Ravished Armenia and the Story of Aurora Mardiganian

Those who create history wield a knife of double purpose. They can use it to reveal the truth or to disfigure it. To this day, Turkey, along with nearly the entire western world, has indeed disfigured history by cloaking the genocide of roughly one million Armenians in denial and silence. The grotesque nation-wide street pogrom they suffered at the hands of the Turks between 1915 and 1918 did not end their unique language and culture, any more than the Holocaust eliminated the Jewish people. The strangely intimate fates of these two seemingly ineradicatable peoples are bound together ever more tightly by that silence and the secrets it holds, which await the light of revelation. The light of truth, indeed the powerful light of cinema, needs to be trained on cruelties of this magnitude, for only in the day of truth can their destructiveness be curtailed.

Ravished Armenia and the Story of Aurora Mardiganian is an oral history of her experiences at the hands of the Turks, Kurdish nomads, as well as Circassian bandits. Those experiences formed the basis for the film, Ravished Armenia (Selig, 1919). The film was directed by American director Oscar Apfel. The cast featured Anna Q. Nilsson, Eugenie Besserer, Irving Cummings, Lillian West, George Melikian – and a 17 year old survivor of the atrocity, Aurora Mardiganian. This dramatization on celluloid is unfortunately lost. However, the memory of this film is so strong that it has been passed down to the present day within the American-Armenian community. With the republication of the text after 60 years, this book reignites that fearful light, illuminating once again an unthinkable persecution. It may well have explosive political effects as its relevance is realized throughout the world.

Incredibly, nearly as soon as Aurora reached America, after escaping her persecution, she was exploited anew. Through the aid of an Armenian family living in New York she dictated her memoir. Her story came to the attention of Hollywood screenwriter Harvey Gates, who capitalized upon the translated text as the basis for the inevitable film. Gates and his wife conspired to get Aurora to sign a contract for 15 dollars a week to star in the film version of her narrative. In an interview over 60 years later she recalls, “I said, I don’t know what in that paper is. I said I don’t understand your English. And they said $15 dollars was a lot of money. I was naive. I didn’t know nothing.” Among many indignities, she was forced to continue filming with a broken ankle, and ultimately sued her guardians for monies owed her. Neither broken bones, lawsuits nor betrayals could dissuade Aurora from her mission: to tell the story of the persecution of her people.

Witnessing for Aurora

The sexual depravity of the genocide was a key component in fusing national attention on the plight of the Armenians. The slaughter of her people was done to facilitate the winnowing out all but the most appealing young girls who were sold along the forced march to wealthy Turks as sex slaves in their harems. The less pleasing ones were sentenced to life in the fields or murdered on the spot. The sexual aspect of the persecution titillated the American public, and Ravished Armenia was produced to capitalize on their fascinated revulsion. Although the film is long lost, there are a set of ghastly stills reproduced in the book including a line of crucified naked women who had refused to utter an Islamic oath. A close-up of one of them is labeled “typically exploitative.” Why this picture and its caption strikes the reviewer as an understatement will be evident to the reader who continues to the end of Aurora’s narrative.

No arranged still, however grisly, can prepare one for the voice of Arshalus (Aurora’s Armenian name, which means “light of the morning”). Her youth was ripped from her life. She describes impaling, disembowelments and sexual mutilations too obscene for appearance in a film, perhaps even by our current standards. Her solitary transcribed voice is the eyewitness account of unimaginable slaughter; rivers running red, choked with bloody corpses. She speaks of Turkish villagers demanding hard currency from the devastated victims for water from their wells. Its utter authenticity strikes home, and deeply. It would be impossible to accompany this girl on her blasted path through hell if the narrative voice were not totally authentic. The truth of that voice is all that remains of Aurora Mardiganian; it is that truth that pulls the reader helplessly into the pit with her. That voice relates in simple declaratives the amoral viciousness of ruling class Turks, as well as villagers.

We join Aurora in the pitiless light of her memory as she stands before Kemal Effendi, a high ranking member of the “Young Turks.” The terrorized 14-year-old must decide whether to take the Islamic oath and live the rest of her days as a concubine, or suffer a degrading death. Her words alone can reveal the terror in her heart as she faces the unthinkable; “When Kemal Effendi spoke to me his voice was very soft. I can still remember it made me feel as if some wild animal’s tongue were caressing my face.”

In addition to recovering the text of Aurora’s account, the redoubtable editor, Anthony Slide, has quoted extensively from reviews of the initial release. It is clear the film moved many, repulsed some, bored others. Until it is recovered, the world can only imagine its impact. How indeed would the horror play out in a film of the silent era? Today we unconsciously assume the presence of a multispeaker directional sound system. Perhaps the very lack of such technology would augment the drama. The concentration through the eyes, the expression of the face, must be closely observed by the audience to appreciate the subtlest meaning and intensity. Perhaps the audience need not hear the groans and shrieks from the screen – their own exclamations of horror would be adequate accompaniment to the scenes of slaughter.

The effect of the book, however, need not be imagined. The act of reading Ravished Armenia demands active participation, as well as a measure of steel in one’s resolve. There were moments when I was forced to close the book, but Aurora’s voice always called me back, not merely from concern for her destiny, but as a witness. In the manner of viewing Claude Landzmann’s Shoah (France, 1985), the reading becomes the act of witnessing on behalf of this survivor, who in turn speaks on behalf of those whose who will only be heard now through her.

It is well to know that since 1935, no less than six film projects of Franz Werfel’s novel of the Armenian genocide, The Forty Days of Musa Daugh have been blocked by pressure from the Turkish government. Unless and until Turkey accepts its share of the blame for the mass murder of the Armenians, it will remain in a condition of arrested development. Turkey could become a force for the advancement of humanism once their national soul is cleansed of this suppressed monstrosity. The bloody footprints of genocide as official national policy are simple to track from the earliest years of our century to Rwanda and Bosnia. The “civilized” nations again refused to label the Rwandan genocide for what it was, and, frankly continues to be. Thus hundreds of thousands are sentenced to a fate that rivals that of the Armenians in Turkey during World War I.

It is clear that the light of this Ravished Armenia and the Story of Aurora Mardiganian’s relevance has not dimmed with the passing decades, but only grown stronger. Any one who wishes to probe the darkness of a lost film, or the pernicious neglect of history will treasure this deceptively slim but powerful volume.

Madison Morrison