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“I Have Decided Not to Die”

ISSUE:  Fall 2009

Armenian Golgotha, by Grigoris Balakian. Knopf, March 2009. $35

Black Dog of Fate: A Memoir, by Peter Balakian. Basic Books, February 2009. $16.95 paper

In April 24, 1915, someone knocked on Grigoris Balakian’s door in Constantinople (as the city was then known) and told him that he needed to head down to the police station to speak to the authorities. He wouldn’t return home for three and a half years. Balakian, a vartabed (a celibate priest) and scholar, was one of 250 intellectuals, writers, teachers, politicians, and prominent Armenians arrested in Constantinople that night, during the early stages of the Armenian Genocide. His story is recounted in wrenching and brilliant detail in a memoir, Armenian Golgotha, only recently translated into English by Aris Sevag and Peter Balakian, the author’s great-nephew and himself the author of two books on the Genocide, Black Dog of Fate and The Burning Tigris.

While Grigoris Balakian’s memoir of the Genocide is not the only one of its kind, it was likely among the first written, begun in the waning days of World War I. When considered alongside Peter Balakian’s books, there emerges a uniquely familial view of the first of several instances in the twentieth century in which a sovereign government attempted to destroy a segment of its population. To read these books is to discover—with a troubling sense of recognition—the perverse blueprint utilized, in one form or another, by successive governments in Germany, Cambodia, Yugoslavia, and Rwanda. Deportations, concentration camps, damning propaganda, death marches, massacres, mass starvation, ethnic cleansing: they are all here, deliberate and bureaucratically directed, the prototypical components of what Churchill would later call “a crime without a name.” No wonder, then, as Peter Balakian mentions, that Hitler looked to the Armenian Genocide as an example of how to gain some of his precious lebensraum. In a statement explaining his decision to attack Poland, he supposedly asked, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” Consequently, it is essential for Peter Balakian to continue to speak, and so he has brought his great-uncle’s valuable book, eighty years later, into a wider readership by assisting in its translation, while also producing a revised version of Black Dog of Fate.

Grigoris Balakian’s captivity occurred within the context of the persecution and massacre of religious minorities throughout the Ottoman Empire: 15,000 Bulgarians killed during the 1876 Bulgarian Horrors, 200,000 Armenians dead in the Hamidian massacres of 1894–1896, at least 15,000 massacred in Adana province in 1909. Cognizant of this history, Balakian knew that he and the other arrestees had limited prospects for survival when they were shipped into the interior of the Ottoman Empire and forced to march hundreds of miles. Accompanied by Ottoman gendarmes—who offered only small mercies, such as time to buy bread or a few minutes rest, after being handed large bribes—they faced death daily, whether at the hands of eager bands of Turkish marauders, ready to kill and pillage the caravan, or by starvation and disease.

Through this terrifying gauntlet, Balakian developed into a leader of these and other refugees impressed into their group along the way. Because of his position in the Armenian Apostolic Church, Balakian drew the admiration of his people—who simultaneously sought his help and pleaded with him to escape and save himself—and he drew a tacit respect from some Ottoman officials and soldiers. This status, combined with his gift for diplomatic conversation and his seemingly impending death, meant that Ottomans often spoke frankly to him about the ongoing genocide. Some professed the divinely sanctioned nature of their actions or divulged shocking testimony about the massacres in which they participated. One official showed him a telegram from Interior Minister Talaat asking how the massacres were proceeding. More than once Balakian used his position to save the refugees from certain death by pleading with their guards or arranging bribes to alter their route to avoid a ravenous militia stalking them from nearby hills.

Prior to the launch of the extermination campaign by the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP)—the Young Turks’ political party, often referred to as the Ittihad—Balakian occupied a peculiar place within the Armenian clergy, certainly of it but also highly critical of its leadership, some of whom he considered corrupt and close-minded. He could not find “even ten unselfish, unpretentious, and magnanimous individuals among” the establishment, though he professes admiration for Krikor Zohrab and Vartkes Serengulian, Armenian members of the Ottoman Parliament, “eloquent advocates of the Armenian people,” whose petitions for mercy were denied before they were tortured and murdered.

