Uttering the Unutterable: Prose about Genocide

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By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

BERLIN —How can you express “the unspeakable” in writing? Is it at all possible? The unspeakable or indescribable, in this case, being the atrocities of mass murder, in the Armenian genocide of 1915, the suffering of the Greek victims of the massacres and deportations in 1922-3, the elimination of European Jews in the Holocaust. Those courageous few, whether survivors of the catastrophic events, or their offspring, or contemporary witnesses, who put down their recollections and reflections in writing, have given birth to a vast literature, the literature of memory, of genocide.

Leading protagonists in this literary process gathered from October 11-13, under the auspices of the Evangelical Academy in Berlin. Co-sponsors of the conference were the Working Group for Recognition — Against Genocide, for International Understanding (AGA) and the German-Armenian Society, Frankfurt. Peter Balakian, who had travelled from the US to participate in the conference, noted that being there Schwanenwerder so near the Wannsee was “heavy;” after all, it was there at the conference bearing its name that the Nazi leadership met in January 1942 to map out the “final solution to the Jewish problem,” what was to go down in history as the Holocaust.

In her opening welcome, Dr. Tessa Hofmann, founding member of the AGA and one of the first in Germany to spread knowledge of the Armenian Genocide, quoted Theodor W. Adorno’s famous 1951 remark, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” and noted that long before that, in 1920, author Zapel Esayan from Constantinople had questioned whether or not one could express the indescribable in literature: “It is definitely possible to relate single episodes from this huge martyrdom, yet no human language can give an account of this dreadful thing in its totality, namely to eliminate a whole race.”

What emerged from the intensive, emotional discussion was that although it is impossible to replicate the catastrophe, writers have succeeded in transmitting its essence. Here it is particularly fiction, Hofmann said, that “assumes the task that journalism or scientific literature cannot or will not cover.” The reason lies in the poetical character of fictional literature, which, as the German word for poetry — Dichtung — expresses, condenses reality in images which transmit a deeper reality than that contained in the chronicle of events.

So, for example, Elias Venezis depicted the case of the forced transfer of Greeks from Smyrna after its occupation by Turkish military in 1922. Dr. Michaela Prinzinger spoke on “Elias Venezis: Growing Up under the Risk of Death.” As a child he lived through the horrors of the Greek-Turkish war, and recalled how his grandfather grabbed a handful of earth to taken with him, a symbol of his lost homeland. Venezis wrote also of his arrest in 1922 and his suffering as a forced laborer in his book, Number 31328. Prinzinger showed several clips from a film based on the book and titled 1922. In it director Nikos Koundouros summarized the tragedy of an entire people in the story of three individuals, one the young boy Elias, another, a young woman, one of the many who were raped, who goes insane.

Dr. Magdalena Marszałek, a professor from Potsdam university, spoke on “Concentration Camp Literature: Early Polish Contributions.” Although this genre includes works on experiences in the Soviet Gulags, she concentrated on those dealing with the Nazi concentration camps, specifically Tadeus Borowski and Zofia Nałkowska, two non-Jewish writers. She cited Holocaust survivor Henryk Grynberg to the effect that Polish literature had a special responsibility to treat this, since it was “in the epicenter of the crime” — most of the Nazi extermination camps (like Treblinka, Majdanek, Bełzec and Sobibór) were located in fact on Polish territory, whether occupied or annexed, and half of the 6 million Jews killed were Poles. Marszałek distinguished between the position of the victims and that of the non-Jewish eyewitnesses, and made this important point: “In order for eyewitnesses to become witnesses, an act of speech is required, in which the witness speaks for the others and to others. Without such an act of speech, the eyewitnesses remain imprisoned in the ‘grey zone’ of onlookers….” One Polish literature expert contrasted the “eloquence” of the victims’ testimonies to the “aphasia” (speech disorder) of the eyewitness literature. The roots of the problem lie in the complex situation whereby Polish Christians tended to focus on their own suffering under Nazi occupation. The two communities prior to the war had been divided by religion and language, anti-Semitism was widespread, and this “not only hindered empathy but led not seldom to collaboration … and complicity in murder.” In this context, the work of Borowski and  Nałkowska takes on greater significance. Borowski, who survived Auschwitz but committed suicide in 1951, “presented mercilessly how the perfidious camp system — without exception — dehumanized” its victims. Nałkowska adopted a style in which she “let her protagonists speak … without her commenting or interpreting,” thus achieving an “aesthetic and intellectual distance” which “recognizes the obscenity of the claim that one can understand what has occurred.”

