Gorki Theater’s Monumental Role
Special for the Armenian Weekly
BERLIN—In commemorating the Centennial of the Armenian Genocide, the road between Yerevan and Istanbul passes through Berlin.
Every Armenian knows Komitas Vartabed, the great musicologist and composer who founded modern classical Armenian music, and whose works play a prominent role in our culture. However, few perhaps know about the influence Germany had on his work. In the late 1890’s, the great composer studied music at the Humboldt University in Berlin—the very same university where the Nazi authorities organized a book burning campaign in 1933 to “cleanse the nation of ‘un-German’ books and publications,” which also included Franz Werfel’s masterpiece The Forty Days of Musa Dagh.
Between the book-burning site and the building where Komitas lived and studied for years, today stands one of the most influential art foundations in Europe, the Maxim Gorki Theater, which organized a two-month long artistic program dedicated to the Armenian Genocide Centennial. The program, dubbed “It Snows in April,” inspired by a moving Armenian folk song composed by Komitas, was launched on March 7, with the premiere of a magnificent documentary theater play called “Musadagh.”
The program, which ran until April 25, included theater performances, music concerts, film screenings, discussions, and exhibitions. The play “Musadagh” by Hans Werner Kreosinger brings the story of the legendary defense of Musa Dagh to the stage, with documentary material. It testifies to Germany’s role and the structural organization of the mass murder. This thought-provoking play raises the question of what a seemingly old story can teach us about dealing with history today.
The Ottoman-Turkish plan to exterminate Armenians was used as a model for Nazis. Hitler said, “Who remembers now the annihilation of Armenians,” just before invading Poland. A few years later, Werfel’s tale of the besieged Armenians taking control of their destiny captured the imagination of those imprisoned in the Warsaw ghetto. Copies of the novel were shared among members of Jewish youth groups marshaling the courage to revolt, invoking the heroic resistance of Musa Dagh.
Hans Werner Kroesinger is also the name behind another theater performance called “History Tilt.” The play revolves around the assassination of Armenian Genocide mastermind Talaat Pasha by Soghomon Tehlirian at Hardenbergstrasse in Berlin-Charlottenburg. The Ottoman Empire and Germany were allies during World War I, and the German Foreign Office archives are full of “in-house use” documents and reports by German diplomats and the military about the extermination of the Armenians. They are considered one of the most reliable sources about the Armenian Genocide and serve, along with the transcript of the Soghomon Tehlirian’s court case, as the source material for “History Tilt,” a piece about the silence in Germany surrounding the Armenian Genocide.
“Komitas,” a musical play by Marc Sinan, follows the figure of Komitas through a painful maze of memories and the last phase of his life. Komitas sings, performs, speaks—he is the voice of the death of an entire people. The atrocities of the genocide are interwoven with Komitas’s fate, music, and the guilt that comes with survival. A nightmare moves in beauty and terror through the figure of a man over a century and into the present of a region. Where the death marches of 1915 should have ended—in the Syrian desert near Deir ez-Zor—a relentless war now rages devastating entire peoples once again.
Another spectacular performance, called “Auction of Souls,” was presented by Canadian-Armenian actress and director Arsinée Khanjian. In 1918, the film, “Ravished Armenia,” based on the eyewitness accounts of then 18-year-old Aurora Mardiganian, relentlessly described her ordeal and the massacre of the Armenians, and triggered a wave of shock. Only a handful of the scenes and the script have survived from the film version that was created in 1919, with Aurora in the leading role. The copies disappeared just like Aurora, who died penniless and forgotten in Los Angeles at the age of 92. Khanjian reconstructs the story of a desperate attempt to relate the indescribable, and connects Mardiganian’s story with reports from other survivors. The film features outstanding acting performances by German Armenian actress Sesede Terziyan and German Turkish actor Taner Turkyilmaz.
Mardiganian was also the subject of a video installation by Cannes winning director Atom Egoyan, just outside of the theater building, walking past the War Memorial with the sculpture of the mother with her dead son on Unter Den Linden Boulevard. Mardiganian, after being dragged into unexpected and unwanted stardom, had great difficulty meeting the social responsibilities forced upon her to promote the film. As a result, seven Aurora look-alikes were hired to appear with the film during its national distribution campaign in America. The seven “Auroras” appear in Egoyan’s installation, and tell the account of Aurora’s experiences. Although the original film of Mardiganian’s story has been lost (save one 22-minute reel), this installation is an attempt to bring Aurora’s spirit back to the big screen.
At the foyer of the Gorki Theater an exhibition titled “To Mnemosyne’s Health” by Argentine-born Armenian artist Silvina Der-Meguerditchian. Films depicting stories related to the Armenian Genocide, like Egoyan’s “Ararat,” Fatih Akin’s “The Cut,” and Hovannisian and Mouhibian’s “1915,” were screened; they were followed by discussions with the directors. There were also musical performances by renowned artists Arto Tuncboyaciyan, Vahagn Hayrapetyan, Artyom Manukyan, Vardan Hovsepyan, Ara and Onnik Dinkjian, Yervant Bostanci, Alina Manoukian, Chatschatur Kanajan, and others.
