The Armenian Genocide:
Hopes for Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation

By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach

In the Land of Blood and Tears: Experiences in Mesopotamia During the World War (1914-1918) by Jakob Künzler. Arlington, Massachusetts, 2007. Translated from the 1999 German edition.

Can reconciliation come about between Armenia (and the Armenian people) and Turkey (and the Turkish people), after the genocide of 1915? This question has been redefined in Turkey, in the wake of the tragic 2007 assassination of Armenian editor Hrant Dink, but it is not a new question. It was posed as early as 1928 by a witness to those events, whose first-hand account, and revolutionary proposal for overcoming Armenian-Turkish tensions, has just appeared in its first English edition. The book, In the Land of Blood and Tears: Experiences in Mesopotamia During the World War (1914-1918) by Jakob Kuenzler, (Arlington, Massachusetts, 2007) was published in German in 1921; but the first English translation has just appeared, and was presented on December 9 at the Armenian Cultural Foundation in Arlington, Massachusetts, to a large gathering of scholars, historical societies, religious and diplomatic figures, descendants of survivors, and family members of the author, in an event described by many as truly "historic."

Im Lande des Blutes und der Tränen is the original title of the book which Jakob Künzler, a Swiss doctor and humanitarian, wrote during a brief vacation he took in Switzerland in 1919-1920 from his deployment in east Anatolia. His account is noteworthy, and even unique, for a number of reasons. First, the author was a neutral observer, "neutral" not only because his country was not among the belligerents in the First World War, but also because he was simply a humanitarian aid worker, a doctor who had heeded the call to lend assistance to his fellow man in a very distant land. His account is also of crucial historical significance, in that Künzler, in order to fulfill his mission, had to entertain cordial relations with the Turkish authorities; as a result, he was inadvertently privy to discussions among them, which document the fact (disputed by the Turkish side) that the mass deaths among Armenians were indeed the result of a conscious, premeditated policy of extermination. Künzler’s account is furthermore precious because it is a first-hand report. The great German pastor, doctor and humanitarian worker Johannes Lepsius compiled the first comprehensive report on the genocide, but it was based on stories he pulled together from numerous eye-witnesses, from his station in Constantinople, since he had not been allowed to travel inland during the massacres.(1) Kuenzler, on the other hand, was located in Urfa, a transit point for the deportations. He saw with his own eyes, how the extermination policy was ruthlessly implemented. He not only witnessed the events, but was actively involved in lending aid to the victims. His valiant effort to take 8,000 Armenian orphans to safety earned him the name of “Papa Kuenzler.” In the course of his work, he also bore testimony to the fact that many Turkish citizens intervened spontaneously to save Armenians, especially children. This was a decisive factor in his pursuit of reconciliation. His groundbreaking proposal for reconciliation, published in 1928, is included in the new English volume.

Significantly, Jakob Künzler was himself an orphan. As his last surviving child, Elibet Künzler Marshall, noted in remarks at the book launch, Künzler had lost both parents by the tender age of 11. His wife had also become an orphan at 7. Künzler had been particularly moved by accounts he had read of the Hamidian massacres of Armenians in the 1890s, especially the horrendous, so-called twin massacres in Urfa on December 28 and 29, 1895, when 8,000 perished. As Dr. Vahakn N. Dadrian, director of the Zoryan Institute and the leading expert on the Armenian Genocide reported in his contribution to the book, on that December 29, an estimated 2,500 Armenians had taken refuge in the Urfa cathedral. Thirty cans of kerosene were thrown into the building which was then set afire. All those within were incinerated. In the overall carnage in Urfa those two days, an estimated 9,000 or 10,000 were killed, half the Armenian population in the city.

Thus it should come as no surprise that, when Künzler was offered a job at the Deutsche Orient-Mission hospital in Urfa, which had been set up by Dr. Johannes Lepsius, he immediately agreed. Urfa, like many other towns in east Anatolis, had a mixed population, of Muslim Turks, Kurds, and Arabs alongside and a Christian minority of Armenians and Süryani (Syrians).

