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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

Liel Leibovitz
June 05, 2012
Author Franz Werfel, 1920.(Imagno/Getty Images)
Author Franz Werfel, 1920.(Imagno/Getty Images)

Summers in the Salzkammergut were the happiest times of the novelist Franz Werfel’s young life. In Prague, he and his family were a minority twice over—Jews in a Christian town, Germans amid the Czechs. He remembered the days of rioting led by the Glovemakers’ Union that the local authorities struggled for almost a week to put down; Franz’s father, Rudolf, was the biggest glovemaker in town. It was all the proof Werfel, then 7 years old, needed that he didn’t belong.

Things were different in the Salzkammergut forest, filled with the scent of tree resin and thin Alpine air, droves of cousins and idle days to fill with inventions. Franz wrote plays with biblical themes and titles like Classical Philistines that were secretly meant to insult his teachers and rivals at the gymnasium by casting them as history’s goons and boobs. When his ink ran dry, he convinced his sisters to play cowboys and Indians, saving for himself the role of the helpless victim tied to the stake. And then, one afternoon, when he was 15 years old, it rained.

It was dusk, and Franz and his sister Hanna were playing outside. When the drizzle turned into a downpour, and lightning streaked the skies, they ran for shelter in a nearby shack. They closed the door and noticed that their pet kitten had run in after them and was shaking off the raindrops. Thunder struck.

“My muscles went into spasms in the voluptuous experience of digging into soft life,” he wrote later that year, “and my ears yearned for the sharp outcry of a victim. … With treacherous tenderness I finally picked up the kitten’s almost weightless body and obscured its eyes with my thumbs. … And I pushed ever deeper until I felt warm liquid run down my fingers and, with unprecedented pleasure, uttered small cries through my clenched teeth. … Then I heard myself, whipped into rage by thunder and lightning, cry out fearfully, ‘Dear God, protect me from the Devil, God help us.’ ”

More, perhaps, than any other writer in recent memory, God and the Devil seemed to have jointly guided Franz Werfel’s life. The former gave him a keen eye and a tremendous sense of style, driving his dear friend Kafka, Prague’s other famous native Franz, to state that when he read Werfel’s first collection of poems, “I was going off my head with enthusiasm.” The latter cursed him with a sulfurous personality that led him to betray friends, abandon ideologies, denounce his Judaism, reject his family, marry the blatantly anti-Semitic Alma Mahler, seek to sidle up to the Nazis, and, only when the jackboots came too close, flee to Hollywood and write silly screenplays until his early death. But all of Werfel’s sad apostasy is dwarfed by his singular achievement, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, a novel about the Armenian holocaust that Werfel wrote in 1933 and that is available now in a new English-language translation from the publishing house of David R. Godine. In nearly 1,000 pages, it tells an adventure story of Armenian partisans fending off the Turks, but it also delivers a stunning breadth of Armenian folklore, history, language, customs, and politics. The Nazis, freshly in power in Berlin, were quick to grasp that the book wasn’t only a work of historical fiction about one genocide but also a clear allegory about the impending murder of the Jews, which would soon cause Werfel to flee Europe for America.


Read in chronological order, Franz Werfel’s work leads through all the dreams and nightmares that Europe had withstood in the first half of the 20th century. It begins with a collection of hymns, grandiosely titled The Friend of the World and containing lines like this one, in his poem “To the Reader”: “My only wish is to be related to you, O fellow human being!” The author of these lines was 21, a rotund café-dweller who often entertained the crowds at his favorite haunt, the Arco, by standing up and belting out arias by his beloved Verdi.

Young Werfel believed in the world and saw it as sunny and filled with possibilities. The world, for the most part, did not feel the same way about Werfel. His father insisted that literature was no way for a respectable gentleman to make a living and dispatched him to Hamburg to work at a friend’s import-export business. Werfel pretended to be mentally challenged, spent his days at the office doodling and laughing loudly, and was soon dismissed. He sent his manuscript to the publisher Axel Juncker, who found it juvenile and overly bombastic and summarily rejected it; it took a firm letter from Werfel’s famous friend Max Brod to get Juncker to change his mind.

At work on new pieces when World War I broke out, Werfel enlisted and served mainly as a telephone operator. Moving around the Austro-Hungarian empire with his unit, he did his best, whenever the occasion permitted, to abandon his barracks and rent a small apartment where he could write without interruption. Eventually, his admirers arranged for him to be transferred to the propaganda ministry, where he would spend the rest of the war giving patriotic speeches across the empire. Werfel, however, couldn’t help it; before too long, he joined Martin Buber’s secret pacifist society, re-imagined Euripides’ The Trojan Women as a contemporary antiwar play, and infused his speeches with his socialist sympathies. “Comrades!” he cried out at one such public talk in Switzerland, “that which today calls itself art is just an iridescent blob of fat floating on top of the capitalist broth.” Catching word of Werfel’s performances, his commanders were displeased; he was reprimanded but never seriously punished. And when the war ended and the empire crumbled and Vienna was awash with the eddies of revolutionary politics, Werfel played along, happy to cast his lot with the radicals.

