How a Jewish Novelist’s Account of Armenian Courage Inspired Jews to Fight the Nazis

April 27, 2021 | Matt Lebovic
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Over the weekend, Joe Biden became the first president to recognize the Ottoman government’s mass slaughter of Armenians during World War I, a series of atrocities that were accompanied by attacks on Ottoman Christians of other ethnicities, as well as the persecution of Jews. Much of the world first became aware of the Armenian catastrophe thanks to the Austrian Jewish novelist Franz Werfel’s carefully researched 1933 novel The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, which in turn helped to inspire Jewish revolts against the Nazis during World War II. Matt Lebovic writes:

In the Warsaw ghetto, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh was the most popular book in circulation. When Jewish resisters decided to fight back in the Bialystok ghetto, they spoke of the ghetto’s “Musa Dagh” moment at the planning meeting. . . . Throughout Eastern Europe, Jewish resisters used the phrase “to organize a Musa Dagh.”

In Lithuania’s Vilna ghetto [too], The Forty Days of Musa Dagh was the most popular book in circulation, reported the librarian [and chronicler] Herman Kruk. Jewish resisters attempting to flee the ghetto to join partisan units “passed the book from hand to hand,” according to reports. [Commenting on] the popularity of the novel, the resistance fighter Haika Grosman wrote that the massacre of Armenians “in full view of the entire world reminded us of our fate.”

Jews trapped in the ghettos of Nazi-occupied Europe were not the only ones deriving inspiration from The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. In pre-state Israel, Jewish leaders were actively preparing for the prospect of a German invasion. The defense plan called for creating a Masada-like fortress atop Mount Carmel, where Jewish fighters could retreat for a “last stand” against German forces. Although the plan is largely remembered as the “Masada plan” or the “Carmel plan,” it was also referred to as the “Musa Dagh plan.”

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