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The Forty Days of Musa Dagh

The 1933 novel The 40 Days of Musagh Dagh was a warning to the Jews of Germany and Austria and an epic paean to survival for the Armenian nation. Maria Margaronis tells its story.

In 1933 Franz Werfel's epic novel "The Forty Days of Musa Dagh" was published to huge acclaim. The story of a guerilla army of Armenian villagers holding out against overwhelming Turkish forces on the mountain of Musa Dagh in 1915, before evacuation by French forces to Port Said in Egypt. The mass murder of more than a million Armenians during this period had led to an international outcry during the war and, after 1919, the beginning of a campaign of denial by the Turkish government that succeeded the collapsing Ottoman empire. Germany, former ally of the Ottoman empire, also rejected any guilt by association but the assassination of Talaat Bey, former Ottoman Minister of the Interior and the key architect of the Armenian extermination, who was gunned down in Berlin in 1921 by an Armenian, caused a furore. The subsequent trial became a major media event and exposed the knowledge of the German government about the massacres. The fate of the Armenians was widely discussed and many on the right explicitly linked them with the 'Jewish question' as Hitler rose to power.

Franz Werfel, already a famous poet and well-known author, touring the Middle East in 1929 with his new wife, Alma Mahler, encountered pathetic Armenian refugee children. Their plight was the spark for his vast work. For both Werfel and its many readers "The Forty Days of Musa Dagh" was not just an epic tribute to Armenian resistance and survival but a warning. Werfel's works were burned and banned after Anschluss and in 1938 he and Alma Mahler fled to America. Hollywood's attempts to film it soon after publication began a decades-long campaign of long-distance censorship by the Turkish government. Maria Margaronis tells the extraordinary story of an extraordinary book and its impact as Europe descended into barbarism.

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