Balakian came to his family’s tragic history through his
grandmother, a feisty pipe-smoker who loved the New York
Yankees. However, it required some detective work.
When his grandmother was young, she and her two young
daughters were among the few survivors of a monthlong
death march in which the Turks forced masses of women
and children through scorching desert heat into what is now
Syria. But neither his grandmother nor his aunts talked about
surviving that horror.
As he was growing up in northern New Jersey, Balakian says,
the family took “a lot of pride in Armenian culture” — they
went to an Armenian Church — “but the genocide, yes, it was
In Black Dog of Fate, he writes that his Aunt Gladys
admonished him with an Armenian saying, “When the past
is behind you, you keep it there.”
That repression, Balakian says, is part of how survivors and
their families deal with mass trauma. The survivors usually
refuse to talk about it, and their children learn not to bring
up the sensitive subject. The family history comes out,
Balakian says, when the third generation — his — “comes
along with the excavating tools.”
A major theme in his life, he says, has been “decoding
the encoded messages of trauma” inflicted on his grand-
In his case, the key that broke the code came when he
discovered the legal papers his grandmother had filed seeking
compensation for all the property stripped from the family
during the genocide.
In Black Dog of Fate, Balakian recounts how a relative was
pulled from his home by Turkish soldiers, and the family
found his remains dumped on their doorstep. He had been
beheaded, with his arms nailed to a board like a cross and
horseshoes nailed to his feet, his genitals mutilated.
He was just one of many Armenian men systematically
rounded up and killed, while the women and children,
including his grandmother and aunts, were forced to endure
brutally hot death marches. The marchers had no food or
water and were attacked by anti-Christian mobs and abused
and raped by the Turkish gendarmes supposedly accompanying them for protection. U.S. reports from the time say some
survivors straggled into Aleppo, naked and skeletal. When
the Turkish extermination campaign ended, nearly 1. 5 million
Armenians had perished.
In 2009, Balakian visited Der Zor, a massacre site in
modern-day Syria, and sifted through the desert sands, feeling
for bleached fragments of Armenian bones — a scene included
in the title poem of his latest volume.
A century after the atrocities, Turkey has yet to admit
to genocide. The most Turkish officials will say is that the
government recognizes Armenians suffered in the inevitable
chaos of World War I, just as Turks and many other ethnic
groups in the former Ottoman Empire did.
Though some Turkish intellectuals can now speak the
truth about the genocide without going to jail, and Balakian’s
books on the subject are available in Turkey, Balakian says
the government steadfastly maintains its denialist stance.
Another Bucknellian with a deep personal
connection to the Armenian genocide is
lawyer, writer and photographer Matthew
Karanian ’82, author of Historic Armenia
After 100 Years.
Both of his grandmothers survived the
death marches inflicted by the Turks in 1915
as Muslim leaders purged the region of its Armenian Christians.
In the late 1990s, Karanian began traveling to the vast homelands
that had been swept clean of Armenians, “in search of an
Armenia that I wasn’t sure still existed.”
His travels produced a stunning book, published this spring
with poignant photographs and essays about a land rich in
history and suffering.
Ancient Armenian place names have been erased from
the maps, and only a handful of people with some Armenian
heritage — “hidden Armenians” — hold on, keeping their
identity secret to avoid persecution.
Traveling mostly through western Armenia, in what is
now eastern Turkey, reveals “a place where the ‘someone or
something,’ hidden or destroyed as it is, still resists erasure,”
Photos in the book document what once was and what
could be lost to the further ravages of time and treasure-seeking vandals.
One photo, taken shortly before the genocide, shows a
monastery that was built in 915 and stood for a thousand
years. It appears alongside a photo Karanian took when he
Balakian at the medieval
Armenian church in Ani, Turkey.