Armenian Golgotha: A Memoir of the Armenian Genocide, 1915-1918

Armenian Golgotha: A Memoir of the Armenian Genocide, 1915-1918

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by Grigoris Balakian, Grigoris Palakean, Aris G. Sevag

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Never before in English, Armenian Golgotha is the most dramatic and comprehensive eyewitness account of the first modern genocide.

On April 24, 1915, the priest Grigoris Balakian was arrested along with some 250 other intellectuals and leaders of Constantinople’s Armenian community. It was the beginning of the Ottoman Turkish government’s


Never before in English, Armenian Golgotha is the most dramatic and comprehensive eyewitness account of the first modern genocide.

On April 24, 1915, the priest Grigoris Balakian was arrested along with some 250 other intellectuals and leaders of Constantinople’s Armenian community. It was the beginning of the Ottoman Turkish government’s systematic attempt to eliminate the Armenian people from Turkey; it was a campaign that continued through World War I and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, by which time more than a million Armenians had been annihilated and expunged from their historic homeland. For Grigoris Balakian, himself condemned, it was also the beginning of a four-year ordeal during which he would bear witness to a seemingly endless caravan of blood.

Balakian sees his countrymen sent in carts, on donkeys, or on foot to face certain death in the desert of northern Syria. Many would not even survive the journey, suffering starvation, disease, mutilation, and rape, among other tortures, before being slaughtered en route. In these pages, he brings to life the words and deeds of survivors, foreign witnesses, and Turkish officials involved in the massacre process, and also of those few brave, righteous Turks, who, with some of their German allies working for the Baghdad Railway, resisted orders calling for the death of the Armenians. Miraculously, Balakian manages to escape, and his flight—through forest and over mountain, in disguise as a railroad worker and then as a German soldier—is a suspenseful, harrowing odyssey that makes possible his singular testimony.

Full of shrewd insights into the political, historical, and cultural context of the Armenian genocide—the template for the subsequent mass killings that have cast a shadow across the twentieth century and beyond—this memoir is destined to become a classic of survivor literature. Armenian Golgotha is sure to deepen our understanding of a catastrophic crime that the Turkish government, the Ottomans’ successor, denies to this day.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Read this heartbreaking book. Armenian Golgotha describes the suffering, agony and massacre of innumerable Armenian families almost a century ago; its memory must remain a lesson for more than one generation.”
- Elie Wiesel

“Grigoris Balakian's Armenian Golgotha is a powerful, moving account of the Armenian Genocide, a story that needs to be known, and is told here with a sweep of experience and wealth of detail that is as disturbing as it is irrefutable.”
- Sir Martin Gilbert

“In this extraordinary account, Grigoris Balakian makes astute psychological observations about himself and his fellow prisoners, and equally astute interpretations of the behavior of Turkish perpetrators and German collaborators in the Armenian genocide. His writing is clear and compelling, as rendered in sensitive translation.  He has a keen sense of history, and his extensive travels enable him to record a tragic European panorama. This book will become a classic, both for its depiction of a much denied genocide and its humane and brilliant witness to what human beings can endure and overcome.”
- Robert Jay Lifton, author of The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide

“powerful….a poignant, often harrowing story about the resiliency of the human spirit [and] a window on a moment in history that most Americans only dimly understand…. Balakian’s account…is rich with evidence of the Turkish government’s complicity and its leaders’ premeditation. Deportation, in their vernacular, was always a subterfuge for extermination….will be widely read as both a riveting tale of one man's survival and as a historical document.”
- Chris Bohjalian, The Washington Post

“[A] fascinating first-hand testimony to a monumental crime.”
- The New Yorker

“The Armenian genocide is a ‘controversial’ issue that can always be counted on to annoy the Turkish government, which has dedicated its considerable diplomatic and economic resources to repressing its memory…. I suspect most people are as hazy on the details of the events as I was when I picked up Grigoris Balakian's Armenian Golgotha…. [Balakian] place[s] the tragedy within the more familiar context of World War I…. it is not so much the copious evidence he airs of plotting pashas, lazy patriarchs, and covetous generals that makes this story so shocking; it is the image repeated in chapter after chapter, in village after village, of Balakian and his fellow deportees arriving late at night, starving and exhausted, in a place where all doors are closed to them, and where the local peasants refuse to sell them so much as a fistful of bread or a sip of water..half the chronicle of a murdered people and half the story of Balakian's own desperate escape…[an] appalling and magnificent book.”
- Benjamin Moser, Harper's

