Hitler himself, responding to a question about the world's reaction to his planned genocide of the Jews in 1939, said there would be no outcry
"Who remembers the Armenians?" Hitler replied.
Adam Bagdasarian's novel "Forgotten Fire" is a National Book Award finalist and a strong complement to Holocaust literature. Though it is not a novel of the Shoah, it is an important one for Jewish people to read and discuss.
The author has taken the essence of his great-uncle's experience, for which he had done an oral history, and created a novel that is as disturbing as it is authentic.
Listed as a novel for young adults, one could conceive of a 20th century "Literature of Genocide" class including books such as "Forgotten Fire," along with Elie Wiesel's "Night," "Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl," Iris Chang's "The Rape of Nanking" and Mark Mathabane's "Kaffir Boy." Such a class might allow students to see the commonalities of the Jewish, Armenian, Chinese and African victims of mass murder.
For the Jewish audience, understanding and identifying with "Forgotten Fire" will not be difficult. The narrator, 14-year-old Vahan Kenderian, is the lone survivor of a proud Armenian family, and has witnessed murder, torture, rape, the totality of genocide: the precursor of Hitler's madness.
If the world had remembered the experience detailed in "Forgotten Fire," the Shoah might not have happened, just as no genocide would have been possible after World War II -- not in Bosnia, not in Somalia, not in Cambodia -- if the world had truly remembered the loss of the 6 million.
But memory, Bagdasarian shows us, is more than an abstract phrase. Bagdasarian connects memory to the concrete images of the destruction of 1.5 million of his people. Like Wiesel and the hero of Jerzy Kosinski's "The Painted Bird," Bagdasarian's narrator is exposed to the unfathomable: murder, beheadings, rape, torture, desecration of bodies.
In a heart-rending passage, the narrator, who has witnessed his family -- father, mother, grandmother, brothers, sisters -- murdered by the Turks, tries to protect a 10-year-old Armenian girl whom he feeds, comforts and tries to heal:
"I wanted her to know that she was safe, that she was no longer alone, that this was not just the best day of my life but the best day of hers, as well. She had a family now. She had a brother, a father, and a best friend..."
But Vahan cannot protect the child. She is repeatedly raped by Turkish soldiers before she is murdered. Vahan confronts the Turkish leader, Selim Bey, in the hopes Bey will punish the rapists. Bey's response echoes that of every mass murderer of our sad past century:
"What do you care what happens to a little girl you do not know, who is nothing to you? Do you know how many little girls there are in Turkey? Do you care what happens to every one of them -- in all the stables in the world?"
That we do care and we should care is Bagdasarian's message. Early in the last century, before World War II, two other great writers, Isaac Babel, in "The Story of My Dovecote," and William Saroyan, Bagdasarian's older cousin, in "The Death of Children," dramatized a pogrom and genocide.
Following World War II, Wiesel and Primo Levi, Andre Schwartzbart and so many others have written so that never again would any group experience the suffering they had experienced as Jews. Wiesel, particularly, has been tireless in speaking out against mass killing -- from Cambodia to the Indians of Nicaragua.
Bagdasarian joins this company. In writing his people's story, he has spoken for all people victimized by Hitler and other despots. His hero, like Wiesel, recognizes that after such suffering, freedom does not necessarily bring happiness:
"Every day I took a streetcar to my school, and every night I returned to the orphanage. Somewhere I knew my grandmother still lay by the banks of the River Tigris, that the bones of my father still lay on the road...I knew that the home I had lost represented a million other homes...I knew I was free and would never be free."
"Forgotten Fire" by Adam Bagdasarian