The crisis faced by the little-known religious minority, the Yazidis of northern Iraq, captured the attention of western humanitarians. Their capitulation to their pursuers, the forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), whose strict interpretation of Islam regards the Yazidis as polytheists, would mean physical destruction. To escape, thousands of these practitioners of an obscure faith, who have dwelt in the Ninveh region for centuries, encamped on the desolate summit of Mount Sinjar, desperate for rescue by a foreign power.
A remarkably similar story was told a little over eighty years ago by German-speaking Jewish novelist Franz Werfel, in his blockbuster novel The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. Virtually unknown today, the 900-page novel was widely read when it appeared. Just in time to serve as a prescient critique of Nazism, it was optioned by studio giant MGM in 1934 to produce an epic film starring a young Clark Gable, then on his way to winning an Academy Award for It Happened One Night.
Werfel's inspiration was a footnote to the Turkish anti-Armenian atrocities of World War I. In June 1915, receiving news of mass expulsions and murder, the inhabitants of six Armenian Christian villages on the Mediterranean coast collected their few possessions and weapons, and fled to the summit of Musa Dagh, highlands on the coast of the Mediterranean, to escape the approaching Turks. The leader of the revolt, Moses Der Kalousdian, a European-educated Armenian gentleman, rallied the spirits of the villagers, held off assaults on their stronghold until, on the verge of capitulation, they were rescued by a passing French warship.
Although the revolt of 4,200 Armenians at Musa Dagh received scattered attention in the press, it was a small event in a much larger conflict. It was Werfel's novel, though, that humanized the crisis, giving the western reader access to the perspective of the humanitarian refugee, in particular through his intimate portrayal of the protagonist, Gabriel Bagradian.
Modeled after Moses Der Kalousdian, Bagradian is a man of two worlds: cosmopolitan Europe on the one hand, the earthy villages of his native Armenian Turkey on the other. The well-to-do Bagradian had left his village to seek refinement in Paris, but after a while his expatriate life revealed an inner void, and he returns home on the eve of World War I with his French wife Juliette and young son Stephan, seeking shelter from the hostilities and his own existential doubt.
But the quiet life that Bagradian and his family seek evaporates in violence and insecurity. Under his leadership, the villagers retreat to Musa Dagh in the face of the approaching Turks. For forty days, they endure deadly attacks by the Turkish army, mishaps that cost them precious resources, and the collapse of morale against a hopeless siege. Bagradian himself suffers terribly as the threads to his European life are cruelly snipped one after the other. As the situation becomes more desperate, the villagers' only remaining hope is a swimmer dispatched into the Mediterranean, carrying letters begging for intervention by the Allied powers, hopeful of a passing allied ship.
Although not as familiar to western readers as his contemporary Stefan Zweig, Werfel's associate who has enjoyed a renaissance, he was once equally familiar to an international audience. Born into a remarkable cohort of German-Jewish writers in Prague, Werfel counted among his friends Franz Kafka and Max Brod; an enthusiastic supporter was the caustic Karl Kraus. After his service in World War I, Werfel lived the life of the interwar cosmopolitan, one lovingly dramatized in Wes Anderson's recent film Grand Budapest Hotel. A lothario, his romantic entanglements included an affair with the ubiquitous Alma Mahler.
But the war had changed him. Like Zweig (the inspiration for Anderson's film), Werfel was an ethical hedonist, railing against modernity's nihilistic trajectory; after the war, he added a deep humanism to his urbane commentary. Living in the heady literary air of Vienna and Berlin, Werfel's international breakthrough came with the 1933 publication of Musa Dagh.
Appearing early in the unfolding of the Nazi nightmare, Werfel's text was a chilling prophecy of things to come. The villains in the novel are not simply Turks, but a cohort of ideologically-driven racists who displace their more humane elders in pursuit of national purity. Werfel's Armenians would have resonated with the Jewish readership of his time especially, tinged with the same air of romanticism that many of Werfel's cohort felt towards the folkways of traditional Jewry. Indeed, the novel's descriptions of the brutality faced by a community pushed to its very limits are nearly indistinguishable from later Holocaust narratives, woven into images of Treblinka and the Warsaw Ghetto.
As the Yazidi saga shows, the relevance of Werfel's work endures. The Forty Days of Musa Dagh raises fundamental questions of moral duty for modern man. When the evil of persecution rears its head with such unfathomable horror, what do we do? How do we react? To Werfel, whoever holds their morality precious must demand immediate intervention and rescue. In The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, as with the Yazidi crisis today, it the most powerful weapon of genocidal forces is not a machine gun or a howitzer, it is time -- the time of hesitation before action in the face of evil, the very time that dooms many of Bagradian's friends and family to their deaths. Time is of the essence; we hesitate at our moral peril.