural and historical evaluation in your institutions, especially in your educational and media institutions. So if you are going to maintain an extreme nationalist repression on intellectual and educational life you can’t learn. Part of the problem is that Turkey has been a society that’s disallowed minority rights. There have been no equal minority rights in Turkey in the modern era. The Kurdish people are the largest minority in Turkey and have been subjected to similar kinds of treatment that the Armenians, the Greeks and the Assyrians, and other major Christian groups were subjected to in the early part of the 20th century.

Q: In the collective-consciousness of the Armenian people, is there one event of the entire genocide that stands out as the biggest wound?

A: There are slightly more dramatic spots on the genocide map if you will. One is Der Zor in northern Syria–the desert where close to 450,000 people perished. That was like the Auschwitz of the Armenian Genocide and is a very sacred spot for Armenians to grieve. The arrest of the intellectuals and cultural leaders on the night of April 24 in Constantinople, now Istanbul, is also a sacred moment because it commemorates the beginning of the process. It shows us the Turkish government was focused on cutting the head off of the culture, silencing its voice first and became a model for how Turkey would target segments of the population in the killing process.

Q: How is it that your great uncle was able to get so many officials to confide in him and give him special favours to take care of the deportees he was looking after?

A: As he himself put it and later on in the trial and courtroom when asked “How did you survive Reverend?” he said “Backsheesh” (money) he was able to keep bribing and paying off officials to keep his little band of deportees alive another day, another week. And because he was a clergymen and had a role of leadership and esteem and was seen by the Turks as a cultural leader of this little group he was shepherding. He was the negotiator, he was the guy on the front line talking to the Turkish administrators and Jean d’armes and occasionally he was able to cull some valuable information from them. Especially in the case of Captain Shukri in Yozgat. I think these people opened up to him because they were sure he would be dead soon. No way they would have opened up to him if they knew he would be alive, so I think it was circumstance that involved some luck and some degree of his own leadership role.

Q: There is a scene in the book where your great uncle describes persuading a group of men not to jump to their death off a cliff by saying it was their patriotic duty to remain alive and witness the rebirth of Armenian freedom. Tell me about the power of the notion of freedom and why these men didn’t commit suicide under more humane circumstances, if you will, when they were certainly marching towards a cruel death?

A: I think the vision that there could be an independent Armenia after WWI was a powerful force for Bishop Balakian throughout this and was in the minds of other Armenians as well. They thought maybe there is going to be some redemption after this hard amount of bloodshed, and we will rise into an independent country. It was a compelling force and he mentions that more than once, the power of that image. The irony of the scene you are describing is that not long after these men were bitterly complaining, saying they wished they killed themselves. It’s something out of Shakespeare.

Q: Did you see any of yourself in your great uncle as you read his diaries?

A: Interesting question. I think it was interesting for me to get to know in a very unusual and unique way a member of my family who is lost to us. A member from another generation who was a survivor and had written this extraordinary narrative. To have him come alive added a great deal of depth and understanding to our family. I am a writer, my great great uncle is a writer, my aunts were writers so there is some evolution of this craft and trade–this art that has characterized my family over the course of generations. So to establish my great uncle as a kind of progenitor is very interesting and gives us a deeper understanding of ourselves.

Q: Let’s talk about remorse. Many officers or individual Turks denounced the killing or confided to your great uncle they couldn’t sleep because of the number of people they killed and yet they kept marching people to their death. What do you think this says about humanity–that you can have such remorse and continue to act this way?

A: There are social and psychological portraits in the history of all genocides, a lot has been written on this issue in Holocaust scholarship. How do seemingly ordinary people taking orders from the regime or government do it? How to they live with themselves and process what they are doing? I think there are many psychological theories about this. I like Robert J. Lipton’s notion of doubling, that is, people sometimes compartmentalize so deeply they actually create an alter ego or another personality and so one personality and one self is doing the killing, while another self is doing very ordinary things. One self may know this is wrong but feel they have no choice but to follow orders. For much of the population, situation tends to dictate the behaviour of people rather than an inner moral compass. It’s not to say some l don’t have very strong values and are able to articulate them but it tends to be a minority while the majority tends to follow orders.

Q: Was there one situation that your great uncle wrote that was more horrific, or inhumane than most, and stayed with you?

A: It’s hard to choose. There are both macro scenes and micro scenes. Some of the micro scenes that are shattering to read about are the encounters with the recently Islamicized Armenians who are so anguished and devastated by having given up their faith and hence their cultural identity. And when they meet my great uncle they break down sobbing. There are images of abducted boys who were recently Islamicized boys who are paraded around towns and circumcision ceremonies. There are images of the young girl being dismembered and disemboweled, having her head cut off because she refuses to marry a Turkish man. There are these smaller acts of violence that stay with one in a certain way. The mass acts like the mounds and mounds of loosely buried corpses near Ishla that causes my great uncle to say ‘we contemplated committing suicide.’ That’s an image and phrase that stays with me. Seeing mounds of the corpses of your countrymen and being driven to the feeling of wanting to kill yourself.

Q: Why is it important to study a work like this today?

A: I think that the work has an eerie contemporariness to it because genocide is still happening around the planet and you can see in the morphology of this man’s experience many of the structures that we’ve come to see in other genocidal events of the late 20th century into today. I hope readers will see it as a very contemporary book even though it is set 94 years ago. It shows us a process, it takes us to a deep place and is written with a literary depth that readers should find the language and the narrative, I hope, engaging.

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