By Khatchig Mouradian
The Jewish Advocate
Franz Werfel, an Austrian-Jewish writer, became an international literary figure with his 1933 novel, “Die vierzig Tage des Musa Dagh,” originally written in German and published a year later in English under the title “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh.” The novel tells the story of the heroic self-defense of the Armenians of Musa Dagh during the Armenian genocide of 1915. Werfel decided to write the novel after witnessing the plight of Armenian refugee children in Damascus in 1929. Little did he know that his novel would not only become a classic and an inspiration for generations of Armenians, but would also serve as a model of survival and resistance for his own people during the Holocaust.
After the 1938 Anschluss, Werfel left Austria to take refuge in France. And with the occupation of France by the Nazis, he narrowly escaped to the U.S. He thus avoided the concentration camps, where a generation of Jewish leaders and youth found solace, inspiration and a call to uprising in his novel.“Momentous moral questions arise from Werfel’s book,” said Prof. Yair Auron. “The story of the defense of Musa Dagh became, indeed, a source of inspiration, an example for the underground members to learn, a model to imitate. They equated their fate with that of the Armenians.” He continued: “In both cases, murderous evil empires conspired to uproot entire communities, to bring about their total physical extinction. In both cases, resistance embodied the concept of death and national honor on the one hand, and the chance of being saved as individuals and as a nation on the other.”
Auron noted that “reading the book strengthens the spirit of the members of the youth movements, the future fighters, as Mordechai Tannenbaum and other underground leaders suggested.”Werfel’s novel had a great influence on Antek (Yitzhak Zuckerman), the deputy commander of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the author of “A Surplus of Memory: Chronicle of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.” When talking about the Holocaust and what books to read on the issue, Antek would say that “the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising could not be understood without reading ‘The Forty days of Musa Dagh.’”
In an introduction to the French edition of the book, Holocaust survivor and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize Elie Wiesel writes, “The novel is a masterpiece. … This Armenian community became very close to me. Written before the coming of Hitler, this novel seems to foretell the future. How did Franz Werfel know the vocabulary and the mechanism of the Holocaust before the Holocaust – artistic intuition or historic memory?” He continues, “The novel is precisely about this memory. The besieged Armenians feared not death but being forgotten.”In a time when the memory of genocide victims – from the Armenian genocide to the Holocaust – is under attack by genocide deniers, this article is an invitation to read Werfel’s novel and honor the memory of the heroes of Musa Dagh and the Warsaw Ghetto.
Khatchig Mouradian is a journalist, poet and translator based in Boston. He is the editor of the Armenian Weekly.