Among more than a dozen in-depth presentations and lectures, perhaps the most thought-provoking, considering the time of year, was the public debate series called “German responsibility.” Germany was a close ally of the Ottoman Empire during World War I, and it was, indirectly and directly, involved in the Armenian Genocide. According to one of the panelists in these series, historian Wolfgang Gust, this subject contains many aspects: the course of the crime, Germany’s role and complicity, and the authenticity of its documents. Gust also discussed the question of whether a German can describe another genocide in which Germany participated without being suspected of thereby concealing or qualifying the Holocaust. Gust is the author of the book The Armenian Genocide in German.
The artistic director of the Maxim Gorki Theater in Berlin, Shermin Langhoff, said that it was important to invite Armenian and Turkish artists and intellectuals not only to remember but to think further about human rights and economic and geopolitical interests, today and in the future.
“As a German citizen with a Turkish background, it is important for me to clarify the German perspective on the Armenian Genocide, because Germany was a good friend and ally of the Ottoman Empire, especially during the First World War,” said Langhoff. “There is a bigger importance to talk about it from Germany, knowing that the German Parliament so far only adopted a resolution where they didn’t use the word genocide. The government cited not becoming involved in Turkey-Armenia relations as a reason for that, but I think this is absurd, taking into consideration the connection between the Armenian Genocide and the Shoah—the first was a prologue for the latter.”
I had the honor of delivering the keynote speech at the opening night of the two-month-long program of the Gorki Theater. It was attended by several German politicians and opinion makers. One of them was Cem Ozdemir, co-chairman of the German Alliance ’90/The Greens Party—the party that issued a declaration on the eve of discussions about the Armenian Genocide Resolution in the German Bundestag, and suggested recognizing April 24 as the day of the start of the Armenian Genocide in the Ottoman Empire. Ozdemir paid his respects to the victims at the Tsitsernakaberd Genocide Memorial in Yerevan earlier in March, and called on the Turkish government to open its borders with Armenia and face its past by recognizing the genocide.
Langhoff suggested that Germany had many links with the Armenian Genocide. “We are also responsible as artists and this is forcing us to dig into the dirt of our history,” she said. Langhoff continued by saying, “The Maxim Gorki Theater is situated between Chancellor Angela Merkel’s office and the German History Museum, and every day, all of these together pose to us the questions of human rights and politics.”
On April 20, the spokesperson for Chancellor Merkel said the government would support the resolution, backing away from its previous position of refusing to use the word genocide. Reuters notes that the coalition government came under pressure from parliamentarians within their own ranks to use the word in the resolution.
“In a major reversal in Turkey’s top trading partner in the European Union and home to millions of Turks, Germany joins other nations and institutions including France, the European Parliament, and Pope Francis in using the term condemned by Turkey,” reported Reuters.
In a parallel development, German President Gauck has chosen to stay in Germany to participate in the Centennial commemorative events for the Armenian Genocide in Berlin. Germany’s Christian churches invited Gauck to participate in the Mass held at the Berlin Cathedral on April 23; he will become the first German president to participate in an Armenian Genocide commemoration event, officially using the word “genocide” to describe the killings, and offering an unusually strong acknowledgement of the German empire’s role in the crime.
Beyond Germany’s shared responsibility in the Armenian Genocide, after sending Talaat Pasha’s funeral to Turkey in 1943 as a friendly gesture, Berlin is still home to the graves of two Young Turk genocidal leaders Behaeddin Shakir and Cemal Azmi, who are buried in the “Muslim Martyrs cemetery” and are revered as heroes with grandiose ceremonies by nationalist and religious circles of the German-Turkish community.
On April 24, the German Bundestag started a debate on a resolution about the Armenian Genocide. “The fate of the Armenians serves as an example of the history of mass extermination, ethnic cleansings, expulsions, and ultimately the genocides that so dreadfully characterized the 20th century,” said a leaked draft copy of the resolution. However, Germany’s two parliament opposition parties—the Greens and the Left Party—said the wording did not go far enough. At the end of the session the joint resolution was decided to be adopted in the summer, wrote the German daily Die Welt.
On April 25, the Maxim Gorki Theater concluded its program, “It Snows In April,” with a music concert featuring Onnik and Ara Dinkjian. Onnik, an 86-year-old Armenian-American singer who was forced to leave his home Tigranakerd (now Diyarbakir), is celebrated today as the international voice of the Armenian Diaspora at concerts in Europe, the Americas, and the Middle East. He was joined by his son Ara, a world-famous composer and oud player.