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Did the Armenian genocide have its own Primo Levi?

That is why the publication of Armenian Golgotha: A Memoir of the Armenian Genocide, 1915-1918 is especially noteworthy for Jewish readers. In this eyewitness account of the genocide, written in 1918 and now translated into English for the first time, Grigoris Balakian offers an Armenian equivalent to the testimonies of Holocaust survivors like Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel. Balakian, a priest of the Armenian Apostolic Church, was deported from Constantinople in April 1915, along with a large group of Armenian intellectuals and community leaders. For the next three years, until Turkey’s defeat and surrender in September 1918, Balakian lived constantly under the shadow of death. Exiled, sent on forced marches, threatened by bandits and government officials, starved and sick, he managed to survive only by a combination of luck, daring, the corruption and inefficiency of Turkish officials, and the support of righteous non-Armenians who hid and fed him.

As Balakian, along with his fellow deportees, was sent from place to place, he witnessed and heard about the unbelievable horrors inflicted on the Armenians of Turkey. The Ottoman state was far less powerful and organized than the Nazis’ would be; it did not have the resources to build gas chambers, or even the railways to bring people to them. The mechanics of mass murder, then, were primitive and face-to-face. Armenian deportees were attacked by mobs and groups of bandits armed with axes and farm tools, much as in the Hutu massacre of Tutsis in Rwanda. Balakian records many scenes of Armenians being tortured, mutilated, and decapitated, of babies torn apart by soldiers, of women raped dozens of times until they died; he shows us fields of decomposing corpses and hills of bones and skulls. Most of those who survived these organized attacks succumbed to starvation and illness. In total, an estimated 1.2 million Armenians died.

The enmity between Christian Armenians and Muslim Turks was of long standing, dating back to the Middle Ages, when Turkish invaders had conquered the ancient kingdom of Armenia in Asia Minor. By the 20th century, most of the other Christian subject populations of the Ottoman Empire--in Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, and Serbia--had broken free of the sultan’s rule. The Armenians, however, lived in the heartland of Turkey, and were deeply integrated into the region’s economy. Rather like the Jews of Poland, they served as merchants and craftsmen to the mainly rural Muslim population; also like the Jews, they attracted envy and hatred. In one terribly ironic passage, Balakian notes that “German officers [stationed in Turkey] would often speak of us as Christian Jews and blood-sucking usurers of the Turkish people.”

One signal difference between the Jewish and the Armenian cases, however, is that the Armenians had a comparatively recent history of sovereignty, and strong hopes for regaining an independent Armenian state. Many Armenians lived across the border in Russia, the Christian power that was historically the greatest foe of the Ottoman Empire. When the First World War broke out, the Russian Armenians and some Turkish Armenian rebels took up arms against Turkey. This offered the pretext for the Ottoman government to undertake a “final solution” to the Armenian problem, by annihilating the entire population, men, women, and children. (And it was a pretext: as Balakian notes, the vast majority of Turkish Armenians were totally uninvolved in the war.)

Balakian writes that he was already worried about the intentions of the Turks before the war started, and tried to alert his superiors in the Church. But “no one gave any credence to the possibility of such a huge political plan, because in human history from prehistoric times, there had never been a forced displacement of an entire nationality. But as we will unfortunately see, that which had seemed impossible to everyone at that time, and even became a subject of derision, became possible during the world war, as did a litany of other tragic and criminal events.” Like Hitler during the Second World War, the Turkish government used the First World War to cover and justify a scale of killing that was unimaginable in ordinary times.

Readers familiar with the literature of the Holocaust will read Armenian Golgotha with a combination of recognition and estrangement. Many of the events Balakian writes about could be taking place in Poland or the Ukraine 20 years later. Again and again, we hear about how Turkish policemen would tell the residents of a village to assemble for a long journey, herd people into carriages, then drive them to a remote spot, where they would be murdered and their possessions divided up among the murderers. Armenians were told that they were simply being relocated to the Syrian desert province of Der Zor, just as Jews were told that they were being resettled in the East; the name of Der Zor takes on, in Balakian’s account, the same aura of nightmare and death that “the East” did for Jewish victims. Balakian even wonders, as have some Jewish observers of the Holocaust, why more of the victims did not fight back. “They had the psychology of a herd of dumb sheep, going to their death without complaint,” he complains about one group of deportees who failed to seize the chance to flee.

Yet as the title of Armenian Golgotha suggests, Balakian’s story has a unique religious and political context. Victims of the Holocaust were often brought to question the existence of God, and even the possibility of meaning and order in the universe. Primo Levi famously wrote about Auschwitz as a place where “there is no why.” But Balakian viewed even the worst trials of his people as a prelude to the rebirth of an independent Armenia--a crucifixion that would be followed by resurrection. In one astonishing passage, he remembers how he and some fellow Armenians, meeting secretly during the war, “got so excited that we started to draw the borders of tomorrow’s liberated Armenia on a map ... and calculate the number of surviving Armenians.” This national faith went hand in hand with Balakian’s unbroken Christian faith: “But no matter, for hadn’t Christ suffered? Hadn’t he been tortured? Wasn’t he betrayed because he preached justice in this world, while perhaps justice could only be celestial and eternal, not worldly?”

Moments like these make clear that even genocide did not destroy Balakian’s faith or his belief in his nation’s future. He was, after all, a senior clergyman in the Armenian Church, and throughout his wanderings, he was treated by other Armenians as a leader. He writes movingly of the burdens of that role--having to remain rational and inspirational when he, too, was hungry and afraid. Yet without his sense of vocation, Balakian would doubtless never have survived to write this terrible, necessary book. “Like many who were going to die,” he recalls about one man he encountered, “the late Hamamjian often asked me to chronicle this tragic story of the Armenian Golgotha. And with this account, I think I have executed the will of those who are no more.”

Adam Kirsch is a contributing editor at The New Republic. This article originally appeared in Nextbook.

By Adam Kirsch