BY DOROTHY GARABEDIAN
From the Armenian Weekly
Armin T. Wegner was a German intellectual, writer, photographer, Dr. of Law and, above all, a defender of human rights. He is best known to Armenians as the man who provided a large cache of visual documentary proof of the Armenian Genocide through his photographs and detailed eye-witness reports.
In Germany, at the Frankfurt International Book Fair, which takes place every October, a new book was launched by the publishing company, Salon Literatur Verlag, about one part of the extraordinary life of Armin T. Wegner. The author, Thomas Hartwig, is a prominent writer, lecturer, and film and television director. Hartwig and his publisher, Franz Westner, were special guests of the Armenian community of Frankfurt for their annual literary program on Oct. 11. Hartwig read excerpts from his book, explained how it came to light, and answered questions. Westner also spoke and answered questions.
The book, entitled “Die Armenierin” (“The Armenian Woman”), is a stirring historical novel about Wegner during the two years he spent serving as a medic in Anatolia from 1915-17. He was attracted to the Orient and signed up as a volunteer with the German Sanitary Corps. Before his very eyes, he saw a horrific holocaust unfold. And although the Ottoman and German governments were trying to keep information on the atrocities and the mass expulsion of Christian ethnic groups from seeping out, Wegner—thanks to his courage and convictions—documented in photographs and writings what he was witnessing, and smuggled them out.
In “Die Armenierin,” the story of the Armenian Genocide is depicted in detail, with plenty of documentary proof, and revolves around a developing love between Wegner and a young woman named Anush Tokatliyan.* Their story begins when they meet at a ball in the shimmering capital of Constantinople. Tumult, deportations, and killings soon follow.
Hartwig became interested in the Armenian Genocide in the 1980’s while he was doing documentary research for another film that led him to Lola Landau, Wegner’s first wife. He interviewed her in Israel, where she had lived since the 1930’s (then Palestine). She, in turn, was insistent that Hartwig read Wegner’s works on the Armenian Genocide. He followed her advice. The more he read, the deeper his interest grew. He wanted to know more.
Hartwig spent several years researching the subject, including in archives in Syria and Turkey. His intent was to make a film, yet found that raising funds for the project was next to impossible. After interviewing Wegner’s children, he decided to write a book instead, which also took a few years. Eventually he found a good publisher who was drawn into the narrative and wanted excerpts. More and more excerpts were requested until the manuscript turned into an 800-page opus magnus.
When asked what motivated him to persevere the lengthy project, Hartwig said he was deeply moved by Wegner’s steadfast moral conscientiousness throughout his life and how he confronted the destructive powers of his time. His pacifism and staunch defense of human rights never faltered. The Armenian Genocide profoundly affected Wegner for the rest of his life. He wrote a passionate plea, in vain, to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. A few years later, he saw the same thing happening in his own country with the Jewish Holocaust. He stood steadfastly against Nazi policies and also wrote a passionate plea to Adolf Hitler. That only landed him in a prison camp for several months.
This is the centenary of the start of World War I. Commemorations throughout Europe are evident, through many new documentary films, books, discussions, and exhibits. The public is being reminded of this devastating Great War that changed the face of the earth. Hundreds of millions of people died or were left severely wounded, left without family, destitute; cities and towns were destroyed, and four centuries-old empires crashed. The soldiers and civilians who lived through this era may be dead, but the devastating and far-reaching consequences of this war are very much alive as international events today are proving: They are eerily similar. This book could not have come out at a more appropriate time.
*There actually was a love story; however, the object of Wegner’s affections was a Greek woman.
“Die Armenierin” by Thomas Hartwig (in the German language) is available at salonliteraturverlag.de.
Frankfurt International Book Fair
Every year for one week in mid-October, Frankfurt am Main is buzzing with literary activity. About 300,000 visitors and some 7,000 exhibitors from more than 100 countries around the globe pour into the city for the largest and most important trade fair for books in the world. The first three days are for trade only; the last two are open to the public.
This is where the industry worldwide gathers to make deals, launch books, and network—from publishers, agents, booksellers, librarians, academics, authors, translators, antiquarians, illustrators, film producers, and every aspect concerning the business of books and multi-media. Forums, conferences, and special programs take place throughout the week and the literary activity spills out into the local cafes, bars, and restaurants. Local community organizations sponsor special literary programs with guest authors in town, and the Armenian community of Frankfurt is one of them.
The Republic of Armenia usually occupies a miniscule stand with limited material. On the first open day for the public, a Saturday, the local Armenian community hosts a reception at the stand to welcome visitors. Later a literary evening takes place at their center.
The history of the Frankfurt Book Fair dates back more than 500 years after Johannes Gutenberg developed printing in movable letters in Mainz near Frankfurt. The fair was a local event until the late 17th century, when it became the most important book fair in Europe. For a while Leipzig became the center for the book fair, but Frankfurt retook its place again after World War II. To learn more, visit buchmesse.de or gutenberg.de.