Armenian Golgotha by Grigoris Balakian. Published by Vintage in 2009.
This memoir was written by Grigoris Balakian, a bishop of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Balakian was an educated Armenian, having studied in Germany and spoke Armenian, Turkish, and German. He was a survivor of the Armenian Genocide and wrote this memoir to chronicle what he experienced and saw.
It is a well written and insightful book, narrating not only the horrors Balakian witnessed and experienced, but also of Turkey’s society and political situation during WWI. He provides an interesting overview of the Armenians standing in Turkey before and during WWI, the many faults of the Turkish government, and the different personalities that take part in genocide.
It starts with Balakian studying in Germany during the outbreak of WWI. He spends a good chapter capturing the German’s reaction to the war and then compares it to Turkey’s when he returns to Constantinople. Things quickly spiraled out of control and Balakian was arrested for having his name added to a blacklist in 1915. He spends the next year in Turkish custody, undergoing forced marches from Cankiri towards Deir ez-Zor, a desert in Syria. During the march, Balakian sees the horrible remains of the Armenians slaughtered by the Turks, their corpses abandoned to the terrors of the elements and the wild animals. During the march, Balakian’s group of Armenians are prevented from eating full meals, forced to sleep outside, in barns, and in the rain and ice. They were forced to pay for morsels of food, to be allowed to sleep in a barn at all, and the Turks wouldn’t protect them from bandits and violent villagers unless they were paid. The most interesting part of Balakian’s memoir was how predatory the Turks and villagers were when the Armenians were already at their lowest point. Even when the Turks knew that the Armenians weren’t supposed to be killed until they reached Deir ez-Zor, they would threaten them until they were properly bribed.
Balakian managed to escape with help of friendly Swedes and German engineers. He spent the next two years pretending to be a German engineer. He had a number of close calls and had to chain railroads three different times until he finally made it to Constantinople. He would later move to Paris and write his memoir as testimony to what happened and for the people he lost, and his nation.
The book is a hard read because of the subject matter, but the writing was clear and flowed smoothly. Balakian keeps himself at a distant despite being in the center of the terrible event. He provides a balanced account of the Turks, pointing out the few who were kind or helpful, while also providing a balanced account of the Turks who acted out the horrible crime. He also provides a balanced account of the military Germans and the civilian Germans who worked on the railroad. He cannot keep all of his emotions out of his words, especially towards the end, when he discusses the end of the war, the creation of the Armenian state, and the failure of the Allies to properly punish the Turks for the genocide. It is at the very end that one gets the feeling Balakian allows himself to break down and unleash his horror, pain, and sadness at what he’s witness. He keeps his voice even when talking about the crimes, but after it is all over, he can no longer keep himself in check. It reminds me how we only believe survivors when they are calm and collected and the minute they show the strain, we blame them for being overly emotional and biased.
A well written and clear memoir
A balanced account of a terrible crime
A fascinating look at the importance of the Church to the Armenians
An important firsthand account at a genocide that is, to this day, under disrepute.
A traumatizing and difficult read.