The Best Holocaust Novel Ever
Franz Werfel’s classic The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, about the Armenian Genocide, gets a new translation
Mahler didn’t leave Gropius right away, but she spent more and more of her time with Werfel, eventually installing him in Haus Mahler, the country home her famous Jewish first husband had built as his hillside retreat. Before too long, she was pregnant with Werfel’s child. She tried to keep the whole thing secret from Gropius, pretending the child was his, but was eventually discovered in the middle of an impassioned telephone call with Werfel and had no choice but to admit to everything. Gropius’ response says as much about his nature as it does about the era, so easily given to romantic thrusts: Rather than set out to destroy the man who had shamed him, Gropius obtained all of Werfel’s books and, determining that he was a very good poet, wrote him a letter praising him as “a genius of fate.”
Meanwhile, Werfel’s work was undergoing a change, influenced by Mahler. She disliked socialism; he soon denounced his early views as youthful misgivings. She found Judaism distasteful; he wrote such works as Paul Among the Jews, a drama that sympathetically traced the path that led Saul of Tarsus to become Saint Paul, and Barbara or Piety, a play whose protagonist is a Jew revolted by his tradition and deeply attracted to Christianity and to the figure of Christ.
It would be unfair to attribute Werfel’s change of heart to Alma Mahler alone. As Peter Stephan Jungk notes in his exhaustive biography of Werfel, the poet was deeply influenced by the Catholic nurse who had raised him as a boy and had always felt a deep attraction to that religion’s iconography and mythology. Holy ghosts, doomed saviors, magic—these were things that Judaism lacked, and Werfel, hysterical, romantic, couldn’t live without them. He also couldn’t live without Alma Mahler, and by the time she divorced Gropius and agreed to marry him, she had made it a condition of the betrothal that he abandon his faith. On June 27, 1929, he showed up before an official clerk of the state and stated, under oath, that he was resigning from the Jewish community.
Werfel was ready for a long vacation. He and Alma loved the Middle East, where Werfel in particular felt moved by being in proximity to the birthplace of religion. They headed to the region once again and stopped in Damascus. There, visiting a carpet-weaver’s shop, Werfel was struck by “the miserable sight of maimed and famished-looking refugee children,” their bony fingers barely strong enough to move the machinery. Some prodding revealed that these were Armenians who had survived the Turkish massacre. He interviewed witnesses, survivors, and experts, and he heard one story that seized him immediately. It told of 5,000 Armenians who retreated to the nearby Mountain of Moses, or Musa Dagh, where they held off the Turkish onslaught, inflicting much damage on the enemy before being miraculously rescued by the French and British navies.
When he returned to Vienna, Werfel began working on telling the story of the million who were murdered in the first act of state-organized genocide in modern times and of the thousands who fought for their lives and their dignity and prevailed. He visited archives, interviewed witnesses, obtained diplomatic documents, and wrote furiously. In between mad bouts of work—it was not uncommon for him to write until well into the night—Werfel gave public readings, more and more of which were now focused on his work-in-progress.
His new novel, he informed his audiences, wasn’t historical fiction. It was an attempt to come to terms with the fact that “one of the oldest and most venerable peoples of the world has been destroyed, murdered, almost exterminated,” murdered, worst of all, not by “warlike enemies but by their own countrymen.” The reference was hardly lost on his listeners: As Werfel spoke, Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist party was gathering political strength. In December of 1932, Mahler accompanied Werfel to Breslau, where he was scheduled to give another one of his talks. When they arrived at their hotel, they were told that Hitler would be spending the night there as well. Curious, Mahler installed herself in the lobby, hoping for a glimpse of the man. Werfel went about his business, and when he returned to the hotel he was told that the Nazi leader still hadn’t shown. Then, suddenly, he did, walking nervously behind one of his SS goons. Mahler commented that he looked like a frightened young boy; she asked Werfel what he thought of Hitler, and he replied, “Unfortunately, not all that bad.”
From Breslau, it was off to Italy to finish the novel, work that was interrupted only by the occasional bad tiding of the Nazis gaining more power back home. When the novel was finished, Werfel declared it the best thing he’d ever written. He’d said the same thing before about each one of his books; this time, he was right.
Musa Dagh is, to the contemporary reader, a curious book. At times it reads like one of those Karl May adventure tales for boys Werfel adored as a child, with fast-paced scenes of battles and bravery under fire. At others, it slows down and devotes long passages to detailed ethnographic descriptions of Armenian mourning customs or the traditions of village life. Its protagonist is Gabriel Bagradian, an Armenian who had left his community, moved to Paris, and married an elegant French woman who was not altogether pleased with her husband’s ethnicity; he, in other words, is Werfel himself. The author also cast many of his family members and old friends from Prague as villagers with whom Bagradian, visiting his native country on vacation with his wife and son, reconnects. Surrounding these fictional manifestations are historical figures: Djemal Pasha, Enver Pasha, and Talaat Pasha, the leaders of the Young Turks Revolution, make an appearance, as does Johannes Lepsius, a real-life German missionary on whose historical accounts of the Armenian massacre Werfel strongly relied.
Native cultural mix inspires work by Israeli choreographers Zvi Gotheiner and Hofesh Schechter