“this rich historical document….vividly portrays Turkish brutality as it provides [Balakian's] and others’ stories along with well-informed commentary on Turkey’s actions….a readable and moving account.”
- Library Journal

“[A] monumental….wide-ranging text….Balakian provides strong evidence that these gruesome proceedings were carried out under official orders from the highest level…. For generations to come Armenian Golgotha will remain a first-hand documentation of a historic tragedy written from the perspective of a talented scholar, [s]ophisticated in the ways of the world, [but] sustained by an abiding faith.”
- Henry Morgenthau III, Boston Sunday Globe

“[a] shocking and brilliant memoir of the genocide, an eyewitness account of high order…It’s a memoir that will fit well on a shelf beside the poems of Anna Akhmatova and the memoirs of Vasily Grossman, Primo Levi, and Elie Wiesel….Pain suffuses this book by Father Balakian, his own an that of others….Grigoris Balakian had such memories, and the power to evoke them in detail….In scene after scene, the unspeakable is spoken….For Grigoris Balakian, what persists after the human devastation is always nature itself, and one of the few consolations of this book is the refuge the author takes in the world around him, the shimmering fields and streams, the high mountains and fruitful plains….Nature, with its endless fertility, stands in contrast to destruction and degradation…. A nightmare itself, so exquisitely rendered that it seeped into my unconscious as I read….this book has the feel of a classic about it, and I suspect that future writers on historical trauma and its representation will turn eagerly to Armenian Golgotha. It’s a massively important contribution to this field.”
- Jay Parini, The Chronicle of Higher Education

“The belated appearance in English of Bishop Grigoris Balakian’s groundbreaking testimony ‘Armenian Golgotha’ means that the reader is confronted with scenes that are today grotesquely familiar….[T]he singularity of ‘Armenian Golgotha’ resides in the work’s comprehensive historical information regarding the Ittihad government’s intent to destroy the Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire….harrowing….In a self-abnegating act of imagination, Balakian’s memoir…is replete with narratives that focus on collective suffering, marking this memoir as one of the few to explicate the true nature of the crime….At the beginning of the 21st century, with Darfur still in the news, it is sobering to read a memoir about the first modern genocide of the 20th century that details the components of intended group destruction in all its complexity.”
- Donna-Lee Frieze, Forward: The Jewish Daily

“This is more than an eyewitness account, it is a masterful history in its own right….Grigoris Balakian…a community leader with great understanding of politics, history and the context of the events befalling him [was] an unlikely witness of this mass slaughter. [H]e went to great lengths to discover telegrams, archival records and biographical details about the acts he saw and the people around him… There is thus something in Armenian Golgotha that transcends the witness narrative but nonetheless makes this book both an essential memoir, a lively and extraordinary life story and a history of the genocide.”
- Seth J. Frantzman, The Jerusalem Post

“[A] seminal and wrenching account of the Armenian genocide….a massive memoir first published in Armenian in 1922 and now making its debut in English via the graces of Balakian’s distinguished great-nephew, author Peter Balakian. Balakian does not censor the horrors. [His] prose…hot, however not overheated…recreates wrenching moments. Weighted with eyewitness accounts and distinguished by Balakian’s prodigiously sharp memory, this book is not a scholar’s history, of course, but an educated prelate’s. [W]ith an enviable grasp of Ottoman and European history…it explains German and European imperialist designs on Turkey and Turkish resentment, and how Turkey exploited the chaos of war. But the author points his finger as well at his own people….so his book is not a wholesale condemnation of Turks, though it probably won’t be read by most Turks, who still can’t accept responsibility for one of history’s greatest crimes against humanity. It should be, of course, for how could a people be expected to understand and atone for a story they have never been officially permitted to know?”
- Keith Garebian, The Globe and Mail

