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  • Armenian Golgotha
  • Written by Grigoris Balakian
  • Format: eBook | ISBN: 9780307271389
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Written by Grigoris BalakianAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Grigoris Balakian
Translated by Peter BalakianAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Peter Balakian


List Price: $13.99


On Sale: March 31, 2009
Pages: 544 | ISBN: 978-0-307-27138-9
Published by : Vintage Knopf
Armenian Golgotha Cover

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On April 24, 1915, Grigoris Balakian was arrested along with some 250 other leaders of Constantinople’s Armenian community. It was the beginning of the Ottoman Empire’s systematic attempt to eliminate the Armenian people from Turkey—a campaign that continued through World War I and the fall of the empire. Over the next four years, Balakian would bear witness to a seemingly endless caravan of blood, surviving to recount his miraculous escape and expose the atrocities that led to over a million deaths.
Armenian Golgotha is Balakian’s devastating eyewitness account—a haunting reminder of the first modern genocide and a controversial historical document that is destined to become a classic of survivor literature.


The Night of Gethsemane

On the night of Saturday, April 11/24, 1915, the Armenians of the capital city, exhausted from the Easter celebrations that had come to an end a few days earlier, were snoring in a calm sleep. Meanwhile on the heights of Stambul, near Ayesofia, a highly secret activity was taking place in the palatial central police station.

Groups of Armenians had just been arrested in the suburbs and neighborhoods of the capital; blood-colored military buses were now transporting them to the central prison. Weeks earlier Bedri,* chief of police in Constantinople, had sent official sealed orders to all the guardhouses, with the instruction that they not be opened until the designated day and that they then be carried out with precision and in secrecy. The orders were warrants to arrest the Armenians whose names were on the blacklist, a list compiled with the help of Armenian traitors, particularly Artin Megerdichian, who worked with the neighborhood Ittihad
clubs.† Condemned to death were Armenians who were prominent and active in either revolutionary or nonpartisan Armenian organizations and who were deemed liable to incite revolution or resistance.‡

On this Saturday night I, along with eight friends from Scutari, was transported by a small steamboat from the quay of the huge armory of Selimiye to Sirkedji. The night smelled of death; the sea was rough, and our hearts were full of terror. We prisoners were under strict police guard, not allowed to speak to one another. We had no idea where we were going.

We arrived at the central prison, and here behind gigantic walls and large bolted gates, they put us in a wooden pavilion in the courtyard, which was said by some to have once served as a school. We sat there, quiet and somber, on the bare wooden floor under the faint light of a flickering lantern, too stunned and confused to make sense of what was happening.

We had barely begun to sink into fear and despair when the giant iron gates of the prison creaked open again and a multitude of new faces were pushed inside. They were all familiar faces—revolutionary and political leaders, public figures, and nonpartisan and even antipartisan intellectuals.

From the deep silence of the night until morning, every few hours Armenians were brought to the prison. And so behind these high walls, the jostling and commotion increased as the crowd of prisoners became denser. It was as if all the prominent Armenian public figures—assemblymen, representatives, revolutionaries, editors, teachers, doctors, pharmacists, dentists, merchants, bankers, and others in the capital city—had made an appointment to meet in these dim prison cells. Some even appeared in their nightclothes and slippers. The more those familiar faces kept appearing, the more the chatter abated and our anxiety grew.

Before long everyone looked solemn, our hearts heavy and full of worry about an impending storm. Not one of us understood why we had been arrested, and no one could assess the consequences. As the night’s hours slipped by, our distress mounted. Except for a few rare stoics, we were in a state of spiritual anguish, terrified of the unknown and longing for comfort.

Right through till morning new Armenian prisoners arrived, and each time we heard the roar of the military cars, we hurried to the windows to see who they were. The new arrivals had contemptuous smiles on their faces, but when they saw hundreds of other well-known Armenians old and young around them, they too sank into fear. We were all searching for answers, asking what all of this meant, and pondering our fate.

*See Biographical Glossary.
†Meeting places for members of the local Ittihad Party committees throughout the empire.—trans.
‡Revolutionary here refers to reform-oriented political workers.—trans.

