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The Best Holocaust Novel Ever

Franz Werfel’s classic The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, about the Armenian Genocide, gets a new translation

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Author Franz Werfel, 1920. (Imagno/Getty Images)

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.

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Patrick Mehr says:

The biography of Franz Werfel by Peter Stephan Jungk is now available as
an eBook from Plunkett Lake Press:

Jacob Arnon says:

“As Werfel was preparing the novel for print, reality pierced his historical cocoon. His friend Heinrich Mann, the president of the Prussian Academy of Literature, had signed a manifesto calling on socialists, communists, and other left-wing parties to unite and stop Hitler’s rise. Sensing the changing political tides, a number of his fellow academy members forced Mann to resign. After Hitler became chancellor, the academy’s new governing board required its members to sign an oath of loyalty to the new regime, promising to serve its ideology. Thomas Mann, Alfred Döblin, and several of the academy’s other members, most of them Jews, refused to sign. Werfel signed. The most likely reason, as his biographer Jungk suggests, was his reluctance to jeopardize the future sales of Musa Dagh. Whatever the reasoning, it proved misguided: Within days of signing the oath, Werfel’s books, too, were burning in Berlin’s squares. He was dismissed from the academy soon thereafter.”

The author makes too many excuses for a confused timid man who renounced his Judaism in order to satisfy a narcissistic trollop.

His signing a loyalty oath to the Nazi regime parallels his signing over his life to Alma.

Thomas Mann was a thousand time saner than Werfel much heroic in his conduct. 

Finally, I am not sure that Werfel intended his novel as an allegory of the forthcoming Holocaust. Where did he say that this was his aim?

davidallyn says:

How about FRANZ Werfel?

gwhepner says:

The Jewish youth read Werfel’s “Forty Days of Musa Dagh” religiously for inspiration while they formed their resistance in the Vilna




The story of Armenians’ resistance

to Turks in Musa Dagh for forty

narrowed between them and Jews the

for Jews in Vilna’s ghetto learned
the way

that the Armenians fought, so well

by Franz Werfel, 1933.

The horrors that he vividly

provided Vilna Jews a way to see

the awful lessons history teaches

the Nazis treated them just as the

had treated the Armenians.
Werfel’s pen

described how genocide most surely

despite all brave resistance,

for ethnic cleansing loudly then

by Turkey’s foes, regarded as a crime

against humanity—-and then

Franz Werfel made it possible for

uanian Jews who his books pages

to understand that evil was no

but history from which Adolf
Hitler learned.

It was no myth, and sadly still is

Belief there ever will be a messiah

who’ll see to it that evil is

is belief in someone who’s a fool
or liar.

Hershl says:

Franz Werfel will go down in history as a traitor to his people and humanity.

He would have sold his soul to the devil if he had one to sell.

Scum by any name remains scum.

Nataniel12 says:

My Father, who was a survivor from the Armenian Genocide, lived in Haifa during the Israeli war of independence. He told us that in the early 40′s Werfel’s book, “forty Days” was a very popular book among the Jewish population in British Palestine. Many Jewish coworkers would tell my father of the inspiration they took from this novel. 

gwhepner says:

That is really fascinating. This corroborates the information I provided. Do you know why your father moved to Haifa, and were there other Armenians in Haifa at the time. I am aware only of the Armenians in the Armenian quarter of Jerusalem.

Nataniel12 says:

My father had escaped Vichy-held  lebanon, through Syria into Baghdad, and eventually ended up in Palestine.  The reason was the panic amongst the Armenians in Lebanon, they  felt threatened with the new German alliance of the French. Panic crescendoed when Turkish military officers were seen “visiting” Beirut. Apparently they were quite visible for all to see. He had told us that there were rumours (true or perceived) circulating that the Turks wanted the Armenians of Lebanon to be deported to German-held Africa for Turkish help in the Middle East.

A lot of Armenians escaped and came to Palestine, mostly in Haifa and Jafa. The Jerusalem Armenian communities were older and established already. My father found work in the British army as a mechanic, repairing the battered engines of military motorbikes. My mother was also working in a military tank repair units (without the proper residence papers). They had met in Haifa and got married. After WWii she continued working in a Haifa hospital run by the British. My father pursued other interests.

