Friday, November 7, 2014

Armenian Golgotha by Grigoris Balakian

Armenian Golgotha
by Grigoris Balakian
translated by Peter Balakian and Aris Sevag
2009 translation
5 stars - devastating
ALR Blue

It saddens me that prior to reading this book, I was unaware of the genocide which took place in Turkey during World War I. To simplify, Turkey took advantage of World War I to carry out a brutal plan of exterminating the Armenian people. So convinced were they that any war outcome would benefit them in the long run, that they quite nearly wiped out an entire race while the rest of the world was otherwise occupied.

Armenian Golgotha is a first hand account of the years 1915-1918 in Turkey. Written by an Armenian cleric, it chronicles his years in exile, near escapes from death, horrific experiences, and ultimate escape to freedom. 

The English translation is quite new, having been published in 2009 after a painstaking decade of work by the translators, Peter Balakian and Aris Sevag. The resultant volume is rich and very readable, albeit emotionally draining. 

If you, like me, become easily overwhelmed by complex characters, events, and maps, do not let that discourage you. The writing itself is enough to keep you going. 

I found it both heartbreaking and astonishing to learn the abuse the human body can take and still survive (long after the soul has been taken). While the author does not turn away from sights of unspeakable suffering, he does not glorify it, nor dwell on it. He merely logs the facts of his journey and describes what is around him. It is terrible beyond belief. Men, women, children by the hundreds of thousands tortured, starved, abducted, murdered. There are some brave souls along the way who attempt to assist the Armenian people. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they are destined to suffer horrendous fates, but one cannot judge too harshly those who turn their backs out of fear for their own lives, the lives of their loved ones.

I found the opening chapters particularly chilling as they set the stage both for World War I and for the ensuing genocide. How easily a country, a people, can be turned from striving to better themselves to living in fear once war is declared, once hate is the primary tool of control, once the "others" somehow responsible for all the misery in the world have been identified and labeled for extermination.

It's a theme that repeats itself and is always lurking just under the surface. I see it bubble up all too often here, in the relative safe zone of the United States. One need look no further than the current threat of Ebola to see people tipping over the edge from rational thought to a mob mentality. 

But I feel it is incumbent on me not to turn away from the repeated acts of hatred that the human race perpetrates on itself. To deny the past is to hide from the present. So, I recommend this book, strongly, but with the caveat that it will affect the reader deeply. 


  1. If you want to read a good fictional take on the subject, try "The Sandcastle Girls" by Chris Bohjalian.

    Daisy's Mom

  2. When I was a teenager in Connecticut, someone spray painted on a bridge overpassing Route 7, "Armenia Lives - Mt. Ararat". I had to look up Armenia and its history in an encyclopedia. It is amazing how many genocides have been overlooked by history; one would presume that the Holocaust by Nazi Germany was the only significant one. I'm sure this was a very difficult book to read.