Alma Mahler changed all that. The famous composer’s widow had a brief and stormy affair with the painter Oskar Kokoschka before marrying the celebrated Walter Gropius, the architect who would eventually found the Bauhaus school. Werfel was introduced to Mahler, 11 years his senior, by a mutual friend. The very first time he met her, he serenaded her with his arias and recited his best poems as her husband sat by her side. Nor did he care that the object of his infatuation was openly and vocally anti-Semitic. Shortly after he had first met her, Werfel began sending Alma Mahler impassioned letters, calling her “my giver of life” and “keeper of my flame.”

The letters worked. Despite his weight, his thinning hair, his bulging eyes, despite being young and loud and Jewish—or maybe because of all these things—Mahler fell deeply in love with Werfel. Early on in their acquaintance, she wrote in her diary that had she been two decades younger, she would have abandoned everything and followed her Franzl around. He was, she wrote, the “beloved of the gods.”

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.

Werfel’s narration is weighted down by his predilection for bombastic turns of phrase, but he impressively soars and dips in and out of numerous characters’ consciousness, narrating the unfolding events from various points of view. And just as some bit of symbolism begins to feel too cumbersome, he delivers stunning passages about cruelty, compassion, and the strange logic of extermination attempted on a very large scale. Close your eyes for a moment after you read Lepsius’ account of the concentration camps built to contain the Armenians fleeing the massacre, and it’s impossible not to imagine Dachau, which at the time of the novel’s writing was nothing more than a ghoulish future prospect. To ensure that the reader doesn’t walk away with a burning hatred of Turks, however, Werfel took pains to present many Turkish characters who found their government’s actions revolting and who ached to help the slaughtered Armenians. Whether these portraits owe more to the novelist’s artistic judgment or to the Jew’s crippling fear of seeing German friends and neighbors swept up by Nazism is for the reader to decide.

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.

With the new laws forbidding any publicity for the work of a “burned author,” copies of Musa Dagh nonetheless sold at a brisk pace when it was finally released, in November of 1933. Critics outside of Germany raved about Werfel’s accomplishment, with some comparing the work to Tolstoy’s War and Peace. But its author was still jittery. Joseph Goebbels, the minister of propaganda, had formed an association of German writers, calling those writers “of German blood” to register with his office and show their fealty. Incredibly, Werfel tried to do just that, sending a letter and declaring, falsely, that “I have always kept my distance from any political organization or activity.” To support his cause, he enlisted the help of a few friends who had risen in the ranks of Goebbels’ bureaucracy to vouch for his merit as an upstanding citizen of the new Reich.

Goebbels’ response came early in 1934, in the form of a decree banning Musa Dagh from being sold anywhere in Germany. “I have been deleted from the book, and the books, of the living,” Werfel wrote his mother-in-law, “and since I am, after all, a German author, I am now suspended in empty space.” His sole comfort was a check for $20,000 from MGM, for the movie rights to Musa Dagh. Immediately after these were acquired, Mehmed Ertegun, Turkey’s ambassador to the United States, mounted a campaign to stop the movie from being made. “It rekindles the Armenian question,” he told an MGM executive. “The Armenian question is settled.” The Turkish press joined in on the cause; identifying Werfel as a Jewish author and MGM as a Jewish-run studio, some threatened that unless the production was halted, Turkish Jews would suffer in retaliation. The project was scrapped.

From this point on, Franz Werfel’s life became little more than a literary footnote. He and Alma Mahler fled to France and then, with the help of Varian Fry, to Hollywood, where his most notable achievement was the Danny Kaye vehicle Me and the Colonel. On Aug. 26, 1945, as he was sitting at his desk, working, his heart stopped. His funeral was a gathering of all of Germany’s artists-in-exile. Bruno Walther played Bach and Schubert. Father Georg Moenius, a friend of Werfel and Mahler’s, delivered a strange eulogy about baptism, which led to the insistent rumor that Alma Mahler had her dead husband posthumously baptized so that he could be buried as a Christian. “Nothing,” her daughter Anna told Werfel’s biographer Jungk, “was more important to her than to see that her Franzl didn’t go to meet God as a Jew.”

Werfel died as he had lived, on the cusp between cultures, religions, and ideologies, a human seismograph registering the turbulence that devastated his continent and his people. We should remember him for exploring, in his life as well as in his art, the full register of human emotions, from the merciless to the sublime. Most of all, we should remember him for Musa Dagh, his sadly forgotten work of genius. And we should see book and author alike as an omen, warning us that as history’s travesties are being written as novels, they are frequently also reborn as news.


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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.