Many of the prominent Armenians arrested with Balakian believed that a mistake had been made and that they would soon be released. The Armenians and the Young Turks had been ideological allies against the corrupt sultanate. Many Armenians supported the Young Turks in deposing the murderous Sultan Abdul Hamid II. The new government reinstated the constitution in 1908, which the Armenians hoped would finally bring equal treatment to the non-Muslim subjects of the Ottoman Empire. Was it unreasonable to expect better treatment under the CUP? In Balakian’s eyes, “this [belief] was irresponsible,” both because of the history of Armenian massacres and of the European powers’ repeated false promises of protection. Considering his situation soon after his arrest, Balakian writes: “No one grasped the gravity of the situation, and no one was worried about tomorrow.”

One such uncomprehending prisoner was Khachadour Maloumian, who hid Mehmed Talaat, the future Ottoman Minister of the Interior and architect of the Genocide, in his house during the 1912–1913 Balkan War. Maloumian repeatedly sent telegrams to Talaat demanding justice, expecting that Talaat and his cohort would eventually come to their senses. (Maloumian was later among the first of the intellectuals killed during the deportation. He had recently had dinner with Talaat before his arrest.) It was this “blind trust,” Balakian writes, in people who were “common criminals” rather than “ideological comrades,” that contributed to the Genocide. He expresses similar anger towards the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople, who professed that the Church was too poor and weak to provide anything more than meager financial support to Balakian and his fellow refugees, who struggled to feed themselves.

Balakian took his responsibilities as a religious leader seriously, so it was difficult for him to separate himself from his people, his sense of duty overriding all. He also, quite justly, saw himself as key to the survival of the caravan. But after months of torment, Balakian’s fellow prisoners convinced him to flee in February 1916. He then became something like the whiskey priest of Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, albeit one who was seemingly without fault. The story of his escapes, disguises, shifts between identities and languages spread widely; refugees, crowded into camps, invoked it as a talisman. He considered himself “the only surviving shepherd of a banished flock,” and the Armenians who learned his true identity agreed. They tearfully begged him for absolution for things they had done (usually, forced conversions to Islam); they asked him, over and over, to write down the story of their people so that future generations would know what happened; they told him that he was important and that he must survive.

The chapters describing Balakian’s time on the run are among the most upsetting in the book, as he had to contend with the devastation his people had experienced, but he could not use his priestly role to comfort them for fear of being apprehended and killed—priests were considered dangerous. He survived the next nineteen months by finding work on the Baghdad Railway and at various vineyards. He rarely revealed his true self. Some loyal friends and their trusted acquaintances hid him for months at a time, in secluded tents, farmhouses, or secret hospital rooms (which was sometimes essential, as starvation and ill health almost killed him on more than one occasion). His paranoia nearly consumed him, but by causing him to heed any bad omen, it also saved him.

When Grigoris Balakian’s great-nephew Peter published Black Dog of Fate in 1997, the book garnered wonderful reviews, a New York Times Notable Book designation, the PEN/Albrand Award, and a place on several best-books-of-the-year lists. In February 2009, Basic Books released a revised anniversary edition, complete with two new chapters about Balakian’s mournful trip to Syria in 2005 to visit sites related to the Genocide. It is an extraordinary memoir that charts Balakian’s upbringing in a middle-class family in New Jersey, one in which he was told, “We’re not like other Armenians. They’re too ethnic.”

