Q: Peter Balakian, Bishop Grigoris Balakian is your great uncle. How did you come to find out about him and his memoir? A: Growing up, I knew he was a bishop in the Armenian church. He was spoken of occasionally by my father and aunts. Although they mentioned some books he wrote about the Armenian church, no one ever mentioned this great memoir.And what’s odd is that both my aunts were literary critics and my father was also a serious student of history, but they didn’t mention this book. I know the subject of the fate of the Armenians in 1915 traumatized them, and so all was silence when it came to this subject. I wrote about my discovery of my great uncle in a chapter of my own memoir, Black Dog of Fate. So my memoir led to my finding his memoir. It’s become a sort of dialogue both within the family and about this history.
Q: How did you find out about Armenian Golgotha? A: It was coincidental, or fated if youwill. In 1991 a friend of mine sentme a French magazine article about a commemorative service for him. He had been the bishop in Marseilles at the end of his life. And the article mentioned this “extraordinary memoir about the Armenian Genocide.” Immediately I ordered the book from Beirut—it’s still in print in the original Armenian. And by 1999 I was working with a co-translator. The project has taken ten years.
Q:What was the process of translating the memoir like? A: For me it’s been a moving and complex journey to discover my great uncle’s survivor story, his language and his life. The translation was a collaborative process, and it has been slow and painstaking. Trying to find the right idioms, and words, rhythms, and sounds for this rich Armenian language in contemporary English was an endless challenge. And this is a book of 71 chapters of pretty dark stuff.
Q: How has your uncle come to life for you? A: I had no idea my uncle was such a dynamic leader and prominent intellectual of his generation. Armenian Golgotha brings to life the extraordinary creativity, wit, humanity and compassion this young Armenian clergyman exhibited in the face of overwhelming odds. His ability to negotiate with Turkish perpetrators and still provide sustenance to his emaciated group of fellow deportees is remarkable. And throughout the story he remains humble and focused on helping others. As a clergyman, he’s anguished both by the human suffering he is witnessing and by the destruction of his culture, the culture of which he is a guardian and protector. His witnessing is compound witnessing in this way.
Q: What kind of contribution does Armenian Golgotha make to our understanding of the Armenian Genocide? A: It’s an essential text. There is no text about the Genocide that’s as rich, layered and complex as this. It brings us closer to the century’s first genocide than any other first-person account that I know of. Balakian was one of the famous 250 Armenian cultural leaders who were arrested on the night of April 14, 1915 at the very start of the genocide. He survived nearly four years on deportation marches and witnessed things that few survivors have described.
Q. How did he witness more than others? A: He was in a unique position as a priest because Armenian deportees looked to him for help, and for several months he led more than a hundred deportees through horrendous conditions. Along the way, he encountered survivors from other parts of Turkey and they told him stories of the massacres they had witnessed. Also, Turkish perpetrators, thinking he was on his way to death, opened up to him and told him some extraordinary things. And, the German, Swiss and Austrian railway engineers told him their accounts of witnessing atrocities. He traveled hundreds of miles and witnessed the ruins and remains of many destroyed Armenian villages, towns and cities.
Q: Could you say more about the destruction of Armenian culture and its artifacts and infrastructure? A: Yes, that’s an important part of the process of genocide. Raphael Lemkin, the Polish legal scholar who created the concept of genocide as an international crime, underscored the fact that genocide involves not only the killing of people but also the destruction of a people’s cultural institutions, language, art and artifacts, religion, and so on. In the case of the Armenian Genocide, the Turkish government destroyed more than 5,000 Armenian churches and schools as well as thousands of other buildings, artifacts, works of art and literature. Balakian also shows us what happened to Armenians who were forceably converted to Islam from their Christian faith. It’s astonishing to read how intensely Grigoris Balakian bears witness to this kind of destruction on his deportation and escape.
Q:What does Balakian’s memoir show us about this event as an act of genocide? A: Readers will find that Armenian Golgotha corroborates what most of the scholarship has shown. The deportations and massacres of the Armenians were planned by the central government; he shows us how the Turkish government used surveillance, created blacklists to arrest the cultural leaders, created killing squads, created false provocations in order to arrest Armenians, and so on. Chapter 11 is a blueprint of the genocidal process.
Q:Why is the Armenian Genocide important to study today? After all, it happened almost 95 years ago. A: Well, the Armenian Genocide is the template for all genocide to follow in the modern era. It began what you might call the age of modern genocide. It was the first instance in which a nation state used its military, bureaucracy, and technology to exterminate a target group of people in a concentrated period of time. More than a million people were killed in a year. Hitler was inspired by the Armenian Genocide; he saw you could get rid of a hated ethnic group that way, and he said in August 1939, “Who today, after all, speaks of the annihilation of theArmenians?” Secondly, Raphael Lemkin, the man who developed the concept of genocide, did so in large part on the basis of what happened to the Armenians in 1915. The Armenian Genocide is part of the genesis of the very word. Third, the Turkish government’s continuous denial of the genocide is a dangerous example for those who would commit genocide today.
Q:Why does the Turkish government deny the Armenian Genocide today? A: It’s a complex issue and I would point to a few salient factors. Turkey has been socialized since its founding as a modern republic by certain taboos, and one of them concerns the disappearance of the Armenians. Turks have been taught that there were once Armenians in Turkey and that they were a “disloyal people” and whatever happened to them was their own fault. At the same time, any real history of the Armenians has been disallowed in Turkey, and Turkish people have not been free to critique their own society and its history. If you disallow critical inquiry of your country, you end up creating denialist narratives about history.
Q: But, why is Turkey so aggressively trying to censor the truth about this history around the world? It seems excessive, and counterproductive for Turkey, especially if it wants to join the European Union. A: Most informed people would agree that the Turkish denialist campaign sets Turkey back; it casts a shadow over the whole society and it shows Europe, for example, that Turkey is not a truly democratic nation, even though it has a parliament. Asociety that puts its best intellectuals like its Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk on trial for acknowledging the Armenian Genocide is not yet a democracy.