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A Tale of Two Uprisings: From the Warsaw Ghetto to Musa Dagh

On the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, students in the U.S. joined an ADL delegation to participate in the March of the Living. In Poland, the students visited the Warsaw Ghetto. ADL national director Abraham Foxman said, "This … Read More

By / December 19, 2007

On the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, students in the U.S. joined an ADL delegation to participate in the March of the Living. In Poland, the students visited the Warsaw Ghetto. ADL national director Abraham Foxman said, "This trip will teach young people, both Jews and non-Jews, the importance of remembering the Holocaust at a time when survivors are dying and individuals still continue to deny it happened."

Today, very few survivors of another genocide—the destruction of the Armenians—are still alive. And individuals continue to deny it happened.

In a time when the memory of genocide victims—from the Armenian genocide to the Holocaust—is under attack by genocide deniers, I'd like to invite readers of this post—including, hopefully, Foxman himself—to learn about the deep connections between the Jewish heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and the Armenian heroes of Musa Dagh. Also central to this story is Franz Werfel, a brilliant Jewish novelist who helped forge these connections.

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Franz Werfel, an Austrian-Jewish writer, became an international literary figure with his 1933 novel, Die vierzig Tage des Musa Dagh. The book was originally written in German and published a year later in English under the title The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. It 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. Soon, with the occupation of France by the Nazis, he narrowly escaped, fleeing 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 The Forty Days of Musa Dagh.

According to Professor Yair Auron,

"Momentous moral questions arise from Werfel's book. It prominently expresses humanistic values, to which the members of the [Jewish] youth movements were sensitive, as well as the moral uncertainties by which they were beset. 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. 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 notes 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 says,

"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?"

Wiesel continues, "The novel is precisely about this memory. The besieged Armenians feared not death but being forgotten…"

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I hope Abraham Foxman will choose to follow in the footsteps of Franz Werfel and Elie Wiesel, and not allow the resistance fighters of Musa Dagh to be forgotten.

UPDATE: Commenter Alamity provides an excerpt showing how the defenders of the Bialystok ghetto used The Forty Days of Musa Dagh as a handbook for Jewish resistance to the Nazis.


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Read Khatchig Mouradian's past Jewcy articles here. * Check our always up-to-date list of posts on the ADL/Armenian Genocide issue * Get ongoing coverage from our friends at No Place For Denial.

 

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