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Genocide by the front door
By Eva Pfister


In her book They Drive them into the Desert, Dora Sakayan documents how Swiss railway engineers in the Ottoman Empire stood up for the persecuted Armenians.

It is astounding what the Armenian Professor of German Studies Dora Sakayan has brought to light from the Swiss Archive for Contemporary History: The railway engineer Fritz Sigrist and his wife Clara not only witnessed the brutal persecutions and killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, but also actively fought against it. At some point, they even hid an Armenian co-worker under Clara Sigris-Hilty’s bed. Because she was pregnant, her husband went unpunished when he threw Turkish gendarmes out of their house. This brave act saved Haig Aramian’s life. In his autobiographical novel from 1970, Aramian remembers with great gratitude that moment, which was never reported by the couple. Only now, after Sakayan discovered Aramian’s book in the Sigrist-Hilty literary archive and translated parts of it, has the entire dimension of the couple’s dedication to the persecuted people become clear.

“No bread for all”

1903 saw the beginning of the German-led construction of the Baghdad railway, which was supposed to connect Europe with the Persian Gulf. Since crossing the Taurus and Amanus mountains necessitated the construction of many tunnels, Swiss engineers were hired. Among them was Fritz Sigrist, who worked from 1910 to 1918 as a sectional engineer in Aleppo and the Amanus region. In April 1915 he married Clara Hilty, who moved with him to his place of work in Islahiye (today in the Kurdish-populated Turkish province of Gaziantep). From their hillside house the couple overlooked the plains where every day they were forced to see the succession of deported Armenians, moving towards Aleppo under unspeakable conditions.

Clara Sigrist-Hilty wrote about her experience in her diary for all the three years of their stay in Turkey. Dora Sakayan deciphered that diary. Clara wrote later also a shorter eyewitness account, which was in parts published in Switzerland years ago. However, Sakayan has transcribed anew the original manuscript of that account and discovered a number of discrepancies. The sentence “And when they come begging, knocking at our doors, we are forced to hide, for we’ve no bread for all” differs in meaning from the previously published version, which ends with “… for we’ve no bread for them.” In this difference lies the dilemma of the Swiss in the Ottoman Empire. They wanted to help, and in some cases they did, though considering the masses of desperate people they were helpless.

In her book They Drive Them into the Desert, Dora Sakayan incorporates a number of documents from the Sigrist-Hilty’s literary archive, providing them with thorough and detailed comments and introductions. She pays equal attention to the fate of Armenians as to the everyday activities of the young Swiss woman, who gave birth to her first child in her “little mountain hut”. This is why the book includes large sections from Clara’s journal. Anyone can discover in these pages a brave young woman, a trained nurse who embarks on a life in Anatolia with the objective of setting up a household to Swiss standards. At times her approach can appear somewhat as that of a colonialist. Clara trains her domestic workers in the house and the garden; she learns Turkish, but continues to call the servant Mehmet by the name “Joggel.” They grow vegetables and wines, bake “Guetzli” and cakes. Fritz has his office in the house, and colleagues visit them often to dine with the couple.

“Clara’s journal is an invaluable contribution to the history of the Armenian Genocide,” stresses writer Dora Sakayan, retired professor at the renowned McGill University in Canada. “The author of the diary was a complete outsider, hence a neutral observer.” In her notes Clara predominantly relates aspects of her everyday life in a foreign land. It was rather by chance that she became an eyewitness of this major crime: From her veranda she observed the deportation of thousands of human beings. During her outings she came across half-starved orphan children, and she found many dead bodies on the roadside. At night she heard the gunshots of the Turkish execution squads, and faced with all this ongoing suffering, Clara writes: “How good for them who can die this way.”

A tricky rescue

But Clara is also interested in land and people. She rides across the mountains, visits with her husband Kurdish villages, and visits his construction site. However, the endless processions of deported Armenians are ever more depressing to her: during a trip to Aleppo, where she sees a concentration camp with many dying Armenians, she understands that this was not just a relocation of people. While in her eyewitness account Clara is outspoken and direct, in her journal she is rather reticent. Nevertheless, in the journal as well, now and then she is overwhelmed by human suffering. On November 11, 1915, she writes: “It is impossible to look into the valley without witnessing the indescribable misery there. They arrive by the hundreds, in the unceasing, freezing rain, and with their bundles often lie down in the muddy street to rest for a little while.” But even Clara’s regular entries about everyday banalities, writes Sakayan, are valuable for the study of the Armenian Genocide. They help arrange events chronologically and confirm other reports in the journal.

Directly affected is the couple as the «expulsions» are also applied to the Armenian employees of the Baghdad railway. Many Armenians were working there, some forcibly recruited, others hired as educated and linguistically competent management staff. The German and Swiss engineers fought for their men, begged their governments to interfere, and even threatened with the cessation of work. However, more than a temporary postponement of the expulsions they did not achieve. In Summer 1916, the Turkish authorities took drastic measures, and on June 13 came Haig Aramian’s tricky rescue.

In April 1918, the Sigrist-Hiltys began their journey home with their infant son. In Constantinople they were withheld and for more than three months they were not allowed to leave the country, perhaps because of their resistance to genocide. But they never reported anything specific about it.



Translated from German by Dora Sakayan
«Man treibt sie in die Wüste»
Clara und Fritz Sigrist-Hilty
als Augenzeugen des Völkermordes
an den Armeniern 1915–1918.
Zürich, Limmat Verlag 2016.

Recent Updates


Book Review 2016:
Review of [«They drive them into the desert»: Clara and Fritz Sigrist-Hilty as eyewitnesses of the Armenian Genocide 1915-1918 from -----.

Press Release 2012:
Book launch of Western Armenian for the English-speaking World, A Contrastive Approach in Yerevan State University, Armenia.

Press Release 2012:
Dora Sakayan awarded Honorary Doctorate Degree at Yerevan State University, Armenia.