Armin Wegner Asked Franz Werfel Not to Write his ‘40 Days of Musa Dagh’ (Part III)

Posted on September. 20. 2019

By Harut Sassounian
Publisher, The California Courier

The California Courier will publish in a four-part series the exchange
between the two historic figures Armin Wegner and Franz Werfel.

Radio and press continued to feed on me. In the end, a severe illness
knocked me down, which I haven’t overcome to this day. I was
commissioned by a book club to write an in-depth work on Jewish
Palestine. It stole laborious hours from my great Armenian novel,
which would have been finished long ago, under other circumstances.
Nevertheless, I have finished the first volume, although it still
needs a revision. The draft of the second volume is about half way
done, as well as parts of the fourth volume, which I had started

When I returned from a sanatorium in Meran on December 12 (fairly
recovered), and ready to go back to work again, I heard that you had
read a chapter from a proposed Armenian novel in Berlin. By the way,
the public oration of some sections of my Armenian novel took place on
an evening in the Herrenhause, which the Association of German
Narrators organized for me in November 1930, and which was reported to
the press at that time.

Dear and honored Franz Werfel, you may now ask with certain rights,
why I am writing all this to you? Isn’t it always charming to see
different poets use the same material as they shape it according to
their temperament, personality and creativity? How many various
Madonna paintings do we appreciate based on this artistic impulse,
directed to the same motives in the times of the Middle Ages and the
Renaissance? And, has this somehow affected the fame, success and
creativity of the artists? Didn’t it strengthen it, on the contrary?

Unfortunately, we live in other times today, not in an age of cultic
community as we did then. In our case, we also deal with a work in
which documents from the years of the Armenian deportation are a
necessity. Documents which I, despite my own personal experiences,
used heavily, as well. I must necessarily draw a parallel, where in
some places, the content – in isolated cases, even in the exact
wording – completely match. I see this when I have the newspaper
reports of your last lecture in which all of those facts are listed,
which Johannes Lepsius so vividly left in his journal in his own
written judgment about his interview with Enver Pasha.

I hope you don’t misunderstand me! It is not only the right, but the
duty of a writer to use such documents. Nevertheless, it is not
pleasant to see such parallels revealed in the eyes of the public. In
every poetic work, it’s not only the invention, but all the facts
operate with and for the work, which the poet draws from the events
and intellectual currents of his or her time. Contemporary history,
even many literary works of their contemporaries, becomes a quarry for
the significant artist, from which he or she breaks the building
materials for their work. Emerson recognized this very well when he
called Shakespeare a “library” of his time.

The moment I explain this to you, you will also understand the concern
that has come my way, since I heard of your new project. Deep down,
internally, such concern is certainly not the case. The characters of
each poet are necessarily filled with his own flesh and blood, no
matter how much he takes them from history, just as a good portrait at
the same time shows the features of the master who painted it. But
outwardly and economically, this concern is bigger; because your
message forces me, at least regarding my first volume, which I would
like to postpone until the completion of the second one, to publish it
sooner than I intended.

I cannot stay indifferent if a genius, a much more famous and
successful poet, like Franz Werfel, should come out with a novel that
echoes with the conclusion of my own theme. Because with that he will
take away from the public the punchline stuff that my work amounts to,
and for which it was actually written. Obviously, I cannot finish the
last volume and publish it, before completing the other volumes.
Perhaps my fear, caused only by the newspaper notes about your
lecture, is unfounded, but imagining your book published makes me feel
like a North Pole explorer, who after months of life-threatening
hardships, arrives at the pole, realizing that someone else had
arrived before him a few days earlier.

If I make this presentation so detailed to you, it will first of all
be to prove to you the extensive background of my work, with regard to
the shaping of the destiny of Armenia. But there is also another
reason that moves me – I am told by members of the Academy, and by
friends who attended your last lecture, that you had said that the
whole thing would initially be an indeterminate plan, and you did not
even know if you were going to execute it at all. If this is correct,
then my message should probably not be without influence on your

It is possible that you, as a member of the Academy of the Arts, had
heard of my plans, and the honorary award bestowed to me two years
ago. Or, perhaps, my offer to the publisher Zsolnay, who is so close
to you, or at least through literary circles in general? I suppose
this is not the case, since, as a rule, writers knowingly do not
cultivate the same materials at the same time, especially not when a
project is in an advanced stage.

On the other hand, it proves once again the genius of your poetic
vision, to devote your time and talents to the same formidable event.
And yet, I was not only fighting for my own life’s work here, but I
also would have to warn you against continuing it.

Despite the equality of all primal humanity, Asia, the Asiatic
characters, and Turks as well as Armenians, are so utterly remote from
us that the design of Asia for any European poet, if he really wants
to penetrate into the interior, remains an enticing as well as
dangerous mystery. Although I have lived in the country for many years
in close relationship with Armenians and Turks, although my Armenian
and Turkish friends have provided me with rich personal, unpublished
material, and although my own records of the Armenian people and their
deportation fill out numerous booklets, documents which I have left,
with the consideration of my planned work, to my dear friend Johannes
Lepsius, yet I know the infinite psychological difficulty of the task.

Even for you, it is possible, that this dangerous labyrinth, once it
gets you, will lure you deeper and deeper. I do not know. If I had
known beforehand to what extent my Armenian novel and the work on it
would expand with the years, would I have had the courage to dare to
get involved with it? My participation in this human tragedy has
probably been the deepest and most central shock of my entire human

Article to be continued in the next issue…

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