But his family is indelibly Armenian: well educated, close-knit, influenced by European culture, made up of “idealized artists and intellectuals.” It is an essentially matriarchal family, filled with charming, dynamic female figures, including his mother and grandmother, who tend to him dutifully. His aunts Nona and Anna were prominent literary scholars in New York, the former working for the New York Times for decades and authoring a study on her close friend, the distinguished Armenian-American writer William Saroyan. The National Book Critics Circle continues to annually give the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. About Saroyan, Nona Balakian said, “I believe that Saroyan, like all Armenians, was a natural utopian. We have a dream instead of a country. Because territory has eluded us, we have a freedom to invent that most people don’t. The more our geography shrinks, the more our imaginations expand, the more we’re like owls flying in the dark.” This notion of a blind struggle for self-invention would come to form an integral part of Peter Balakian’s exploration of his relationship with Armenian history.

During his childhood, Balakian was told almost nothing about his family’s past. He didn’t know about the relatives who were victims of massacres or the family friends who were executed as intellectuals, like the poet Adom Yarjanian (nom de plume: Siamanto). His parents tried to raise him “unhampered” by history, but that proved impossible. Just as artists of the Armenian diaspora, like Saroyan and the painter Arshile Gorky (a Genocide survivor), helped to reclaim the old world—they announced by their very acts of creation: we live—so too did Balakian eventually seek out the place that “had become an Atlantis to [his] imagination.”

In his gradual process of self-discovery, prodding his elders for stories that they are reluctant to tell, Balakian forges a chain of history from ancient Armenia: from Justinian in the sixth century, to refugee camps in Aleppo, to his grandfather Bedros Aroosian, working in the silk mills of Paterson, New Jersey, in the early twentieth century. He discovers poetry and rock music, girls and drugs and baseball, and finds that his mother can charm Allen Ginsburg. He learns to be angry that the world repeatedly abandoned Armenia, while the Turkish government continues to disseminate false information about the Genocide and pressures western nations not to acknowledge it. He also learns, as he details in a chapter called “Reading a Skeleton,” about “the Bishop”—the shadowy ancestor whose extraordinary story of survival was hinted at in his family, but never told.

It is in his poetry, presented in this memoir and in several other collections, that he rediscovers the “Lost Armenia.” Though he later wrote a history titled The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response, poetry becomes the visceral, emotional link to a place he never knew. Unfortunately, there is little discussion in Peter Balakian’s books of contemporary Armenia. The focus is on what was lost, what it means to never know a place that cannot be recovered.

In The Burning Tigris, Balakian invokes the social psychologist Irvin Staub, who argues that Ottoman society became oriented at all levels to marginalizing the Armenians and sanctioning violence directed towards them. The government-sponsored terror, killing, and arming of militias and ordinary civilians, including the zealous softas (religious students), created a cultural and political milieu in which the extermination of Armenians and the razing of their communities became the natural solution for solving the “question” of a dehumanized, scapegoated people. The issue of how or if Christian Armenians could be integrated equally into a Muslim majority wasn’t a matter for debate; it had long before been diabolically cast as a problem, an equation, with one inevitable solution. Young Turk leaders told their followers that Armenian extermination was a necessary prescription for advancing, and even healing, the wounded body politic. In the case of the fracturing Ottomon Empire, which had already suffered from the loss of Bulgaria and the corruption of the sultans, eliminating the Armenian burden held the promise of establishing a new kind of society—one in which the rights of minorities would not have to be considered, because these groups simply would not exist. As Talaat told a CUP meeting in 1910, equality was “an unrealizable idea.”

Like Abdul Hamid II in the period leading up the massacres of the mid-1890s, the CUP broke their promises of pro-Armenian reforms. Abrogating treaty obligations; removing the meddling influence of the Great Powers, who only occasionally lobbied for better treatment of religious minorities; labeling the Armenians “tubercular microbes” that stood in the way of a unified, homogenized culture; arming and training young civilians to take up arms to defend their fragmenting empire and to stymie “the decay of the Turkish race”; co-opting the Ottoman Sunni religious leadership, who called for jihad against non-Muslims (with the exception of their German allies); embracing a messianic vision of a pan-Turkic state that would unite Turkic and other distantly related Muslim peoples from southern Europe to the Caucuses and parts of Central Asia—all formed the groundwork for leaving the Armenians defenseless and subject to potential annihilation.

