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Franz Werfel’s "The Forty Days of Musa Dagh"

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Treasures of NAASR's Mardigian Library ~ The Forty Days of Musa Dagh

Franz Werfel’s novel Die Vierzig Tage des Musa Dagh (The Forty Days of Musa Dagh), originally published in Berlin by Paul Zsolnay Verlag in 1933, is undoubtedly the most famous work of literature that focuses on the Armenian Genocide. We pause to remember the contribution Werfel (1890-1945) made, in the year 2020 which marks the 130th anniversary of his birth and the 75th anniversary of his death.

The Forty Days of Musa Dagh has been translated into dozens of languages including English, French, Italian, and Japanese. The novel was translated into Western Armenian by Yervant Der Antreasian (Eruand Ter Andreasean) and published in Sofia in 1935 and Eastern Armenian by Paruyr Mikayelyan and published in Yerevan in 1964). In 2012, publisher David R. Godine issued a revised English translation that for the first time provided a full translation of the German text into English. It has even been adapted into an opera, Ùyficet dni hory Musa Dagh, by Czech composer Josef Matěj.

NAASR’s Mardigian Library has a number of editions and translations, from common mass-market paperbacks to first editions of the German, English, and Armenian versions.

The novel tells the true story of several embattled Armenian villages whose inhabitants refused to obey deportation orders in 1915 and took up arms in self-defense, holding out for, in fact, more than the biblically resonant 40 days of the novel’s title. Many survived and were rescued by the French Navy. 

Die Vierzig Tage des Musa Dagh, published the same year Hitler came to power in Germany, was banned and burned by the Nazis. According to Werfel’s biographer Peter Stephan Jungk (Franz Werfel: A Life in Prague, Vienna, and Hollywood), the complaints of a prominent Turkish writer to the German government may have played a role in the ban. The SS newspaper Das Schwarze Korps accused the Jewish Werfel of writing about “alleged Turkish horrors perpetrated against the Armenians.” Later, the book became a source of inspiration to Jews under Nazi oppression and was popular in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Speaking at a banquet held in his honor by the Armenian Prelacy in New York City in January 1936, Werfel stated that “In Germany my books are forbidden: they were taken from the sellers and all copies destroyed. In Constantinople, my effigy has been burnt—I’m very glad.” He added that “If I had known beforehand so many Armenians were going to read my book, I should have been a little afraid to write it. But now, in a mystical way, I feel myself bound up with you. I ask you to consider me one of yourselves. And with this sense of identity goes a sense of duty. I dedicate all my energies and powers to seeing that justice is done for your nation. May Armenia have a great future and a glorious resurrection!” (quoted in the Armenian Spectator, Jan. 9, 1936).

The English translation became a best seller and Book-of-the-Month Club selection in 1934 and MGM purchased the rights to make a film adaptation.

However, Turkish government protests and threats from the Turkish ambassador, Mehmet Munir Ertegun, persuaded the U.S. Department of State to apply pressure to prevent the project’s coming to fruition. Subsequent efforts to film the novel were similarly quashed, although a low-budget film was released in 1982 and portions of the story were folded into the plot of The Promise (2016).

The decades-long suppression has been chronicled by Edward Minasian in articles originally published in NAASR’s Journal of Armenian Studies in the 1980s and in depth in the book Musa Dagh (2007).

As Dr. Vartan Gregorian writes in his preface to the 2012 edition of The Forty Days, Werfel “must have believed in the potential for history to inform and confront impending tragedy, even on the unimaginable scale of genocide. That seems evident because when he began a lecture tour in which he read passages from the book and explained to his audience that they must not see the story he was writing about as buried back in the era of a different generation but as living, breathing events.”

One early reader who clearly saw that Werfel was describing “living, breathing events” was Rabbi Leon Fram of Detroit, who wrote presciently in 1935: “Hitler is achieving what the Turks hoped to accomplish and failed. They hoped the annihilation of the Armenians would take place so quietly that no one would notice it. They made a mess of the job… In broad daylight, Nazi Germany is carrying out the annihilation of a people and no one does anything about it… The horrible thing that Werfel tells us in The Forty Days of Musa Dagh is that the Christian world like the Moslem world is utterly incapable of indicting and convicting any assassin as long as he wears the respectable garb of the head of a government” (quoted in Hairenik Weekly, March 8, 1935).

During his first visit to the U.S. in November 1935, when asked if the events he described were true, Werfel replied that what he wrote was “More than the truth; because an epic represents the truth colored by imagination. An epic written by a true poet contains more reality than a history written by a historian” (quoted in the Hairenik Weekly, Nov. 29, 1935). He also told the Hairenik’s correspondent that “I was so fascinated by the heroic struggle of the 6000 people who took refuge on the heights of Musa that I determined to present it to the world. And do you know everything I have written is the truth!”

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