Urfa was not only a melting pot of ethnic and religious groups, it was also "the transfer point to the Mesopotamian steppe for hundreds of thousands of those trains of deportees who came from the northern vilayets of Sivas, Erzurum, and Mamuret ul-Aziz," writes Künzler. The first deportation trains arrived at the end of June, from Harput and Erzurum. Kuenzler’s depiction of the deportations proves that they were the conscious vehicle of an extermination policy. They were in reality death marches, a fact consistently denied by many Turkish sources. In this regard, his report of a conversation with some top Turkish military officials takes on crucial significance. The Swiss doctor, who was fluent in Turkish, Arabic and Armenian, was commissioned to accompany two Persian princes, guided by Turkish officers, on a trip to Baghdad, the reason being that one of the princes had sprained an ankle and needed a medical assistant on hand. Künzler reports, "During the journey, Major Nefiz Bey, the head of our expedition [a high ranking Turkish officer linked to the Young Turk leaders], discussed the Armenian question one evening. He was a leader of the Young Turks and had made a name for himself .... Therefore, his remarks were of special interest to me. 'We Turks,' he explained, 'must either exterminate the Armenians utterly and completely or force them to emigrate. Life with them within the boundaries of our empire is completely out of the question.'"

As Dr. Dadrian has stressed, this event, which might be tossed off as an interesting anecdote, is of enormous historical significance, "because Nefiz was no ordinary officer. He was, in fact, one of those, politically committed, namely 'politicized,' Turkish military officers who, as the taskmasters of the ruling Young Turk party ... had ushered in the new CUP regime." Dr. Dadrian placed particular stress on the date of the event reported by Künzler, which was December 1914: "long before the occurrence of such debacles as the Turkish military defeats at Sarıkamiş and Van in January and May 1915, respectively, and the skirmishes at Zeytun in February 1915 (for which the Armenians were blamed and which, admittedly, were grave enough to precipitate the genocidal anti-Armenian measures) the idea of the urgency of such measures was already germinating in the thinking of the CUP leaders." In short: the policy had been decided beforehand.

Another critical event which Künzler witnessed firsthand and reported on was the resistance of the Urfa Armenians, a resistance as heroic as it was desperate. Members of the Armenian population of Urfa in the years of the First World War, still had living memories of what had happened in 1895, and were therefore able to interpret the signs of onrushing doom. Thus, when, even prior to the infamous deportations, the Young Turks begun to decapitate the Armenian community in Urfa of its religious, political and civic leaders, the Armenians prepared for the worst.

As, then, the deportations began, the community decided to organize a resistance. Here, too, the account by Kuenzler is of crucial historical import, because it documents the way in which ordinary citizens in Urfa mobilized to defend themselves. This is an important contribution to the history of resistance efforts, which adds to those more celebrated accounts, like the Musa Dagh resistance immortalized in the novel by Franz Werfel.(2)

Künzler reports how one enterprising Armenian disguised himself as a Turkish officer, and outfitted friends with similar garb as well as Turkish names, to go to Aleppo to procure weapons. Meanwhile blacksmiths in Urfa set to the work of manufacturing hand grenades. The first shots were fired on September 29 and a fierce fight ensued for weeks until the militarily superior Turks had organized massive bombardments of buildings where the Armenians were. They surrendered on October 16. What followed was a massacre, and the victims were buried in mass graves. Dr. Dadrian has highlighted the heroic role of young women and girls in the resistance. "Many boys, 10-14 and particularly dozens of female teenagers," he recounted, "proved themselves intrepid fighters. Their death-defying bravery reportedly astounded General Fahri, the commander of the 13th Army Corps who was in charge of suppressing the insurrection."

