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Thursday, May 22, 2014

Kasab Taburu (Butcher Brigade), Part Seventeen

       "Ravished Armenia was based on the survivor account of an Armenian girl, Arshalois (meaning 'morning light') Mardigian, who in the United States had changed her name to Aurora Mardiganian.  Aurora had arrived at Ellis Island in November 1917, a sixteen-year- old with one surviving brother, for whom she was searching in the United States.  In New York City she was taken in by an Armenian family who placed ads in the papers to help her search.  The advertisements caught the eye of several journalists at the New York Sun and the New York Tribune, who interviewed Aurora and published her story.
       When Harvey Gates, a twenty-four-year-old screenwriter who would become known for If I Had a Million(1932), The Werewolf of London(1935), and The Courageous Dr. Christian(1939)--read about Aurora, he was both deeply moved and saw a unique opportunity.  He and his wife, Eleanor, persuaded Nora Waln, Aurora's guardian, that the girl should abandon her plans to work in a dress factory and pursue a career in the movies.  They soon became Aurora's legal guardians and transcribed her story, which was published as Ravished Armenia in the United States in 1918 (and as Auction of Souls in England in 1919).  The book came with a preface and testimony by H.L. Gates, the president of Robert College in Constantinople, and Nora Waln, who verified the truth of Aurora's story.  While the book sold well, its more sensational venue would be the big screen.
       Ravished Armenia was an epic story and a first in film history, bringing genocide to the screen.  Aurora's story begins in April 1915 in the city of Tchmesh-Gedzak (Chemeshgadzak), a town just north of the twin cities of Harput and Mezre in what Leslie Davis had recently called 'the slaughterhouse province' of Harput.  From her comfortable, affluent home (her father was a banker), Aurora is arrested and then abducted by Turkish gendarmes and thrust into a ghoulish world of massacre and violence.  As she describes the death marches across Anatolia, Ravished Armenia depicts the story of what Ambassador Morgenthau had already called 'the murder of a nation.'
       Col. William N. Selig, a pioneering producer from the 1890's, bought the film rights to Aurora's story, and Oscar Apfel, who had recently directed The Squaw Man with Cecil B. DeMille, was signed on as director.  Irving Cummings and Anna Q. Nilsson, well-known movie actors of their day, were signed to leading roles.  Just as President Wilson was heading to Paris for the Peace Conference, Gates was bringing Aurora Mardignian to Los Angeles to act in her own story at $15 a week.  'They said $15 was a lot of money,' and 'I was naive,' Aurora said, looking back at her life.  At the Selig studios in Santa Monica, Ravished Armenia was made in less than a month, with death march scenes filmed on the beach near Santa Monica and Mt. Baldy standing in for Mt. Ararat.
       Aurora barely spoke English and knew nothing about the world of cinema.  On the set, when she saw actors in red fezzes, she fell into terror.  'I thought they were going to give me to the Turks to finish my life,' she said, breaking down in the middle of the scene.  It took Eleanor Gates's consoling and explanations to assure Aurora that the actors were not Turks but Americans playing their roles, and that they would not harm her.  Today we would call Aurora's response post-traumatic shock.
       Having experienced the deaths of her mother, father, brother, and sisters at the hands of the Turks, she was left alone to endure and witness torture, mass rapes, the crucifixion of women, the sale of women into slavery and harems, and the notorious 'game of swords' in which girls and women were thrown by the chetes and gendarmes from horses and impaled on swords that were set blade-up in the ground.  As film critic Anthony Slide put it, no matter how hard both the book and the film tried to portray the violence Aurora experienced and witnessed, they were both 'relatively sanitized versions of what [she] actually suffered and witnessed.'
       When Aurora saw Apfel's version of the Armenian women being crucified on large, well-constructed crosses with their long hair covering their nude bodies, she told the director, 'The Turks didn't make their crosses like that.  The Turks made little pointed crosses.  They took the clothes off the girls.  They made them bend down.  And after raping them, they made them sit on the pointed wood, through the vagina.  That's the way they killed--the Turks.  Americans have made it a more civilized way.  They can't show such terrible things.'  Aurora then told Apfel and the others how her pregnant aunt, who was trying to protect her two-year-old son, was killed.  'The Turks, they took a knife and cut open her abdomen.  They said, this is how we are going to end all you people.  They pulled out a fetus from her.  Put it on a stone.  They took the end of the gun that they had, which was heavy, and started to pound and pound and pound her baby.'"  The Burning Tigris by Peter Balakian, pgs. 313-315.

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