Musa Dagh is a tabletop mountain on the Mediterranean in southern Turkey or northern Syria where 5000 Armenians set to be marched to their deaths in the 1915 genocide decided to make a stand. It is a true story, and one of the few cases of Armenian resistance against the Turkish plans of ethnic cleansing. There they held out, enduring privations and many assaults from the Turkish regular army attempting to dislodge them from their mountain until they were finally rescued by the French navy. It is a remarkable tale of heroism against the face of tremendous evil.
“Forty Days of Musa Dagh” is a fictionalized account of the ordeal, though it holds tightly to the historical events. It is written by Franz Werfel, an Austrian Jew, and published in 1933 following extensive journeys by Werfel through Turkey and even up the mountain. The book itself was banned and burned by the Nazis as “offensive to their (erstwhile) Turkish allies” but the real reason was it gave the Jewish communities in Germany and German occupied territories an example of and motivation to successful resistance.
I wonder if Werfel knew that only a few short years after publishing his novel on genocide, he himself would have to flee a genocide. I imagine he saw lots of parallels between the Young Turks and the Nazis (Hitler certainly did). I suppose the old axiom “First they came for the Armenians, but I am not Armenian…” applies well here. It still applies, doesn’t it? “First they came for the for the Uyghur…”? Or closer to home “First they came for our faith; then they came for our history.”
“To be an Armenian is an impossibility” ends the novel. The weeping nation, a kingdom that once extended from the Mediterranean to the Caspian now clutching tenuously to a patch of South Caucasus mountains – even last year losing yet another chunk of their historic homeland.
I have my own copy of “40 Days of Musa Dagh” on the shelf holding my Armenian library nestled beside the “Book of Sadness”, a 1000 year old book of poetry filled with Armenia’s yearning to be free and at peace, and above a framed quote by William Saroyan, because that is where it belongs:
“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia . See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.”