“seminal personal account of the first modern genocide…. [Balakian] relates their Kafka-like ordeal…. [and] describes the Turkish population, civilian and military, enthusiastically falling upont he Armenians in an orgy of torture, slaughter, rape and robbery…. this memoir… combines extensive research, an account of [Balakian’s] own experiences and testimony from eyewitnesses, both victims and perpetrators…. blistering…. [a]n important historical document.”
- Kirkus

Chris Bohjalian
…a powerful memoir…In addition to being a poignant, often harrowing story about the resiliency of the human spirit, Armenian Golgotha is also a window on a moment in history that most Americans only dimly understand…I hope that Armenian Golgotha will be widely read, both as a riveting tale of one man's survival and as a historical document.
—The Washington Post
Library Journal

Grigoris Balakian (1876-1934), a cultural and religious leader in Istanbul's Armenian community, was arrested in April 1914 with 250 other leaders and began almost four years of deportation, forced march to the Syrian desert, and abusive treatment. Thus was launched the Turkish government's program to rid the country of Armenians. Hundreds of thousands were viciously murdered or died of cold and starvation, but Balakian's fierce will to live and his encounters with a few generous people allowed him to survive and tell the story. This memoir, which Balakian published in Armenian in 1922, vividly portrays Turkish brutality as it provides his and others' stories along with well-informed commentary on Turkey's actions. Peter Balakian (English, Colgate Univ.; The Burning Tigris), the author's grandnephew, has translated this rich historical document and provided scholarly support, making available a readable and moving account that will be welcomed by both the English-speaking Armenian community and a broader audience committed to witnessing and understanding the massive cruelty and suffering that characterized widespread crimes against humanity in the 20th century. Important for readers who want to judge whether or not this was the first genocide in modern times.
—Elizabeth R. Hayford

Kirkus Reviews
The first English translation of a seminal personal account of the first modern genocide..Balakian (1873–1934) was a prominent intellectual and priest of the Armenian Church in Turkey at the outbreak of World War I. The Ottoman Empire was publicly neutral but secretly allied with Germany. Turkey's long-persecuted Armenian minority favored Russia and her allies, because Czar Nicholas II had long been an unofficial, and ineffective, protector of Armenian Christians under Ottoman rule. This proved disastrous when Russia declared war on Turkey in November 1914, and Ottoman officials decided that the entire Armenian population represented a fifth column. There had been earlier massacres of Armenians in Turkey, but nothing like the nightmare that began with the April 1915 arrest in Constantinople of 250 Armenian intellectuals, including Balakian. In a text originally published in 1922, he relates their Kafka-like ordeal, in which humiliating abuse alternated with occasional kindness, and the release of a few was counterpointed by occasional killing of others. After ten months, the remnant of Balakian's group was ordered to march west, joining hundreds of thousands of additional victims. While ordinary Germans' acceptance of Jewish persecution was mostly passive, Balakian describes the Turkish population, civilian and military, enthusiastically falling upon the Armenians in an orgy of torture, slaughter, rape and robbery. More than a million Armenians died. With luck, the aid of comrades and a few sympathetic officials, Balakian survived to write this memoir, which combines extensive research, an account of his own experiences and testimony from eyewitnesses, both victims and perpetrators. Poet,memoirist and Armenian holocaust historian Peter Balakian (The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America's Response, 2005, etc.), Grigoris's great-nephew, collaborated with professional translator Sevag to render the blistering Armenian text into modern English..An important historical document, though its relentless depiction of atrocity make this a hard slog for the average reader..Agent: Eric Simonoff/Janklow & Nesbit.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.70(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Night of Gethsemane

On the night of Saturday, April 11/24, 1915, the Armenians of the capital city, exhausted from the Easter celebrations that had come to an end a few days earlier, were snoring in a calm sleep. Meanwhile on the heights of Stambul, near Ayesofia, a highly secret activity was taking place in the palatial central police station.

