Publication Date: March 31, 2009
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On April 24, 1915, the priest Grigoris Balakian was arrested along with some 250 other intellectuals and leaders of Constantinople's Armenian community. It was the beginning of the Ottoman Turkish government's systematic attempt to eliminate the Armenian people from Turkey; it was a campaign that continued through World War I and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, by which time more than a million Armenians had been annihilated and expunged from their historic homeland. For Grigoris Balakian, himself condemned, it was also the beginning of a four-year ordeal during which he would bear witness to a seemingly endless caravan of blood.
Balakian sees his countrymen sent in carts, on donkeys, or on foot to face certain death in the desert of northern Syria. Many would not even survive the journey, suffering starvation, disease, mutilation, and rape, among other tortures, before being slaughtered en route. In these pages, he brings to life the words and deeds of survivors, foreign witnesses, and Turkish officials involved in the massacre process, and also of those few brave, righteous Turks, who, with some of their German allies working for the Baghdad Railway, resisted orders calling for the death of the Armenians. Miraculously, Balakian manages to escape, and his flight--through forest and over mountain, in disguise as a railroad worker and then as a German soldier--is a suspenseful, harrowing odyssey that makes possible his singular testimony.
Full of shrewd insights into the political, historical, and cultural context of the Armenian genocide--the template for the subsequent mass killings that have cast a shadow across the twentieth century and beyond--this memoir is destined to become a classic of survivor literature. "Armenian Golgotha" is sure to deepen our understanding of a catastrophic crime that the Turkish government, the Ottomans' successor, denies to this day.
Peter Balakian is the author of Black Dog of Fate, winner of the PEN/Martha Albrand Prize for Memoir and a New York Times Notable Book, and June-tree: New and Selected Poems 1974 2000. He is the recipient of many awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship. He holds a Ph.D. in American Civilization from Brown University and teaches at Colgate University, where he is a Donald M. and Constance H. Rebar Professor of the Humanities.
“Read this heartbreaking book. Armenian Golgotha describes the suffering, agony and massacre of innumerable Armenian families almost a century ago; its memory must remain a lesson for more than one generation.”
- Elie Wiesel
“Grigoris Balakian's Armenian Golgotha is a powerful, moving account of the Armenian Genocide, a story that needs to be known, and is told here with a sweep of experience and wealth of detail that is as disturbing as it is irrefutable.”
- Sir Martin Gilbert
“In this extraordinary account, Grigoris Balakian makes astute psychological observations about himself and his fellow prisoners, and equally astute interpretations of the behavior of Turkish perpetrators and German collaborators in the Armenian genocide. His writing is clear and compelling, as rendered in sensitive translation. He has a keen sense of history, and his extensive travels enable him to record a tragic European panorama. This book will become a classic, both for its depiction of a much denied genocide and its humane and brilliant witness to what human beings can endure and overcome.”
- Robert Jay Lifton, author of The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide
“powerful….a poignant, often harrowing story about the resiliency of the human spirit [and] a window on a moment in history that most Americans only dimly understand…. Balakian’s account…is rich with evidence of the Turkish government’s complicity and its leaders’ premeditation. Deportation, in their vernacular, was always a subterfuge for extermination….will be widely read as both a riveting tale of one man's survival and as a historical document.”
- Chris Bohjalian, The Washington Post
“[A] fascinating first-hand testimony to a monumental crime.”
- The New Yorker
“The Armenian genocide is a ‘controversial’ issue that can always be counted on to annoy the Turkish government, which has dedicated its considerable diplomatic and economic resources to repressing its memory…. I suspect most people are as hazy on the details of the events as I was when I picked up Grigoris Balakian's Armenian Golgotha…. [Balakian] place[s] the tragedy within the more familiar context of World War I…. it is not so much the copious evidence he airs of plotting pashas, lazy patriarchs, and covetous generals that makes this story so shocking; it is the image repeated in chapter after chapter, in village after village, of Balakian and his fellow deportees arriving late at night, starving and exhausted, in a place where all doors are closed to them, and where the local peasants refuse to sell them so much as a fistful of bread or a sip of water..half the chronicle of a murdered people and half the story of Balakian's own desperate escape…[an] appalling and magnificent book.”
