Bishop Balakian’s Memory Upheld by His Descendent in France


Peter and Jim Balakian at Bishop Balakian Tomb, St. Pierre Cemetery, Marseilles

The following is a speech that writer Peter Balakian delivered at the National Center for the Book in France earlier this fall on his book, Armenian Golgotha, the memoirs of his great-uncle, Bishop Grigoris Balakian.

MARSEILLES, France — First I want to express great thanks to the National Center for the Book for making this week-long Armenian writers festival possible. It is an impressive part of the French government’s commitment to culture and intellectual life (I wish we had such an institution in the US) and affirms the importance of the book as knowledge and artifact, and as act of imagination and scholarship, and it celebrates the book as primary vehicle in bringing people and cultures together across the planet.

For this festival which you have so aptly-called Arménie-Arménies, I’m grateful for your bringing together the complex Armenian Diasporan culture in its 21st century form. And I’m grateful to France for valuing the Armenian intellectual voice and the richness of Armenian history and culture, and the richness of that history between Armenia and France. I’m delighted to be with so many Armenian writers from the Republic and from around the world, as we make this trip together for the next week by train to various cities, ending in Paris on the weekend.

I want to thank the Armenian communities of Marseilles for their hospitality and St. Sahag and Mesrob Cathedral for hosting me, and to Father Dertad of St. Thaddeus church for taking me and my wife Helen and brother Jim and aunt Lucille to Bishop Balakian’s tomb at the St. Pierre cemetery, and to Sahag and Mikael Karalekian of the AGBU for their hospitality.

It is of deep personal significance for me to be here with you tonight. In coming to Marseilles for this Armenian cultural celebration in France, and for the recently published French edition of my memoir Le Chien Du Destin [Black Dog of Fate], I am also making a personal and familial pilgrimage to the site of my great-uncle Bishop Grigoris Balakian’s life and work — during the final phase of his career as an international figure among Armenian clergy in the first part of the 20th century, and as a leading Armenian writer and cultural figure.

Under the directorship of Bishop Balakian, the entire cultural foundation of the region of southern France was planned and built during those difficult years following the Armenian Genocide in the 1920s and ’30s. Out of the ruins of lost historic Armenia, Bishop Balakian had as his central vision a rebuilding of Armenian culture here where he was assigned as prelate in the late 1920s. This passion to rebuild Armenia is expressed repeatedly in his memoir Armenian Golgotha — even during the death march experience, the idea of Armenia emerging out of the ashes as he put it, “like the phoenix,” kept him alive through despair and anguish.

About 20 years ago my friend, the scholar and longtime editor of Ararat magazine, Leo Hamalian, sent me an article from a French magazine about a gathering that your community had at the Sts. Sahag and Mesrob Church in honor of Bishop Balakian. And, I want to quote a bit of the speech given that day by M.J. Chamanadjian because reading his words more than 20 years ago I was gripped with emotion and spurred to action. Reading that article I learned more about how important my great uncle was to pre- and post-Genocide Armenian culture, and I learned for the first time of his monumental memoir, Armenian Golgotha, which I immediately ordered and began to translate with various collaborators, and then finally with the superb translator Aris Sevag. Our collaborative translation of Armenian Golgotha was published in 2009 — by a major publisher in the US — and received major reviews in the US and around the world including Jerusalem, Montreal, London and Toronto. Here are Mr. Chamanadjian’s words of that day in Marseilles:

“Here it is a half a century since an Armenian of such an exceptional quality died in Marseilles, and here we are today gathered before this sepulcher in order to pay homage to him. This Armenian’s name was Monseigneur Balakian. But who still remembers Monseigneur Balakian? Doubtless, very few among us, because even the stone cross that used to rise above his grave lies on the ground. That cross which is nonetheless the symbol of our national identity. Monseigneur Balakian was during the 1930s the bishop of the Armenians of the south of France, which is to say at a moment when the Armenian nation was still under the shock of the first genocide of the 20th century and of the great diaspora that followed. A man of conviction, animated beyond any doubt by the spirit of God, he obstinately refused any submission or giving in, and this is precisely what explains the sad ups and downs on his mission. He was the very image of the obsidian of Ararat. To all those who were full of despair he brought hope, showing through his actions that to souls that are noble the word impossible is not an Armenian word. And so it was that though he was as much without resources as anyone, he succeeded in the fabulous enterprise of building within the single region of Marseilles six churches including the St. Mesrob Cathedral. No one more than this man merits the title Gregory the Builder. But Bishop Balakian was not only the person through whom Armenians were able to recover their courage and become themselves once more, he was also a witness in the most noble and Christian sense of the word; in fact he was one of the very rare survivors of the 250 martyrs arrested on the night of April 24 in Constantinople… this is why the flame of memory that we have just lit all together must be transmitted to our fellow citizens in Marseilles for the years to come.

Bishop Balakian, sleep in peace; those whom you loved so well will never more forget you.”

My great-uncle was found dead alone in his home at the age of 56, apparently having died of a heart attack, penniless, having quit the church shortly before his death because of various issues of community infighting. He seems to have driven himself beyond the limits; how could one bishop plan and oversee the building of eight churches (including Nice) in five or six years? His passion to rebuild Armenia seems to have defined his zeal; perhaps his ideals were impossible to fulfill, and his vision unachievable, but his intelligence and skill, and iron will resulted in a new Armenian province here in the south of France. I see him more clearly now as a deeply-traumatized Genocide survivor who turned his life into what the psycho-historian Robert Jay Lifton has called a “survivor mission,” which is defined by the survivor’s need to turn grief and trauma into a life mission focused on ethical service to the world.

In my memoir I devote a chapter to my discovery of Bishop Balakian and how the French magazine article about the ceremony you held here in 1990 deepened my understanding of my family and of the experience of the Armenian Genocide.

If there were more time I would discuss that chapter, but I would rather spend the remaining time saying a few things about Bishop Balakian’s memoir Armenian Golgotha, which I first learned about from M. Chamanadjian’s speech in 1990. I believe Armenian Golgotha remains the most comprehensive, richly-layered and complex survivor memoir of the Armenian Genocide. When it appeared, the American literary critic Adam Kirch in a review called it “an Armenian equivalent to the testimonies of Holocaust survivors like Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel.” I hope you in France and Armenians around the world will continue to read it carefully and make sure that it finds its way into the mainstream culture and curriculum wherever you live.

A talk about Armenian Golgotha followed.