Groups of Armenians had just been arrested in the suburbs and neighborhoods of the capital; blood-colored military buses were now transporting them to the central prison. Weeks earlier Bedri,* chief of police in Constantinople, had sent official sealed orders to all the guardhouses, with the instruction that they not be opened until the designated day and that they then be carried out with precision and in secrecy. The orders were warrants to arrest the Armenians whose names were on the blacklist, a list compiled with the help of Armenian traitors, particularly Artin Megerdichian, who worked with the neighborhood Ittihad clubs.† Condemned to death were Armenians who were prominent and active in either revolutionary or nonpartisan Armenian organizations and who were deemed liable to incite revolution or resistance.‡

On this Saturday night I, along with eight friends from Scutari, was transported by a small steamboat from the quay of the huge armory of Selimiye to Sirkedji. The night smelled of death; the sea was rough, and our hearts were full of terror. We prisoners were under strict police guard, not allowed to speak to one another. We had no idea where we were going.

We arrived at the central prison, and here behind gigantic walls and large bolted gates, they put us in a wooden pavilion in the courtyard, which was said by some to have once served as a school. We sat there, quiet and somber, on the bare wooden floor under the faint light of a flickering lantern, too stunned and confused to make sense of what was happening.

We had barely begun to sink into fear and despair when the giant iron gates of the prison creaked open again and a multitude of new faces were pushed inside. They were all familiar faces—revolutionary and political leaders, public figures, and nonpartisan and even antipartisan intellectuals.

From the deep silence of the night until morning, every few hours Armenians were brought to the prison. And so behind these high walls, the jostling and commotion increased as the crowd of prisoners became denser. It was as if all the prominent Armenian public figures—assemblymen, representatives, revolutionaries, editors, teachers, doctors, pharmacists, dentists, merchants, bankers, and others in the capital city—had made an appointment to meet in these dim prison cells. Some even appeared in their nightclothes and slippers. The more those familiar faces kept appearing, the more the chatter abated and our anxiety grew.

Before long everyone looked solemn, our hearts heavy and full of worry about an impending storm. Not one of us understood why we had been arrested, and no one could assess the consequences. As the night’s hours slipped by, our distress mounted. Except for a few rare stoics, we were in a state of spiritual anguish, terrified of the unknown and longing for comfort.

Right through till morning new Armenian prisoners arrived, and each time we heard the roar of the military cars, we hurried to the windows to see who they were. The new arrivals had contemptuous smiles on their faces, but when they saw hundreds of other well-known Armenians old and young around them, they too sank into fear. We were all searching for answers, asking what all of this meant, and pondering our fate.

*See Biographical Glossary.
†Meeting places for members of the local Ittihad Party committees throughout the empire.—trans.
‡Revolutionary here refers to reform-oriented political workers.—trans.

Meet the Author

Born in 1876, Grigoris Balakian was one of the leading Armenian intellectuals of his generation. Educated in Germany and in the Ottoman Empire, he was ordained as a celibate priest in 1901 and served the Armenian Apostolic Church as an emissary to Europe, Russia in particular. He wrote several books, some of which were confiscated by the Turkish government in 1915 or subsequently lost. He later became bishop of the Armenian Apostolic Church in southern France. He died in Marseilles in 1934.

Peter Balakian is the author of The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response, winner of the 2005 Raphael Lemkin Prize, a New York Times best seller, and a New York Times Notable Book; and of Black Dog of Fate, winner of the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for the Art of Memoir, also a New York Times Notable Book. Grigoris Balakian was his great-uncle.

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Armenian Golgotha: A Memoir of the Armenian Genocide, 1915-1918 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
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Nerme More than 1 year ago
This book is an eyewitness account, and a comprehensive history of the tragic genocide of the 1.5 million Armenians in Turkey. Even if you feel you won't have the time to finish the book, or feel nervous about reading the extremely savage way the Turks tortured and murdered the women, children, and men, just reading the introduction will give you a concise and accurate history leading up the the genocide, and the horrific events during and after the genocide. It was writen by a bishop, Grigoris Balakian, and translated by his grandnephew, the well known author Peter Balakian, and Aris Sevag, an editor and linguist. Just the maps and timetable of events are worth the price of this masterpiece.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Excellent book! I couldn't put the book down! Great testimony for the genocide. It reminded me of my grandmother and her brutal experiences during the genocide. Just can't imagine what everyone went thru. They lost their homes, livelihood, parents, children aunts, uncles..........experienced rape/rapes The list goes on!
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