More than an eye-witness, Kuenzler was, along with his wife, an active protagonist in the struggle to save those who had survived the deportation and massacres. In the summer of 1916, after the waves of deportation had ceased, many women and girls tried to return to the cities, where they hoped for greater security, but were often taken in by Turks and brutalized. Here, Kuenzler’s wife intervened, taking in Armenian girls who were threatened with forced marriages to Muslims. Often with the help of Turkish women, who did not want to have a second wife--a Christian--at home, the girls were disguised as Arabs or Kurds and taken to Elisabeth Künzler, who organized their passage to Aleppo. There, without any official permit and "carefully hidden from the eyes of the police," she rented two houses for the orphans.

When the war ended in 1918, all those Armenians who were living with Turks ("Mohammedans" in Künzler's account) were to be freed. Künzler had been given charge of the American Mission Institute building after the war, since he was a representative of that organization, and turned it quickly into an orphanage. As the numbers of orphans grew, Kuenzler sought more housing and found it in the Armenian monastery, which he occupied in March 1919.

When one reads accounts of how survivors were helped to safety, one often overlooks what such an effort actually entailed. There were no United Nations humanitarian airlifts at that time, no quick and easy way to flee the war zone to safety. The task that Künzler undertook in this respect was Herculean. After the Turkish-French conflict had been resolved in 1921, with the Franklin-Bouillon Agreement, Urfa fell into the Turkish zone. Accordingly, many Armenians wanted to leave, and emigrate to Syria. Those who could afford to pay for their illegal transfer to Syria did so, until Urfa became depopulated. "Finally, the only people who remained," writes Künzler, "were people who could not afford to pay for transportation. Orphans cared for by the Americans and a group of poor people." At that time, 1919, there were about 10,000 orphans in American hands, children who had been released from the Arab, Kurdish and Turkish homes which had protected them during the genocide. From April to November, those 10,000 orphans were transported to Lebanon, 8,000 of them through the work of Künzler. "The task was such a joy for us," he wrote, "that we consider it one of the most beautiful phases of our life."

How such a person, who had encountered such brutality against innocent civilians, could contemplate reconciliation between the two peoples, beggars the imagination, especially when one considers that his proposal came in the very heat of the conflict, where hatred, mistrust, and the thirst for revenge were predominating emotions. Kuenzler was capable of articulating such a proposal, thanks to his extraordinary moral and political objectivity. Although he did not shy away from depicting the atrocities perpetrated by Turks (and Kurds) on innocent Armenian civilians, he placed special emphasis on reporting the manifold cases in which Turkish women and families took in Armenian orphans, thus saving them from slaughter. One symptom of the "mood of charity ... among the Turks" that he chronicled was the establishment of a Turkish orphanage, set up by the government to take care of about 1000 orphans who had been herded into camps.

It was Künzler's personal experience with the compassion and mercy shown by so many individual Turks to the Armenians that shaped his belief, that the two peoples and nations (once a free, independent Armenia were born) could and should achieve reconciliation and live together in peace. In an utterly surprising essay, entitled "The Turks and the Armenians: A New Phase," published in Der Orient in 1928/5, and included in the current volume, Künzler elaborated a concept of reconciliation, which, if adopted by the respective parties today, could signal a historic breakthrough. The Swiss doctor, referenced a remark made to him by an Armenian woman, who said she thought that her compatriots had not always treated the Turks properly. Such a confession, Künzler wrote, was precious, because it could contribute to establishing a new relationship between the two people, whom he went on to denote as brothers. "What am I saying?" he wrote. "Brothers! Turk and Armenian brothers? Yes, brothers, despite the terrible divide that opened up between them around 1860 and despite the terrible events in 1915, 1916, and since then. Haven’t they broken bread with each other for almost a thousand years? Were they not always dependent upon each other, and wasn't it great that they understood each other the best even though they practice different religions?"

