I don’t collect books. I sell them. I like to say that I’m in the business of selling books, not storing them. But every once in a while I come across an item of such personal interest that I feel that the book or item will be with me until my dying day.
The Forty Days of Musa Dagh by Franz Werfel is such a book. What’s Musa Dagh? That title alone might be a turn off, but let’s delve into it a little further. Musa Dagh, meaning Moses’s Mountain, is situated in what is present-day southern Turkey. In 1915, as the Turkish government began a systematic extermination of 1.5 million Armenians in the first holocaust of the 20th Century, after decades of atrocities and massacre after massacre of Armenians, the Armenians in one province fled to the highest mountain in their area to escape certain death. They spent 40 days on Musa Dagh defending themselves until they were rescued by French ships. Werfel, an Austrian jew who also wrote The Song of Bernadette, was so moved by this resistance that he memorialized the story in a fictional account first published in Berlin in 1933 by Paul Zsolnay Verlag, two hardcover volumes with dust jackets. I can find no signed copy on-line. My copy was signed by Werfel in Vienna in 1933.
Werfel served as a corporal and telephone operator in the artillery corps of the Austro-Hungarian Army during World War I on the Russian front. He drew not only on his war experiences, but also on then present-day events stemming from the rise of Nazi Germany, rewriting and revising the novel right up until publication. The Forty Days of Musa Dagh was among many books banned and burned by the Nazis. His book follows the plight of Gabriel Bagradian, who believes himself to be a loyal member of the Ottoman Empire, his family and the families of others.
According to Werfel, “The struggle of 5,000 people on Musa Dagh had so fascinated me that I wished to aid the Armenian people by writing about it and bringing it to the world.”
It’s a lengthy book. The American edition numbers more than 800 pages, even though a number of brutal passages were redacted. The first third of the book is set up, so that part is a bit slow, but once the actual 40 days begins, the book flows freely as we witness the struggle of an oppressed people trying to survive, to save their own lives and those of their children. The story has a few twists and turns. It would have been a great movie.
In fact the legendary Irving Thalberg of MGM secured film rights even before an English translation was published. In 1934 none other than Clark Gable was cast as Gabriel Bagradian, but the Turkish government objected to the movie, even after much water-down scripts were offered.
A September 1935 editorial in “Haber,” a Turkish language newspaper, said, “We will have to take our own steps in case the Jewish people fail to bring the Jewish company (MGM) to reason. The Forty Days of Musa Dagh presents the Turco-Armenian struggle during the World War in a light hostile to the Turks. Its author is a Jew. The means that MGM, which is also a Jewish firm, utilizes for one of its films a work by one of its own companions.” The editorial suggested a boycott of MGM films. Louis B. Mayer capitulated to the Turkish government’s wishes and scrapped the film.
There have been other attempts. A low-budget, low-profile film was eventually released in the 1980s. It can be seen on YouTube. Sylvester Stallone and Mel Gibson have separately explored making the film, but in each case they have acceded to the Turkish government’s wishes. Too bad. Properly made, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh would have been an epic film presenting issues that have not yet left us.