NORTHRIDGE, Calif.—Professor Vahram Shemmassian, Director of the Armenian Studies Program at the California State University, Northridge, was invited by the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis to deliver this year’s Arsham & Charlotte Ohanessian Chair Lecture on Thursday, October 17. The event, which was cosponsored by the College of Liberal Arts, the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies (CHGS), and the Center for Austrian Studies with its Interim Director Prof. Klaas van der Sanden coordinating, took place at the President’s Room, Coffman Memorial Union.
In his opening remarks Prof. Alejandro Baer, Director of the CHGS, underscored the collaboration of the Center with the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and St. Paul) Armenian community, citing as example the commemoration of the Armenian Genocide conjointly last April. In turn, Interim Dean of the College of Liberal Arts Dr. Raymond Duvall emphasized the importance of defending human rights and the historical truth of the Armenian Genocide. He then introduced the guest speaker.
Prof. Shemmassian’s lecture dealt with “The Musa Dagh Resistance to the Armenian Genocide and Its Impact through Franz Werfel’s Historical Novel The Forty Days of Musa Dagh.” This was a fitting tribute to the 80th anniversary of the book’s original German publication in 1933.
Armenians lived in Musa Dagh, a mountain situated some 10 miles to the southwest of the biblical city of Antioch and overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, since time immemorial. On the eve of World War I they numbered over 6,000 persons. When served the deportation order by the Ottoman government in late July 1915, their two-third decided to resist while one-third was deported, mainly to the Syrian city of Hama and environs. Those who defied the government were rescued by French warships after more than forty days of fighting and transported to Port Said, Egypt. They lived in a refugee camp for four years, until their repatriation to Musa Dagh in 1919.
In the days and months following the rescue operations the international press covered the Musa Dagh resistance through news items, communiqués, leading articles, and photographs. As a result, donations of money, clothing, and other necessities were sent to the Port Said refugee camp by people of various nationalities, organizations, and agencies. In short, the Musa Dagh Armenians were lionized, became a source of inspiration, and drew sympathy in practical terms as well.
The Musa Dagh saga, once its immediacy vanished, would probably have been relegated to oblivion had it not been for the pen of one man—Franz Werfel (1890-1945). Werfel, a Jew born in Prague and residing in Vienna, had learned about the Armenian atrocities during World War I and had promised himself that he would write a novel about them. He kept his promise. While conducting extensive research on the subject beginning in 1929, he came across the uplifting story of Musa Dagh, which he chose as the novel’s topic. The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, as he titled his oeuvre, was published in 1933 in German and rendered into numerous languages. The English translation appeared in 1934 and the Armenian translation in 1935.
The human drama so vividly portrayed in Musa Dagh captured the imagination of artists and intellectuals of different nationalities. The book and its symbolism also had a direct bearing on the Armenians and the Jews. The Armenians were elated and grateful that a non-Armenian had exposed their forsaken fate to the international community. The Jews in Europe and in Palestine read Musa Dagh as a beacon of hope for their salvation. Turkey and the Turks, on their part, pressured the Hollywood movie giant MGM to shelf a grand film project based on Musa Dagh, and to this day they manipulate the novel to deny the Armenian Genocide.
Dr. Shemmassian concluded his talk by saying: “This year marks the 80th anniversary of the publication of Wefel’s Musa Dagh novel. But it is not a mere celebration of a past accomplishment, because the book’s legacy is very much alive today. Four recent cases, among others, prove this point. First, in June 2012, the Czech Republic held the country’s first international conference on genocide studies. Its general theme, inspired by the Forty Days, was: ‘Mountains of Moses: Revolt, Resistance and Rescuing of the Victims of Mass Extermination.’ Second, in March 2013, the Lepsius House and the Moses Mendelssohn Center in Potsdam, Germany organized a three-day conference titled ‘Genocide and Literature: Franz Werfel in an Armenian-Jewish-Turkish-German Perspective.’ Third, also this year, in April, an exhibition dedicated to the 80th anniversary of the Forty Days opened at the National Library of the Republic of Armenia with the co-sponsorship of the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute at Dzidzernagapert, Armenia. Fourth, The Franz-Werfel-Human Rights Award, which carries prize money in the amount of €10,000, since 2003 is awarded every two years in Frankfurt, Germany ‘to individuals, and occasionally also to initiatives or groups, who have opposed breaches of human rights, genocide, displacement and the deliberate destruction of national, ethnic, racial or religious groups.’ The list goes on.”
A question and answer session followed a PowerPoint presentation of some 30 pictures depicting scenes from the Musa Daghians’ rescue by French warships, leading personalities as well as fighters involved in the battles, the Port Said refugee camp, and the monument dedicated to the resistance on September 18, 1932. A reception concluded the evening.