After the loss to Russia in Sarikamish in the winter of 1914–1915, the CUP blamed its defeat on the Armenians, who were frequently cast as puppets of Europe and supporters of the Russian army. (Small units of Russian-Armenian volunteers served alongside Russian forces.) Labor battalions made up of Armenian conscripts were shot en masse by their erstwhile Turkish comrades. In the spring, with massacres and deportations beginning across the country, abetted by a pervasive spy network, any measure of resistance became a pretext for further massacres—as had been the case two decades earlier—and for arbitrary arrests and court-martials for treason. Gendarmes searched homes for weapons, and when none were found, they sometimes planted weapons instead. The discovery of any weapons was considered grounds for arrest and deportation. In a tragic irony, some Armenians bought weapons explicitly to be found in these seizures because they believed that when discovered by the gendarmes, the weapons would be seized and harassment would cease.

Both Balakians describe the Genocide as carried out through a menagerie of awful means: bayoneting, shooting, beating with clubs, starvation, death marches where thousands died each day, asphyxiation, burning. Thousands of refugees were packed into internment camps, with the expressed hope that they would die of starvation or epidemic disease. Gendarmes and militias routinely toyed with these refugees. In Black Dog of Fate, Peter’s aunt Gladys relates the story of a relative witnessing a group of women being forced to dance, whipped, then doused in kerosene and burned alive. Their children were made to watch and clap, with Turkish soldiers continually whipping the children and telling them to clap faster.

The killings were organized at the highest levels of the government, directed by the newly established Special Organization. The government released 30,000 convicts from prison so that they could join chetes, roving killing squads that massacred and stole from defenseless Armenian refugees. Local police and government officials performed the work of making lists, arresting and deporting Armenians, on foot or by overstuffed railway cars. Often, officials directed columns of refugees straight into the paths of death squads or incensed villagers, who were told that they were fulfilling an honorable jihad and that prayer would absolve them of any guilt.

These actions were ostensibly performed under the auspices of the law. The Armenians were accused of siding with the Russians, of hiding weapons, of refusing to pay taxes, of spying or sedition. Prior to World War I, the CUP instituted the “Law of Associations,” which prohibited ethnic-based political groups. They later passed “temporary” laws to make the deportation of suspicious populations legal and to confiscate their assets, codifying a historic massacre of human life—Raphael Lemkin, the Polish-Jewish lawyer, scholar, and activist, had not yet invented the term “genocide,” though the Armenian experience was his model—and an equally historic theft of wealth; for whenever Armenians were forced from their homes, or killed while marching to or stranded in the deserts of Der Zor, they were stolen from. Soldiers, gendarmes, chetes, government officials, and ordinary Turks and Kurds stole rapaciously. Grigoris Balakian recounts stories of crowds of Turks poking through feces and tearing apart the intestines of recently massacred Armenians in order to find the gold coins that the dead may have swallowed for safekeeping. The image is anachronistically redolent of the Nazis ordering inmates to extract gold teeth from the gassed.

All men under fifty were to be killed, in accordance with a secret memorandum uncovered by British officials. When targeting a village, men were usually taken away first and shot to lessen the possibility of resistance, or they began a deportation march. (Their families were told that they would be reunited with them in the East.) Women were raped, kidnapped, or made to convert to Islam. Children were not spared, though some were sent to live with Muslim families. As in other instances of mass oppression, teachers, priests, cultural leaders, intellectuals, and politicians were deliberately targeted. The CUP applied torture widely and with great zeal, even, as one government official bragged to US ambassador Henry Morgenthau, going so far as to research torture techniques used during the Spanish Inquisition.

The killing did not end with the conclusion of World War I: large massacres occurred in the summer of 1916, and in 1920 and 1922 as the movement of Mustafa Kemal, the founder of the modern Turkish republic, rose and consolidated its rule. Including those events, the total Armenian dead likely numbers around 1.5 million, with hundreds of thousands killed in Der Zor, the final deportation zone for many and where a monument now stands. Depending on the figures used—historians debate the exact count—the genocide claimed up to three-fourths of Armenians living within Ottoman territory.