From the Hardcover edition.
Grigoris Balakian|Peter Balakian|Author Q&A

About Grigoris Balakian

Grigoris Balakian - Armenian Golgotha
Born in 1876, Grigoris Balakian was one of the leading Armenian intellectuals of his generation. In Ottoman Turkey he attended Armenian schools and seminary; and in Germany he studied, at different times, engineering and theology. He was one of the 250 cultural leaders (intellectuals, clergy, teachers, and political and community leaders) arrested by the Turkish government on the night of April 24, 1915, and deported to the interior. Unlike the vast majority of his conationals, he survived nearly four years in the killing fields. Ordained as a celibate priest (vartabed) in 1901, he later became a bishop and prelate of the Armenian Apostolic Church in southern France. He is the author of various books and monographs (some of them lost) on Armenian culture and history, including The Ruins of Ani (1910) and Armenian Golgotha, volume 1 (1922) and volume 2 (1959). He died in Marseilles in 1934.

About Peter Balakian

Peter Balakian - Armenian Golgotha

Photo © John Hubbard

Peter Balakian is the author of The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’ s Response, winner of the 2005 Raphael Lemkin Prize, a New York Times best seller, and a New York Times Notable Book; and of Black Dog of Fate, winner of the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for the Art of Memoir, also a New York Times Notable Book. Grigoris Balakian was his great-uncle.

Author Q&A

Q: Peter Balakian, Bishop Grigoris Balakian is your great uncle. How did you come to find out about him and his
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.

From the Hardcover edition.



“A fascinating first-hand testimony to a monumental crime.”
The New Yorker
“Gripping. . . . A powerful and important book. . . . It takes its place as one of the key first-hand sources for understanding the Armenian Genocide.”
—Mark Mazower, The New Republic
“Powerful. . . . Riveting. . . . 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.”
—Chris Bohjalian, Washington Post

“An immensely moving, harrowing memoir that instantly takes its place as a classic alongside Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz and Elie Wiesel’s Night.”
—Carlin Romano, The Chronicle of Higher Education

“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, author of Night

“An appalling and magnificent book. . . . It owes its existence to [Balakian’s] determination to survive to write it . . . a sacred task that gives him the strength to persevere through the impossible circumstances that killed well over a million of his countrymen.”
—Benjamin Moser, Harper’s
“Shocking and brilliant. . . . Exquisitely rendered. . . . 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
“An extraordinary narrative . . . beautifully translated. . . . Armenian Golgotha will influence Armenian genocide studies for decades.”
—John A. C. Greppin, The Times Literary Supplement (London)
“Monumental. . . . 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.”
—Henry Morgenthau, III, Boston Sunday Globe
“[A work] of exceptional interest and scholarship.”
—Christopher Hitchens, Slate
“The translation and publication of Armenian Golgotha in English is long overdue. It constitutes a thundering historical proof that those who deny the Armenian Genocide are engages in a massive deception.”
—Deborah E. Lipstadt, author of Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory
“Groundbreaking. . . . Comprehensive. . . . Sobering. . . . Armenian Golgotha 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. . . . Balakian’s memory is extraordinary, but so, too, are his intellect, his compassion and his ethical obligation to immortalize his beloved co-nationals.”
—Donna-Lee Frieze, The Jewish Daily Forward
“An Armenian equivalent to the testimonies of Holocaust survivors like Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel.”
—Adam Kirsch, Nextbook
“The descriptions of the Armenian genocide are striking and the author spares his readers none of the gruesome details. . . . A riveting and powerful indictment of a genocide that became a paradigm for future genocides.”
—Holger H. Herwig, The Gazette (Montreal)
“An essential memoir, a lively and extraordinary life story. . . . This is more than an eyewitness account, it is a masterful history in its own right.”
—Seth J. Frantzman, The Jerusalem Post
“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, with an enviable grasp of Ottoman and European history. . . . Memory and hope for the future live in seminal texts such as Armenian Golgotha.”
—Keith Garebian, The Globe and Mail (Toronto)
“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
“Extraordinary. . . . 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
“Witness literature of the highest order, to be put aside the great testimony from the Shoah. . . . Required reading for those who wish to comprehend the 20th century.”
—Robert Leiter, The Jewish Exponent

“An astonishing memoir. . . . An important primary document concerning the Armenian Genocide. . . . A major addition to the literature of witness and testimony.”
—Robert Melson, Genocide Studies and Prevention: An International Journal

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