- Benjamin Moser, Harper's
“this rich historical document….vividly portrays Turkish brutality as it provides [Balakian's] and others’ stories along with well-informed commentary on Turkey’s actions….a readable and moving account.”
- Library Journal
“[A] monumental….wide-ranging text….Balakian provides strong evidence that these gruesome proceedings were carried out under official orders from the highest level…. For generations to come Armenian Golgotha will remain a first-hand documentation of a historic tragedy written from the perspective of a talented scholar, [s]ophisticated in the ways of the world, [but] sustained by an abiding faith.”
- Henry Morgenthau III, Boston Sunday Globe
“[a] shocking and brilliant memoir of the genocide, an eyewitness account of high order…It’s a memoir that will fit well on a shelf beside the poems of Anna Akhmatova and the memoirs of Vasily Grossman, Primo Levi, and Elie Wiesel….Pain suffuses this book by Father Balakian, his own an that of others….Grigoris Balakian had such memories, and the power to evoke them in detail….In scene after scene, the unspeakable is spoken….For Grigoris Balakian, what persists after the human devastation is always nature itself, and one of the few consolations of this book is the refuge the author takes in the world around him, the shimmering fields and streams, the high mountains and fruitful plains….Nature, with its endless fertility, stands in contrast to destruction and degradation…. A nightmare itself, so exquisitely rendered that it seeped into my unconscious as I read….this book has the feel of a classic about it, and I suspect that future writers on historical trauma and its representation will turn eagerly to Armenian Golgotha. It’s a massively important contribution to this field.”
- Jay Parini, The Chronicle of Higher Education
“The belated appearance in English of Bishop Grigoris Balakian’s groundbreaking testimony ‘Armenian Golgotha’ means that the reader is confronted with scenes that are today grotesquely familiar….[T]he singularity of ‘Armenian Golgotha’ resides in the work’s comprehensive historical information regarding the Ittihad government’s intent to destroy the Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire….harrowing….In a self-abnegating act of imagination, Balakian’s memoir…is replete with narratives that focus on collective suffering, marking this memoir as one of the few to explicate the true nature of the crime….At the beginning of the 21st century, with Darfur still in the news, it is sobering to read a memoir about the first modern genocide of the 20th century that details the components of intended group destruction in all its complexity.”
- Donna-Lee Frieze, Forward: The Jewish Daily
“This is more than an eyewitness account, it is a masterful history in its own right….Grigoris Balakian…a community leader with great understanding of politics, history and the context of the events befalling him [was] an unlikely witness of this mass slaughter. [H]e went to great lengths to discover telegrams, archival records and biographical details about the acts he saw and the people around him… There is thus something in Armenian Golgotha that transcends the witness narrative but nonetheless makes this book both an essential memoir, a lively and extraordinary life story and a history of the genocide.”
- Seth J. Frantzman, The Jerusalem Post
“[A] seminal and wrenching account of the Armenian genocide….a massive memoir first published in Armenian in 1922 and now making its debut in English via the graces of Balakian’s distinguished great-nephew, author Peter Balakian. Balakian does not censor the horrors. [His] prose…hot, however not overheated…recreates wrenching moments. Weighted with eyewitness accounts and distinguished by Balakian’s prodigiously sharp memory, this book is not a scholar’s history, of course, but an educated prelate’s. [W]ith an enviable grasp of Ottoman and European history…it explains German and European imperialist designs on Turkey and Turkish resentment, and how Turkey exploited the chaos of war. But the author points his finger as well at his own people….so his book is not a wholesale condemnation of Turks, though it probably won’t be read by most Turks, who still can’t accept responsibility for one of history’s greatest crimes against humanity. It should be, of course, for how could a people be expected to understand and atone for a story they have never been officially permitted to know?”
- Keith Garebian, The Globe and Mail
“seminal personal account of the first modern genocide…. [Balakian] relates their Kafka-like ordeal…. [and] describes the Turkish population, civilian and military, enthusiastically falling upont he Armenians in an orgy of torture, slaughter, rape and robbery…. this memoir… combines extensive research, an account of [Balakian’s] own experiences and testimony from eyewitnesses, both victims and perpetrators…. blistering…. [a]n important historical document.”