Amid Turkey's killing fields

An Armenian priest chronicles his four years in hell

Grigoris Balakian, top, as a theology student in Berlin in 1914. Grigoris Balakian, top, as a theology student in Berlin in 1914. (New York Times)
By Henry Morgenthau III
May 10, 2009
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the Armenian Genocide, 1915-1918

By Grigoris Balakian
Translated by Peter Balakian and Aris Sevag
Knopf, 509 pp., illustrated, $35

When prosperous nations and empires find themselves facing collapse and humiliation, the ruling powers often seek scapegoats among weak and powerless minorities as targets for destruction. Looking back to the early years of the last century, we remain transfixed by the destruction of the Armenian people trapped in the crumbling Ottoman Empire, particularly because the descendants of the perpetrators still tend to deny the genocide.

The date officially commemorating the onset is April 24, 1915. That night in Constantinople 250 men, the cream of the Armenian intellectual, political, and business community, were arrested and shipped out of the city to be murdered. Among the few survivors was a celibate priest of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Grigoris Balakian.

Following the outbreak of World War I with the blast of the guns of August, Balakian left Berlin to rejoin his family in Constantinople. What at first seemed like the dawn of a brighter day for the Armenian people turned into an inferno. Turkey joined Germany and the Central Powers. This provided an opportunity for the government to resume ethnic cleansing of minorities within the homeland, an age-old goal. The Armenians were trapped with no place to go while cut off from their powerful British and French friends. The German occupiers, on the other hand, turned a blind eye to the extermination of this Christian enclave. Thus on that April day, just as the British and their allies launched an attack on Gallipoli, the Turks seized the opportunity to decapitate the Armenian leadership.

Toward the end of the 19th century Abdul Hamid II earned his reputation as the bloody sultan. Then the Young Turks organized the Committee of Union and Progress as a reform movement that staged a coup overthrowing the sultanate. Headed by a dictatorial triumvirate under the leadership of Mehmed Talaat Pasha, the minister of interior, they soon reversed course, returning to the genocidal ways of the past. But their strategy was much more deadly, carefully planned, and well executed.

Under the sultan, the Armenians were assaulted on home territory where they could hold off government troops for months, inflicting serious casualties. This time as a "well-known criminal and executioner" boastfully explained to Balakian:

"In telling the Armenians they were going to be exiled, first we disarmed them, and then, after having deported them, we eliminated them without even the slightest resistance. As for the women . . . if we had wished to get rid of them in town, they would have thrown all of their jewelry . . . into the sewers . . . to prevent us from getting our hands on it. This way was more effective. Once they were deceived into thinking we were going to send them to their husbands, they took all their jewelry . . . as well as their rugs and carpets with them." Thus it was very easy for us to assemble them" and take their valuables before killing them.

Balakian provides strong evidence that these gruesome proceedings were carried out under official orders from the highest level. He recounts an incident "[w]hen Interior Minister Talaat himself suddenly arrived" on the scene of a murderous assault that had recently taken place on the outskirts of the town of Yozgat. "Wishing to inspect the site to see how well his orders had been carried out, then to remove the traces of the crime, he had large ditches dug, and had the scattered, by now partially skeletonized remains of the wretched female martyrs collected and buried, imagining he could thereby also bury the black and bloody story of this great tragedy."

Balakian continues to chronicle his odyssey through a hell that lasted nearly four years. While constantly forced to witness the barbarities suffered by fellow Armenians, he was himself a much-sought-after prey. Eluding his predators in a series of hair-raising escapes, he made good use of his fluency in German and understanding the foibles and vanities of those who controlled the levers of power. When all else failed there were bribes for the always corruptible officials, with his seemingly bottomless supply of gold from sources not always explained.

Credit goes to the author's great-nephew, the historian and poet Peter Balakian, who discovered, co-translated, and edited this monumental tome. His extensive introduction serves as a guide to the perplexed reader finding a way through this wide-ranging text.

There have been many books on various aspects of the genocide by foreign diplomats, missionaries, and the descendants of survivors who have pieced together harrowing tales of their forebears. But for generations to come, "Armenian Golgotha" will remain a firsthand documentation of a historic tragedy written from the perspective of a talented scholar. Sophisticated in the ways of the world, Balakian was an Armenian survivor sustained by an abiding faith.

Henry Morgenthau III, a Cambridge-based writer and television producer, is the grandson of Henry Morgenthau, who was US ambassador to Turkey from 1913 to 1916.

ARMENIAN GOLGOTHA: A Memoir of the Armenian Genocide, 1915-1918 By Grigoris Balakian

Translated by Peter Balakian and Aris Sevag

Knopf, 509 pp., illustrated, $35