Künzler was convinced that the issue of guilt must be addressed, and by both sides. Many Turks, he wrote, had already expressed to him their horror at the terrible punishment meted out to the Armenians. And the integrity of their acknowledgement was documented by their having saved many intended victims. Künzler estimated that there were 80,000 women and children who "owe their lives to the Mohammedans, Kurds, and Arabs. But thousands also owe their lives to Turks in Anatolia. They could not and did not carry out the strict orders of their leaders but sought avenues of escape and took in and hid the outcasts as best they could. This must and should also be most gratefully acknowledged by the Armenians. The confession would also lead to reconciliation. The rescue of thousands by the Muslim population was a deed that shows that there was a conscious admission of the injustice done to the Armenian people. Indeed, in order to initiate a reconciliation or understanding, the leaders, not just the subordinates, must confess."

Another factor which must be taken into consideration for reconciliation, in Künzler's view, is the exaggerated trust placed by the Armenians in the European powers, to come to their aid. Citing the adage, "God helps those who help themselves," he pleaded for the Armenians to abandon their belief that only the great powers could guarantee their security. Rather, he argued, "The Armenians should recollect the time that they really did live 'brotherly' with the Turks, and that they, like no others, understood for hundreds of years how to get along with the Turks. If they could do it again today, completely without reliance on the harmful trust in people from outside, that would be the best for the new Turkey.” Künzler also repeatedly stressed the important role the Armenians had historically played in the region, as craftsmen, engineers, traders, businessmen and so forth, a role he believed they must again play in mutually productive relations between a free Armenia and modern Turkey.

The release of the first English edition of Künzler’s classic could not have come at a better time. Reconciliation between Turkey and the newly independent Republic of Armenia is a leading item on the agenda of those in both nations who are committed to overcoming the trauma of the past, and starting anew. The book should be a must-read also for U.S. lawmakers, who are all too often manipulated into sponsoring resolutions which, though well meaning, ignore the complex realities of the regional situation. Künzler's approach to reconciliation should be reviewed by all sides today, as an informed, morally charged bid to right historical wrongs, and put relations between the two peoples and nations on a healthy footing.

Circles in Armenia are evidently thinking in this direction. At the book launch in the Armenian Cultural Foundation in early December, Dr. Ara Ghazarians, curator of the foundation, read a number of letters from Armenian diplomats and others, sending their greetings. Among them was a letter from Haik Demoyan, the director of the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute in Yerevan, who announced that Künzler's book would appear in its first Armenian edition in 2008, and that a plaque commemorating the work of Künzler, would be unveiled at the same time, in Yerevan.

The first English version, translated by Geoffrey Steinherz, contains not only the original book by Künzler, but also a number of accompanying essays by scholars, that provide the reader with the necessary historical background to appreciate the chronicle that the Swiss doctor has written. These include an account by curator Dr. Ara Ghazarians of the author’s life, a commentary on the German edition by historian and University of Zürich Privatdozent Hans-Lukas Kieser, and an appreciation of the historical significance of the book by genocide expert Dr. Dadrian. The new English translation also has appendices containing, as noted, Künzler’s revolutionary proposal for Armenian-Turkish reconciliation, as well as a letter to Lepsius. A selected bibliography of recommended readings on Urfa has also been compiled for this edition, as well as a selected bibliography of works by Jakob Künzler. To provide the reader with visual images of the events depicted, there is a wonderful selection of photographs of the Künzlers, their family, associates and “adopted” orphans, as well as historical maps showing historical Armenian, the sites of the genocide and the transportation routes used to save the Armenian children.
1. D. Dr. Johannes Lepsius, Der Todesgang des Armenischen Volkes: Bericht ueber das Schicksal des Armenischen Volkes in der Tuerkei waehrend des Weltkrieges, Potsdam, Missionshandlung und Verlag, 1930. Lepsius reported on his meeting with War Minister Enver Pasha, who refused to allow him to travel inland, on grounds that the Armenians should not be aided by outsiders.
2. Franz Werfel,
Die vierzig Tage des Musa Dagh, Frankfurt am Main, Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 2006.