In 1948, living in the Arabic quarters of Haifa, they had just a few hours’ warning to escape. They were told when the Jewish units come into the quarters they were not going to distinguish between the Arabs and the Armenians and that they were going to be attacked indiscriminately. Panicked, they ran towards the sea, mom couldn’t swim, she jumped on my father’s back and slowly they managed to get into a small boat, it took them to a larger ship off the coast and made it to Beirut. There’s where I was born.

They left everything behind.

gwhepner says:

This is absolutely fascinating. I wonder whether you could tell me your name and that of your father so that I might forward the fascinating and important story which you tell to people who are interested in the Armenian-Jewish connection. You may, if you feel inclined, tell me vis my email.

gwhepner says:

Your critique is justified, perhaps, but isn’t it fantastic that from such a klipah came sparks that illuminated the lives of Jews facing certain death during the war?

gwhepner says:

Another point I would like to make.  You write:
They were told when the Jewish units come into the quarters they were not going to distinguish between the Arabs and the Armenians and that they were going to be attacked indiscriminately.  

By whom were they told? Presumably by Arabs, who were fighting the Jews, planning to drive them into the sea. Your father was presumably a victim of the Arab propaganda which is largely baseless, since the Jews only very rarely massacred Arabs, and every one of these rare massacres has been well recorded. They certainly never massacred any Armenians. It served the purposes of the Arabs to spread such lies against the Jews, and the lying anti-Jewish propaganda backfired, leading to the evacuation of territories like Haifa that would never have been occupied by Jews if the Arabs had not lied about the Jews’ intentions.

I wonder whether your father is aware of this fact, or whether he has been forced to suck-up to the Arabs and support their claims about the alleged evil intentions of the Jews.

Nataniel12 says:

I also think “they” were the Arabs who warned them to get out as soon as possible, and everybody fled in panic. But I don’t agree with you that their fears were baseless. There were atrocities committed on both sides. My mother working in the hospital saw many truck-loads of dead Arab bodies being dumped in the hospital back courtyard for the hospital workers to move them into the morgue. The scenes were so difficult to watch that the hospital administration had ordered the windows to be painted dark colours so that the majority of the workers (such as my mother, who was a seamstress, sewing hospital gowns) facing the backyard would not be able to see. She told us that she had scratched the window corner to peek.

To be fair, I don’t know what “truck-load of bodies” meant, are they 5-10 bodies, 10-20 bodies. I don’t know, both my parents have passed away, we cannot verify specifics. 

On the other hand, again being in the hospital my mother also witnessed horrific scenes of bodies of Jews being brought into the morgue. One dreadful day apparently Arabs attacked a refinery (I would guess it was in Haifa) blocked the exits and simply massacred all the Jewish workers in it. My Mother told us of horrific killings of dozen or more Jews where Arabs dumbed them in refinery’s oil containers. She said she could see some bodies who were not totally covered in oil had blond hair.  

It is possible that Arabs exaggerated the killing of Arabs by the Jews, whether it’s Deir Yassin or elsewhere, to stir or invite foreign indignation. But if anything such propaganda seems to have backfired into triggering panic among the Arab masses and flee in terror. I guess the Jews were more than happy to see Arabs run. 

Jews, on the other hand knew well, that the only way to succeed is to create a terror atmosphere, to do that they had to resort to committing atrocities, and from what we know it is quite possible that it was a military strategy, at least a strategy for some, such as the Irgun.

Nataniel12 says:

One more thing, in all the conversations we had with my parents, never once they said Jews were against the Armenians. I think their escape was a simple case of getting caught in the middle and escape a very possible harm, even if unintended. It was, from their description a very real war and a violent one at that.

gwhepner says:

A very measured and balanced response, if I may say so. The history of collateral victims and near-victims is always fascinating, and it would be interesting to hear more from Armenians, whose testimony is lesss likely to be tainted by bias that that of direct victims. Thank you so much.

gwhepner says:

You say: One
more thing, in all the conversations we had with my parents, never once they
said Jews against the Armenians.
I think there is something missing in this sentence. Could you please clarify. 

Nataniel12 says:

Never once they (my parents) said Jews were against the Armenians, or had any  negative feelings towards us. In fact, my aunt (mom’s sister) and her family who lived in a Jewish neighbourhood stayed in Israel until they emigrated to Canada in 1964.

Nataniel12 says:

You are welcome! thank you for being interested in my story, which I suppose is our story.


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The Best Holocaust Novel Ever

Franz Werfel’s classic The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, about the Armenian Genocide, gets a new translation