In The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, the German-Jewish writer Franz Werfel told the story of Armenians on “Mount Moses” who resisted the Ottoman army’s 1915 onslaught. Werfel intended the book, first published in 1933, as a warning to Germany about the dangers posed by Adolf Hitler, but would find its most faithful audience among Jews, especially those latter trapped in Nazi ghettos or fighting for survival in the land of Israel. Stefan Ihrig writes:
Werfel said about the book that the Armenians were his “stand-in Jews.” He assumed that his readers would understand the parallels . . . and so would see the slaughter of the Armenians as something that could be in store for German Jews. While it is a common assumption that Germans did not and could not know in 1932-1933 that Hitler’s rise to power could mean genocide, Werfel (and other of his German contemporaries) felt quite differently. . . .
Werfel’s book was translated into Hebrew as early as 1934. In an early review from the Yishuv (the Jewish community in Palestine), Dov Kimḥi wrote extensively of the forthcoming book, based on excerpts published abroad. He wrote, among other things, that “we Hebrew readers . . . read into this book on the Armenians our very own tragedy.” . . .
Jews in the Nazi-imposed ghettos in Eastern Europe devoured Werfel’s story of resistance, hope, and salvation. Before the war began, the book had already been translated into Polish and Yiddish—and we have a whole series of testimonies from ghettos all over Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe showing how its distribution and influence only grew after the war began. One such testimony comes from Marcel Reich-Ranicki, by far the most famous German literary critic of recent decades. Writing of his time as an inmate of the Warsaw Ghetto, he stated that the book “enjoyed unexpected success in the ghetto, being passed from hand to hand.” . . .
[The historian] Yair Auron relates an anecdote about Yitzḥak Zuckerman, one of the leaders of the Warsaw uprising, as told afterward by one of his colleagues: “When he wanted to enlighten us he said that it was impossible to understand the Warsaw ghetto uprising without reading Franz Werfel’s The Forty Days of Musa Dagh.”
More about: Armenians, History & Ideas, Holocaust, Literature, Mandate Palestine, Warsaw Ghetto