When Franz Werfel arrived in the United States as an exile from Nazi Germany, his fame there had been established, based largely on the popularity of The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, a 1934 Book-of-the-Month Club selection and arguably Werfel’s most powerful prose work. The Hollywood studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer acquired an option on making a film of the novel; the project was eventually abandoned, purportedly because of pressure exerted by the Turkish government.
For the Armenian people, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh became something of a national epic. An Armenian priest in New York is recorded to have preached that the novel invested his people with a soul. The financial assistance of the Armenian community in the United States made possible the transfer of Werfel’s remains from Hollywood to Vienna in 1975, as well as, that same year, the holding of a Werfel symposium and the publication of a volume of his occasional writings.
The Forty Days of Musa Dagh almost single-handedly publicized the genocide of Turkey’s Armenian population during World War I. Werfel had planned to write about the crime when he first learned of it while serving at the military press bureau in Vienna. However, it was not until 1930, when he encountered young Armenian refugees laboring in a carpet factory in Damascus, that the abstract number of more than one million victims became a disturbing reality for the novelist. Werfel immersed himself for two years in research, including a study of firsthand accounts, that resulted in the particular blend of historical re-creation and imaginative invention that marks The Forty Days of Musa Dagh.
The defense of Musa Dagh in 1915 was an actual event, and some of the novel’s peripheral characters, such as the Turkish official Enver Pascha, were historical figures. Werfel’s drawing on reality and the wealth of descriptive details, ranging from architecture to children’s games to farming methods, lend the novel a compelling aura of authenticity.
As a creative writer, Werfel occasionally suited facts to his purposes. Sources differed, for example, on whether the Armenian contingent spent fifty-three or thirty-six days on the mountain. By indicating that the sojourn lasted forty days, Werfel links the incident to biblical events: the forty days of...
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