Franz Werfel didn’t live a peaceful life: the times he lived in didn’t allow him such luxury. Born to a German-speaking Jewish family in Christian Prague in 1890, Werfel would live through Europe that would be fundamentally altered in the following decades. Most of his adult life was spent in Vienna, though he had lived elsewhere in Europe before finally moving to the US.
In the period of the growth of institutionalized anti-Semitism and in the years of the Nazi Party’s establishment, Werfel’s literary works had been followed by the public, as well as artistic circles. The new movement forced Werfel to traverse as far away as possible from his heritage: he would even marry a socialite who was filled with disdain towards Judaism to her core.
Werfel’s most renowned work bridges the experience of the Armenian and Jewish nation, and that was not a coincidence. Werfel’s “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh” caused a sensation, and even more so given the time period he published the book in, which was 1933, the year when Adolf Hitler came to power. The book was even written in German.
Musa Dagh, or the Mount of Moses, is located in the far southeastern corner of the Mediterranean coast of Turkey. This area used to be a home to several Armenian villages. At the beginning of the Armenian Genocide in 1915, the inhabitants of those villages organized resistance against the approaching Ottoman forces, using their high ground to their advantage. For 53 days, the 4-5 thousand villagers of Musa Dagh fought back, until passing French warships evacuated them in response to the villagers’ SOS signs.
In 1930, Werfel faced the survivors of the Armenian Genocide. A little bit of research into their story inspired him to build one of the most influential novels of modern days around that 1915 tragedy. Needless to say, after the book’s publication, it did not take a very long time for the circumstances of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire to be strongly associated with those of the Jews in central and eastern Europe, and especially in Germany.
In Germany, “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh” was banned, and its copies were burned. Unsurprisingly, Turkey also played a crucial role in suppressing Werfel’s work by prohibiting and burning the books. Even the Armenians remaining in Istanbul followed the example of the Turkish government, and so did the Jewish community in Turkey.
Nevertheless, Werfel’s book would be circulated in the ghettos of the Europe occupied by the Nazis, as well as among Jewish fighters stationed in Palestine. After two decades of the original Armenian resistance, new Musa Daghs would be called to life in the struggle against oppressions and genocide.
Turkish machinations spread as far as across the Atlantic. On that side of the globe, “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh” had caused such a stir that MGM decided to turn the story into an epic movie that would star Clark Gable. However, diplomatic objections from Ankara, as well as interference of the State Department in DC finally had an effect: the film would be put on hold. Only a low-budget production was put together in the early 1980s.
Franz Werfel died in 1945, but his heritage and influence lives on, and not only in the Armenian circles. Such directors as Sylvester Stallone and Mel Gibson have expressed their interest towards reviving the “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh” film in the recent years but were unfortunately subjected to Turkish pressure.