Coming to the case of the Armenian Genocide, Hofmann stressed the role of the literature of the survivors’ children, among them Vartan Hartunian and David Kherdian, as well as the grandchildren, two of whom Peter Balakian and Fethiye Çetin were on hand in Berlin. In his Black Dog of Fate, Balakian addresses the transmission of trauma across generations, relating how his grandmother Nafina, in bits and pieces, shared episodes from the Genocide with him as a young boy. The stories would come out in coded words, he said, hieroglyphic and highly symbolic and constituted one part of the process through which he learned about the past, both his family’s experience and the broader Armenian tragedy. His book, Balakian explained, is also a development novel, in which he conveys what it was like for an Armenian to grow up in a modern American setting in New Jersey.

Çetin’s book, My Grandmother, signaled a breakthrough when it appeared in 2004. Although she was not the first Turkish author to approach the taboo theme (Hofmann recalled the works of Ayla Kutlu, for example), Çetin struck a deep chord in the Turkish population, particularly members of her generation who began to raise questions about their own family histories reaching back to 1915. The book recounts how her grandmother Seher, shortly before her death, reveals to her, bit by bit, what she went through as an Armenian child during the genocide, how she was adopted by a Turkish family, and kept her secret for sixty years. Çetin’s slim volume, which has gone through several reprints and has been translated in many languages, weaves the threads of the grandmother’s personal story together with the historical documentation of the genocide.

Both Balakian and Çetin read selections of their works in the original, and translators followed with the corresponding passages in German. Asked by Dr. Raffi Kantian, publisher of ADK (Armenian-German Correspondence magazine), about reports that the Turkish Cultural Ministry had supported her book, she explained that it had initially been neither supported nor attacked (as had works by Taner Akçam and Hrant Dink, for instance) but that when an Italian publisher planned an edition, it sought assistance and received it. The point she underlined in her remarks was the importance of remembering; although girls who had been taken from their families were told to observe silence, many did not forget their estranged relatives and cherished their names.

Balakian, asked to explain how young Armenian Americans are dealing with their distant past, contrasted the current generation with his own; whereas in the 1950s and 1960s, the pressure to Americanize was strong, now American culture has become more open to other cultures and histories; the Genocide has gained interest also as a part of the human rights issue.

As a counterpoint, Dr. Bernhard Malkmus, a professor of German at Ohio State University, spoke about the Armenians’ destiny as seen through the eyes of two Jewish authors, Franz Werfel and Edgar Hilsenrath. Unlike Werfel’s epic account of The 40 Days of Musa Dagh, the work of Hilsenrath, a Holocaust survivor, is not a historical novel, but a fantastic work in the form of a fairy tale. The Story of the Last Thought unfolds as the history of the Khatisian family told with the help of a story-teller Meddah as the last thought of the dying Thovma. It is the tale of a foundling taken in by a Turkish family and left with no information about its own relatives. Malkmus interprets the deathbed wish of Thovma as a metaphor for the Armenian people’s yearning for recognition and reconciliation, and the life story as a metaphor for lives which might have been, those of the unborn, or perhaps someone born in 1915.

It was only fitting that among the three workshops offered during the conference, one was led by Dogan Akhanli, whose best known novel, The Judges of the Last Judgment, was inspired by Hilsenrath’s book and shares its fairytale-like quality. Akhanli spoke at length about how his experience with arbitrary violence, having been subjected to torture in Turkey as a youth and jailed as an activist, led him as a refuge in Germany to research the history of the Holocaust and other genocides. His and other workshops, by Kantian and Wilfried Eggers, who wrote on the genocide in the form of a thriller, provided the rare opportunity to learn how creative writers tackle the challenge of composing works whose subject is thought to be unspeakable.

(Muriel Mirak-Weissbach is the author of Through the Wall of Fire: Armenia — Iraq — Palestine: From Wrath to Reconciliation and can be reached at mirak.weissbach@googlemail.com)

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