While doing research on the uses of political violence by “non-state actors” for my second novel Dreams of Bread and Fire, I came across a 1984 French documentary entitled “Terrorists in Retirement” (original title “Des terroristes à la retraite”). It told the story of a French Communist Resistance network made up of immigrant workers. The network’s leader was an Armenian poet named Missak Manouchian. In late 1943, the Germans arrested Manouchian and 22 members of his group, which was comprised of Eastern European Jews, Armenians, and Italian and Spanish refugees. The men were executed by firing squad in February 1944. The sole woman was executed by beheading in Germany some months later.
After reading a little more about Missak Manouchian, an Armenian Genocide survivor who immigrated to France in 1925 when he was 19 years old, I realized even as I was writing my second novel that I had found the time period and milieu for my next book. How did the Armenian community of Paris live the four years of the Nazi occupation? What had it felt like for genocide survivors who had rebuilt their lives in France to look out the window on German troops marching down the Rue de Belleville? My third novel, All the Light There Was, grew out of these questions.
Early in the writing process, I conceived of the characters in the novel. The protagonist and narrator would be Maral Pegorian, who was born in 1926. Her father was a cobbler and her mother was a seamstress who did piecework at home. (Henri Verneuil’s film “Mayrig” and an unpublished memoir by Varoujan Barsamian inspired this last detail.) Both of the parents were orphans and genocide survivors who had met at Camp Oddo in Marseille. They shared their Paris apartment with their two children and the mother’s younger sister. And from there I imagined the rest—the neighbors, the schoolmates, the local police officer, the Armenian grocer, and the young men Maral would love.
After I had read through an enormous stack of books—historical studies, memoirs, novels, and collections of letters—about what the French called Les Années Noires (The Dark Years), I planned a research trip to Paris. I wanted to walk the streets of Belleville, the neighborhood where the Pegorians lived. I wanted to visit the Lycée Victor Hugo where Maral was a student. Most importantly, I wanted to talk with Armenians who had lived through the Occupation.
While I was in Paris, my friend Hagop Papazian volunteered to be my “fixer.” He located an Armenian woman who was seven years old when the German troops had marched down the Rue de Belleville. She told me how her family had briefly hidden one of her schoolmates whose family had been arrested during the infamous Vel d’Hiv roundup of Jews in July 1942. Hagop and I went to visit a nonagenarian named Nazaret Peshdikian who had been an amateur actor in the Armenian community theater and a member of the Hunchak resistance. He repeated several times the story of an Allied bomb that had gone astray in his Paris neighborhood, upending a rabbit hutch and killing his wife. He told us for a fourth time, almost in wonder, “My wife was dead, but all the rabbits were still alive.”
A few days later when I was at an Armenian street demonstration near the statue of Komitas close to the Seine, another friend introduced me to historian Anahid Der Minassian. After I informed her about my research project, she told me that when she was a blonde-haired, blue-eyed little girl, her father had trotted her around to the offices of various German officials as living proof that the Armenians were an “Aryan” people.
Later in the week Hagop arranged a meeting with Arsène Tchakarian, one of the last surviving members of the Manouchian Groupe. Tchakarian has devoted his life to documenting the work and the lives of his friend Missak Manouchian and other members of his Resistance network. He is also interested in the roles that different Armenian political groups played with regard to the Nazis during the war. Among the objects he showed me was a photograph of a few members of the Dashnak party in Vienna standing in front of an Armenian tricolor that had been sewn to a Nazi flag.
The day before I was to depart for home, a friend of Hagop’s was finally able to secure a meeting with a man who added another facet to what I learned about the variety of Armenian experiences in France during the Occupation. The story this man told me about his time in the Soviet Army and subsequently in the German Wehrmacht gave me a context for an anecdote I had come across in Charles Aznavour’s autobiography.
Aznavour, the son of Armenian immigrants, was born Shahnour Vaghinag Aznavourian in Paris in 1924. His autobiography and his sister Aida Aznavour-Garvarentz’s memoir briefly covered the war years, during which Charles and Aida were aspiring young entertainers. Their parents, who were Communists, were part of a circle of friends and political activists that included Missak Manouchian and his wife Melinée.
Late in the Occupation, some Soviet Armenians appeared in Paris in German uniform. They were Soviet soldiers who had been captured on the battlefield and then held in P.O.W. camps in Poland under terrible conditions. They were pressed into the German Army, choosing the Wehrmacht over probable starvation. The Germans didn’t trust them on the Eastern Front, so they were sent to France to work on the Atlantic wall. When these Armenians were given leave, they often came to Paris where the local community held cultural evenings to welcome them.
The Aznavourian family’s contribution to the Resistance was inviting these soldiers to their home and trying to convince them to desert the German Army. If they agreed, the Aznavours would give them civilian clothes and help them to go underground. Charles Aznavour, 19 at the time, was responsible for the nighttime task of dumping the deserters’ boots and uniforms into the sewers of Paris.
In writing All the Light There Was, I wasn’t interested in outsized heroism; I was interested in small defiant acts that make dignity and integrity possible in the face of a brutal occupation. It was a time when there was very little light, literally because of blackouts and shortages, and figuratively because of the repression and violence that accompanied collaborationist and Nazi rule. The title of the novel comes from a line in Jean Anouilh’s play “The Lark” (“L’Alouette”), in which he dramatizes the trial of Joan of Arc. Before the judges, Joan describes the first two times she heard God’s voice.
“The moon was rising; it shone on the white sheep; and that was all the light there was. And then came the second time; the bells were ringing for the noonday Angelus. The light came again, in bright sunlight, but brighter than the sun, and that time I saw him.”*
The first time, it was just his voice under ordinary moonlight; the second time it was his voice accompanied by a luminous, holy vision. I am drawn to the ordinary light—the moonlight and the small flames that people create for themselves in a dark time. But I am also fascinated by the compromises and lies that are sometimes required of even the most principled people faced with the confrontation between systemic political violence and the desire to survive. These are the themes that I tried to explore in All the Light There Was.
My editor recently pointed out that my three novels—Zabelle, Dreams of Bread and Fire, and All the Light There Was—viewed together are a portrait of Armenians in the diaspora after the genocide. They are the stories of the survivors, their children, and their grandchildren. My fourth novel, for which I made a first research trip to Beirut this past summer, will be about Armenians of Lebanon who immigrate to New York during the Civil War, adding another dimension to my collage portrait of the diaspora. What interests me here is how the Armenians, like birds whose nests are destroyed repeatedly by storm, continue to rebuild their homes and their communities again and again. It’s a sad story, but ultimately, it is about resilience and hope. I feel that my work as a writer is to bear witness to trauma, to celebrate resilience, and to amplify what is humane in the human.
* Jean Anouilh, The Lark, translated by Christopher Fry, Oxford University Press, 1956, p. 3