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Holocaust survivor makes case for recognition of Armenian genocide

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Nearly 100 years later, Armenians continue to struggle for full recognition of the genocide inflicted upon their nation and, in a poignant twist, one of the most profound contributors to their cause was Holocaust survivor and author, Edgar Hilsenrath.

Hilsenrath, a German-Jew who survived a Ukrainian ghetto, was responsible for a seminal novel, The Story of the Last Thought. The work spans centuries of Armenian life in contextualising and portraying the genocide that took place between 1915 and 1916, when about 1.5 million Armenians were murdered in the Ottoman Empire.

The epic novel, for which Hilsenrath received many prizes, is “regarded as one of the most important books about this history”, said University of Leeds Professor Frank Finlay in a seminar last week, held by the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre in conjunction with the Armenian Youth of South Africa.

“This book can be regarded as making a literary case for recognition of the massacres in Armenia as being a genocide.”

Its stance remains so potent, that staging it as a play in Germany in 2014, particularly the use of the word völkermord (genocide) on posters and on the theatre website, drew protesting crowds of Turkish nationals and a letter from the Turkish consul general.

Hilsenrath’s sensitive devotion to recognition of the Armenian genocide was intertwined with his own life experiences. Born in Leipzig in 1926 when the Nazis began to rise to power, he, along with other family members, tried to flee to Romania, but later were deported to the Mogilev-Podolsk ghetto in Ukraine.

After surviving the war, Hilsenrath made his way to what was then the British protectorate of Palestine, before later reuniting with family in France.

“This was quite a traumatic time for him. He started to work through the experience he had at the ghetto and at the same time, he was trying to write about them. He fell into a deep depression. Amongst other things, he arranged to have electroshock therapy.”

Hilsenrath wrote of these experiences, saying that at the heart of his struggle was the impossible guilt of having survived.

He worked doing hand-to-mouth day jobs while writing feverishly at night. His initial works were experimental craftings that dealt with his experiences in the Holocaust.

From 1951, he moved to New York until 1975, when he settled in Berlin.

His first novel, Night, was published in 1964, and caused controversy for unflinchingly detailing some of the harshest realities of the victims of the ghetto. In 1971, he published the novel The Nazi and the Barber about an SS member who pretends to be Jewish after the war in order to escape prosecution. Its use of “grotesque” humour to tackle the subject brought him fame and controversy.

Hilsenrath continued to write until his death in 2018. Out of his oeuvre, he regarded The Story of the Last Thought, published in 1989 and 20 years in the making, as his best book.

“He referred to it as his most poetic book. It was really the culmination of a lifelong study and preoccupation with Armenia; with its history and, in particular, that of the genocide,” said Finlay.

More than simply using his writing to present a historical account of events, what the author really does is “perform an act of restoration, conjuring up and memorialising a lost world through words and stories”.

Furthermore, Hilsenrath chose a particularly unusual form for the novel, titling it in German as a märchen (fairytale). Yet, he combined this with a subtitle, “Ein historischer Roman aus dem Kaukasus” (a historical novel from the Caucasus).

Finlay said that while the two genres would conventionally “appear to be at odds with one another”, in fact, they have a powerful interplay.

Indeed, Hilsenrath conducted meticulous research into every aspect of Armenian history and culture in preparation for writing. Yet the final plotline, based on the journey of “the dying 73-year-old Thovma Khatasia, as old as the genocide and one of only two members of his family to survive it” is a “kind of a magic carpet ride through time and space. We eavesdrop on conversations of historical personages and inhabit the past as it happened.”

Guided by a meddah, a genie-like magical helper, and with a refrain both in Turkish and German of “once upon a time”, the novel’s protagonist “seeks not to punish or demand retribution, but rather to uphold the monitory potential of the Armenian genocide in order to prevent similar atrocities in future”.

By the end, it fulfils the promise of its unusual paradoxical form, proving “the didactic moral purpose of all good fairy stories: while the family story is a fiction, the reader is shown that the genocide did, indeed, take place, that it meets the United Nation’s legal definition of the term and, as such, that Armenian claims for restitution are justified”.

Finlay said the work was a remarkable achievement of literature as justice. “Hilsenrath manages to convey the acts of the perpetrators and the magnitude of the suffering in a way that blends meticulously researched history with fantasy and imagination that opens up a new way of engaging with the material. It’s a way that encourages empathy.”

Indeed this “post-Holocaust depiction of a pre-Holocaust genocide” is a contribution to the ongoing exploration of and inquiry into “how we speak about the unspeakable”, posits Finlay.

In trying to grapple with the atrocities of world history, the question for writers remains, “Do we surrender before the challenge of representing that, or do we strive to find adequate literary forms to express various things that have happened?”

Hilsenrath strove to do so. As The Story of the Last Thought itself self-reflectively declares within its pages: “Sometimes one has no other choice than to seek the final truth in the imagination.”

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