Death Marches Past the Front Door: Clara and Fritz Sigrist-Hilty, Swiss Eyewitnesses to the Armenian Dante-Inferno in Turkey (1915-1918)

FRESNO — The Armenian Studies Program announces the publication of Death Marches Past the Front Door: Clara and Fritz Sigrist-Hilty, Swiss Eyewitnesses to the Armenian Dante-Inferno in Turkey (1915-1918), by Dora Sakayan, Volume 20 in the Armenian Series of The Press at California State University, Fresno. The book was edited by Barlow Der Mugrdechian and Zareh Tjeknavorian.

Death Marches Past the Front Door represents a unique addition to the Armenian Series at Fresno State,” said Prof. Barlow Der Mugrdechian, general editor of the Armenian Series. “Clara and Fritz Sigrist-Hilty’s account of their stay in Turkey in 1915 provides a never before revealed perspective of the Armenian Genocide. Dora Sakayan has presented in English for the first time a fascinating recounting of an important period in Armenian history.”

On the day of their church wedding, the civil engineer Fritz Sigrist and the nurse Clara Hilty take the train from Werdenberg (Switzerland) and travel through the war zone across the Balkans to southeastern Turkey. After Turkey’s involvement in World War I as Germany’s ally, it was certainly not the ideal place for a honeymoon, but Fritz had been working on the construction of the Baghdad railway since 1910. After a short stop in Constantinople, the newlywed couple settled down for a few months in Entilli, then for three years in Keller.

Shortly after their arrival in Turkey, the Armenian deportations began, and thousands of Armenians were marched past their front door. For three years the couple witnessed “the lapsing of human lights down there in the steep gorge” while they lived their everyday life in their little house on the remote hillside. A visit to Aleppo and the Katma concentration camps makes them realize that what they were seeing in Keller on a daily basis was nothing less than premeditated death marches, i.e., the Armenian Genocide. Things become worse when the skilled Armenian workers – actively involved in the Baghdad railway construction – are also forced to join those death marches.

Clara records the atrocities, first in her journal, later in a memoir or a special eyewitness account. Fritz in his turn, writes two stories and a letter on the subject.

Dora Sakayan has deciphered the Swiss archive documents written mostly in Gothic handwriting and has meticulously processed them and embedded them in the historic events of the time. Moreover, based on a 1970 memoir by Haig Aramian, Sakayan recounts the adventurous story of how in June 1916 the Sigrist-Hilty couple helped their Armenian storehouse manager Aramian escape certain death.

Dora Sakayan’s book consists of three parts, each one dedicated to the life and writings of one of the three individuals: Clara Hilty, Fritz Sigrist, and Haig Aramian. An organic interplay of primary and secondary texts relates to the reader a coherent real-life story – one of extreme human suffering and pain, but also of Christian charity, compassion, and selflessness.

Dora Sakayan graduated with a Doctorate in German philology at the Moscow Lomonosov State University. She then taught German at Yerevan State University (YSU), where she also headed the Department of Foreign Languages.

Sakayan later moved to Canada and continued her pedagogical career as a Professor of German Studies at McGill University in Montreal. Her training in various areas of applied linguistics allowed her to gradually venture from German Studies to Armenology and to become the first scholar to introduce Armenian Studies in a Canadian University. She has written, edited, and translated more than 30 books in both areas of her expertise, German and Armenian Studies. She has also authored a series of scholarly articles.

Sakayan is a major contributor to the study of the Armenian Genocide. In 1992, she came across the journal of her maternal grandfather, Dr. Garabed Hatcherian, which is an eyewitness account of the 1922 Smyrna disaster. Recognizing the historic significance of this writing, Sakayan undertook its translation, annotation, publication, and worldwide dissemination in nine languages.

Copies of Death Marches Past the Front Door are available for purchase from: Abril Bookstore

All of the books in the Armenian Series can be found at the following website:

For bulk orders please contact the Armenian Studies Program, at 559.278.2669 or by email at [email protected].

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