Peter Balakian, the translator of his great-uncle's memoir Armenian Golgotha will be speaking at the Museum on December 2. He was kind enough to let us reprint an excerpt of an interview he did with his publisher. It's a fascinating subject and an important book, so we hope you will join us to hear more about it in person.
Q: Bishop Grigoris Balakian is your great uncle. How did you come to find out about him and his memoir?
Peter Balakian: Growing up, I knew he was a bishop in the Armenian church. He was spoken of occasionally by my father and aunts. Although they mentioned some books he wrote about the Armenian church, no one ever mentioned this great memoir. And what’s odd is that both my aunts were literary critics and my father was also a serious student of history, but they didn’t mention this book. I know the subject of the fate of the Armenians in 1915 traumatized them, and so all was silence when it came to this subject. I wrote about my discovery of my great uncle in a chapter of my own memoir, Black Dog of Fate. So my memoir led to my finding his memoir. It’s become a sort of dialogue both within the family and about this history.
Q: How has your uncle come to life for you?
PB: I had no idea my uncle was such a dynamic leader and prominent intellectual of his generation. Armenian Golgotha brings to life the extraordinary creativity, wit, humanity and compassion this young Armenian clergyman exhibited in the face of overwhelming odds. His ability to negotiate with Turkish perpetrators and still provide sustenance to his emaciated group of fellow deportees is remarkable. And throughout the story he remains humble and focused on helping others. As a clergyman, he’s anguished both by the human suffering he is witnessing and by the destruction of his culture, the culture of which he is a guardian and protector.
Q: What kind of contribution does Armenian Golgotha make to our understanding of the Armenian Genocide?
PB: It’s an essential text. There is no text about the Genocide that’s as rich, layered and complex as this. It brings us closer to the century’s first genocide than any other first-person account that I know of. Balakian was one of the famous 250 Armenian cultural leaders who were arrested on the night of April 14, 1915 at the very start of the genocide. He survived nearly four years on deportation marches and witnessed things that few survivors have described.
Q:What does Balakian’s memoir show us about this event as an act of genocide?
PB: Readers will find that Armenian Golgotha corroborates what most of the scholarship has shown. The deportations and massacres of the Armenians were planned by the central government; he shows us how the Turkish government used surveillance, created blacklists to arrest the cultural leaders, created killing squads, created false provocations in order to arrest Armenians, and so on.