Occasionally, as both Balakians recount with some pride, Armenians did put up valiant resistance. They shot at Ottoman troops from mountainous redoubts and raided villages for supplies. But these efforts at resistance, such as in Van province, where 50,000 Armenians were massacred, were refashioned by the CUP as propaganda to support the image of Armenians are seditious insurgents.

In The Burning Tigris, Peter Balakian writes:

Because the events at Van have been so important to Turkish claims that Armenians were seeking to destroy the Ottoman state, it must be underscored that a stateless, discriminated-against minority population, without any military organization, who are also under siege, cannot engage in civil war, nor can they cause the downfall of a state.

The effect of deporting and killing a skilled, highly educated, relatively prosperous population was devastating on the larger Ottoman economy. Balakian quotes Leslie Davis, then the US consul in Harput, who claimed, “By one stroke, the country was to be set back a century.” Armenians, along with Greeks, Assyrians, and Jews, formed an essential and successful component of the overall Ottoman economy. They were physicians, traders, merchants, craftsmen, farmers, jewelers, clothiers, writers, journalists, and clergy. Grigoris Balakian testifies to encountering wheat fields made fallow because no one was alive to tend them. He found vineyards and farmhouses destroyed, the boards taken away by Turkish villagers to be used for firewood. He also came across starving Muslim Turks who bemoaned the loss of their Christian neighbors, upon whom their livelihood and business relations depended.

But the fanatical Turkish leadership saw the massacres as essential, a necessary final solution. Talaat trumpeted, “I have accomplished more toward solving the Armenian problem in three months than Abdul Hamid accomplished in thirty years.”

The economic deprivation unleashed by the Genocide also impacted the health and livelihood of millions of Turks, who faced their own challenges living in a country besieged by war. Undoubtedly these conditions contributed to the starvation and epidemics that caused the deaths of tens of thousands of Muslims, and it is by brandishing these eminently avoidable death totals that subsequent Turkish governments have claimed that the Genocide was a fabrication, that major casualties occurred on both sides. But as the International Association of Genocide Scholars and numerous other historians, governments, and eyewitness testimonies prove, this was not a civil conflict between equals, and the evidence was frequently visible on the ground and in the photos smuggled to the outside world.

Through all of this bloodshed, Turkey remained a “vassal state” to its close ally Germany. The German military and German companies exerted considerable control over Turkish affairs, commanding army units and advising the ruling triumvirate. Germans also oversaw construction of the Constantinople-to-Baghdad railroad. It was on this railroad that many Armenians, including Grigoris Balakian, found work. There he subsisted for months, changing jobs and his identity, and hoping, along with thousands of other Armenians, that their work would be seen as essential to the war effort, preventing further deportations and massacres. In fact, the skills of these laborers and clerks were essential, as the railroad transported vital military supplies, but that did not prevent the CUP from attempting to deport and kill all of them. Sympathetic German officials more than once stymied that effort, though most of the 11,500 deported Armenian railway employees were killed.

In these books, images of the dead and dying, however nightmarish, are vital to bearing witness. In the fall of 1915, Leslie Davis took two trips to the Lake Goeljuk area. He estimated that he found 10,000 bodies in the area. All of them were stripped naked, many mutilated by bayonets; others were burned so that gendarmes could search the remains for coins. In Black Dog of Fate, Gladys Chilinguirian relates to her nephew Peter Balakian the full story of Dovey, the aforementioned relative who had witnessed children being whipped while forced to watch their mothers’ immolation. Dovey described what she saw when they encountered masses of corpses near the Euphrates River:

The smell was horrible. Many people began to vomit. Many people passed out. Many of the bodies were black from the sun, black tongues hanging out. Emaciated bodies showing a whole skeleton through the decaying skin. The stomachs of pregnant women had been split open, and their unborn children had been placed in their hands like a bunch of clotted black grapes. Children were crying next to dead parents. Women were delirious. The corpses of the elderly were shriveled. For miles and miles you saw nothing but corpses, and the brown water sloshing up on the banks.

