Escape From a Holocaust

A fiercely told tale of the Armenian genocide

January 2, 2016
Source: Barron's

By Andrew Popper

There’s a saying in wilderness-training programs that you can live for three weeks without food and three days without water—but you can’t live three minutes without a positive mental attitude. In The Hundred-Year Walk, Dawn Anahid MacKeen’s maternal grandfather, Stepan, proves the point by surviving the genocide of Turkey’s ethnic Armenians in 1916, during the twilight of the Ottoman Empire.

Drafted into a work battalion, which, unbeknownst to him, is already marked for death, Stepan endures a brutal forced march to the notorious starvation camp of Deir Zor in what is now Syria. Facing certain execution, he crawls away into the night and escapes across the desert without food and nearly naked. He remains alive without water for six days by relying on inner resources (in more ways than one), and eventually comes to America.

Fast-forward to 2006. Granddaughter Dawn MacKeen, who was three years old when Stepan died, forsakes a career as a health-care journalist in New York and returns home to Southern California, answering her mother’s longtime plea to “tell Baba’s story.” It’s history’s good fortune that a third-generation descendant has reconstructed this vivid, personal account at a hundred year’s distance.

A partial account was published long before in the Armenian press. Now, MacKeen and her mother recover Stepan’s missing notebooks, which enable MacKean to write this book, a haunting journal of remembrance. Stepan’s intention was clear: “Being a witness to that satanic pogrom, I vowed it as my duty to put on paper what I saw.”

MacKeen brings Stepan to life with a terse style that echoes his writing, drawing also on carefully annotated historical research and on interviews with his still-living centenarian cousin and relatives of other victims. Most significantly, she makes a voyage of her own, in 2007, to retrace the steps of his ordeal. “My grandfather had left a road map to his life,” she writes. “All I had to do was follow it.”

We’re introduced to Stepan as a young, small-town peddler and commercial courier in western Turkey before World War I. Slight of build, resourceful, and sharp-witted, he’s initially ensnared and jailed for transporting, legally, a shipment of firearms. Soon, his life goes from grim to gruesome, but MacKeen lightens the otherwise depressing narrative with alternating chapters in which she describes, with self-effacing candor, her cautious foray into the hinterlands of Turkey and Syria. In those authoritarian countries, she has her share of uneasy moments while following her journalistic instincts, but it’s a pale shadow of what her grandfather went through.

Numerous passages bring to mind events of the Holocaust: gradual erosion of liberties; willful blindness of the surrounding population; deportations in cattle cars; betrayals and fruitless attempts at resistance; and, in the aftermath, hushed kitchen-table reminiscences half-reaching children’s ears. A scene in which Stepan finally grasps the ultimate nature of the genocide is hauntingly reminiscent of an incident in Elie Wiesel’s Night. But the irony of Stepan’s epiphany to present-day readers goes further, because the place where he learns the fate in store for him is Raqqa—a city that now hosts the headquarters of a new ethnic-cleansing regime, the so-called Islamic State.

Stepan’s escape leaves him destitute and at the mercy of the local population. Hunted by the Turks, he eludes death at the point of a soldier’s rifle. He then perseveres to find sustenance, flea-infested shelter, and eventually a sympathetic host. MacKeen, too, finds welcome, encountering the protector’s descendants and partaking queasily of a goat slaughtered in her honor. The reunion’s poignancy is heightened by the trepidation we feel for whatever fate those Syrians must now endure.

MacKeen doesn’t shirk from recounting the grisly details of genocide, describing brutal beatings, hunger to the point of cannibalism, and thirst to the point of urine-drinking. With a health-care reporter’s deft touch, she manages to play down the utter pathos, but her dedication to baring gruesome facts is as unfailing as her loyalty to the mission thrust upon her. “It was as if my grandfather had understood,” she writes, “what he couldn’t finish in his lifetime would be finished in the next.” Yet one wishes for more direct quotes from her grandfather’s notes, so we could read directly the cadence of his prose voice.

Lucky for us that the author could travel where she did, when she did. Returning home, MacKeen ponders a century-worth of moral issues. Thinking of the Turkish soldier who chose not to fire at him, she wonders aloud if Stepan could ever have forgiven the murderers of his people. Her mother asked him only once, the author reports, and he responded with a long, thoughtful silence. But, MacKeen adds, “I take heart that he never said, ‘No.’ ”

Free-lance journalist Andrew Popper is a descendant of refugees from the Holocaust.