BROOKLINE, Mass. (A.W.)—On May 19, Peter Balakian, the Donald M. and Constance H. Rebar Professor of the Humanities-Colgate University, spoke at the offices of Facing History and Ourselves in Brookline on the topic of the latest book he finished editing, Armenian Golgotha: An Eyewitness Account of the Armenian Genocide (Knopf, March 31, 2009).
Armenian Golgotha, long recognized as one of the most important eyewitness accounts of the Armenian Genocide, is the work of Balakian’s great uncle, Grigoris Vartabed Balakian, who was among the initial group of Armenian intellectuals arrested on April 24, 1915. Unlike most of those arrested, Balakian survived and went on to fulfill his pledge to bear witness to all he had seen and experienced during his four-year ordeal. Aris Sevag and Peter Balakian have now translated the book into English.
Peter Balakian is the author of The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response and the memoir The Black Dog of Fate. He is the recipient of many awards, including the Raphael Lemkin Prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He holds a Ph.D. in American civilization from Brown University and teaches at Colgate University.
Facing History’s Adam Strong introduced the event, and spoke of the teacher workshops held to facilitate the study of genocide history and human rights. “In a few months this room will be filled with teachers in workshops,” he said, “so that they can go out and change the world.”
“One of the things that I know about Peter is that he’s really interested in getting young people interested in the moral and ethical questions of their lives,” said Strong about Balakian, who is a longtime Facing History educator and lecturer. “He’s also a member of our Board of Scholars and has built such a solid reputation for us as an educator.”
The reach of Facing History’s Armenian Genocide education curriculum has grown, he said. “Facing History is now taught in every Boston high school and the Armenian Genocide is now taught as a Facing History elective course in schools and curricula that range from the Memphis school system to the Chicago public school system—and even to parts of the U.K. and Northern Ireland.”
Peter Balakian’s daughter, Sophia Balakian, a Facing History international coordinator, said of Armenian Golgotha, “This book is a part of my own history and legacy.” She quoted Bishop Desmond Tutu, who once said, “The past has a way of coming back to you. It doesn’t go away quietly.”
Peter Balakian then took the podium, noting, “It’s a distinguished moment to be introduced by my daughter. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I could just pass the podium to her tonight.”
He continued, “Facing History has been brilliant in organizing my entire book tour and over the years has really become an extension of my family. … I think this is a very beautiful moment for the Armenian community to be in symphony with Facing History.”
Balakian spoke of Facing History’s uniqueness and value of freedom of speech in its curriculums, saying, “In the U.K., curriculums are not very flexible, and the same goes for schools I’ve visited from Australia, to Italy, to Greece. … When I think of American democracy at its best, it is in the classroom that we do our best soul-searching and self-evaluation, and Facing History is a great American brainchild.”
Turning to speak of the Armenian Genocide, Balakian said of its legacy that “On the demonic side, we think of Adolf Hitler’s statement [in 1938, ‘Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?’] that reminds us that memory is always a historical moral issue.”
He continued, “But on the angelic side we have the career of Raphael Lemkin. … It was Lemkin who first used the term ‘Armenian Genocide’ on television in 1949. That is one way to think of the reach paradigthmacally into modernity.”
Speaking of Armenian Golgotha, Balakian recounted of his great-uncle that “Bishop Balakian went on to prep school with my grandfather to Etchmiadzin and then they both went to Germany for university. He was actually a writer, so Armenian Golgotha was not a homemade memoir as many others are. This man wrote 10 books in his life but wrote Armenian Golgotha feverishly from 1918-21 while in Manchester in the north of England.”
The first-published version of Armenian Golgotha was not available to the public until 1959, Balakian said, and only then to a small circle of people. “But [Vahakn N.] Dadrian has said that it was this book that solidified his desire to study history. It’s a book of many voices—more than just the linear narrator’s voice. Bishop Balakian is a very good listener along the death marches.”
He explained, “Anyone that sees an Armenian priest is always shocked because the intelligensia were killed first. You hear the voices, too, of the Turkish perpetrators to my uncle because they’re sure that he’ll be dead in a matter of weeks or months. That gives insight into the perpetrator culture.”
Balakian added, “We also hear the voices of righteous Turks in the provincial villages, mayors and imams and muhtars, that hate what the Young Turks are doing and are constantly warning my great uncle to escape.”
He spoke of his great-uncle’s ability to blend into his surroundings as a survival mechanism. “My great uncle’s knowledge of German helped him navigate that world. This polyphonic of voices covers a large diarama of experiences. He goes by many disguises in the book: He’s a German soldier, a Greek vineyard worker, and at one point he changes his name to Garabedian.”
Balakian said of Bishop Balakian’s narrative voice and writing style in the memoir that “we also face a narrator that has a critical and analytical mind trying to understand the dynamics of why all this is happening. He is also a public intellectual that believes in the process of critical analysis and is also very hard on the Armenian political and religious leaders of the time.”
He continued, “I think as you experience the Armenian Genocide reading Armenian Golgotha, you experience the collective eradication of the Armenian civilization. In the domain of collective destruction, you also experience the destruction of the Armenian belief system, in this case, Christianity.”
Of one particularly emotional instance in the memoir, Balakian stated, “When these Islamicized Armenians see my father in these Dante-esque surroundings, many fall to their knees in anguish at the hem of his clerical garment and in some cases he performs Holy Communion in situations so surreal that they extend into the realm of magical realism.”
“In part, Armenian Golgotha was a way to bury the dead,” he said, “in the same way that Hegel asserts that ‘the first act of civilization is the ritual of burial.’”