How to respond to such horrors? Throughout the Balakians’ books, eyewitnesses claim that it is “impossible”—always that word—to describe or exaggerate the scenes they observed, but they try anyway. Sometimes these descriptions arrive obliquely, coaxed out by a relative, written on a bureaucratic form asking for reparations, or shared with the reader in the form of a question: “Is it possible for the human mind to imagine thousands of mothers clutching their near-dead or frozen children, leaving behind a mound of child corpses?” It may not be, but the Balakians, united across generations, have forced us to grapple with this question.

The witness-bearing of Leslie Davis and Grigoris Balakian, the stories of Gladys and, through her, Dovey, the accounts disseminated by Henry Morgenthau, other diplomats, and missionaries, the intensive searching through family and historical records by Peter Balakian and the poems they inspired—these are attempts to reclaim the humanity of the Armenian people and to tell the world what happened. In The Burning Tigris, Balakian writes “if language can’t bring back the dead, it can insist on the sacredness of life, the civility of burial, and the dignity of memory.” To claim a lesson from a period as tragic as this is Balakian’s animating purpose: to not forget, to use language, insufficient as it is, to do what can be done in striving for justice and the truth.

Peter Balakian cites the historian Deborah Lipstadt, who has written that genocide denial is more than a pernicious attempt to rewrite history: it is “the final stage of genocide.” And so we need the poetry of Black Dog of Fate, the scholarly thoroughness of The Burning Tigris, and the impassioned, unyielding testimony of Armenian Golgotha. It should also be noted that Peter Balakian’s introduction to Armenian Golgotha is well-presented, righteous but dispassionate, and thorough; it shows that his own scholarship and understanding have come a long way from the youthful self he depicted early in the pages of Black Dog of Fate, the one who knew little about the “Old World.” He has mastered this material, committed himself admirably to the period and his family’s history. In a chapter added to the anniversary edition of Black Dog, Balakian travels to Syria to see where his grandmother took refuge in Aleppo. He visits the killing fields of Der Zor. As he sifts through the sands, small white chunks appear in his hands: bones. He deposits some in his pocket. It is a metaphorical and physical lesson: he has taken the painful history of Armenia into himself.

Both Tigris and Armenian Golgotha are enervating in their relentless detail, their careful listing of massacres, the names of the dead covering whole pages, the accounts of death march routes, insidious Turkish leaders, traitorous Armenians who gave names for a price, and the foreign aid workers, missionaries, businessmen, and the rare Turk who tried to do something kind. Reading Golgotha is an especially difficult experience; its near day-by-day account of the months-long march leaves nothing unsaid, no terror unrecorded. But this exhaustiveness is essential in establishing the historical record, as Grigoris Balakian well understood. (He has an expert command of his people’s 3,000-year history, and his memoir is rich with allusions to the Bible and classical mythology.) This same quality, when found in The Burning Tigris, represents a full-bodied, fearless response to those who would rewrite history and, at their worst, recast Ottoman Armenians as violent insurrectionists.

Given that genocide is also an attempt to extinguish a culture, the Balakian canon may be considered an effort to preserve and re-consecrate the once-embattled Armenian culture. Grigoris Balakian was a leading intellectual, an author of many books on Armenian theological and cultural concerns, some of them now lost, and he clearly knew that the CUP sought not only to kill its Armenian subjects, but also to wipe out their traditions, their churches, their colleges, their newspapers, all traces of them—to make their very name “a kind of obscenity.” By setting his story to paper, by reliving and telling the tragedy of Armenia to all who will listen, he affirms what he had pledged during his deportation: “Believing that wishing for something could make it happen, I used to repeat over and over to those around me, ‘I have decided not to die.’”


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