Primo Levi’s ‘If This is a Man’ (1947) and Sufia Kamal’s ‘Ekattorer Diary’ (1989): A Comparative Analysis
By Soumik Sarkar
Violence perpetrated anywhere in the world at any given point of time deserves attention. Various forms of violence of different degrees have been committed so far in human history. Analysis of violence helps to build a framework for the prevention of future recurrence. This paper is focused on analyzing two events, the Holocaust (1933-1945) and the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971. The attempt here is to compare these two events with the help of their survivor testimonies. One text is Primo Levi’s If this is a man (1959) and the other is Sufia Kamal’s Ekattorer Diary (একাত্তরের ডায়েরী) (1989). This paper aims to compare these two survivor accounts.
Sufia Kamal’s Ekattorer Diary (একাত্তরের ডায়েরী) was written with the Liberation War in Bangladesh as its backdrop. It covers its events right from the beginning to the end. The author witnessed the horrors of the war from a very close proximity. Just like any other war, the common people were the first to suffer from a scarcity of food and other utilities, accompanied by insecurities of life itself. The author starts her diary by describing the relief work undertaken by her for the people of rural Bangladesh. She mentions that even in early 1971 Bangladesh was facing scarcity of food. Nitin Pai in his paper The 1971 East Pakistan Genocide- A Realist Perspective mentions Cyclone Bhola which massively disrupted the people’s life in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) (Pai 2008). The foundation of the war or the situation in which the war took place was miserable. It was a liberation war of the people and the common people suffered the most. The author Sufia Kamal was a survivor in the first place and she gives an account of her experiences in diary format. She writes about the political turmoil that started shaping in the initial months of 1971, and the conflict between the Awami League and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (Kamal 1989: 31-32). She also writes against the imposition of Urdu and in favour of the Bengali language (Kamal 1989: 26). The language issue was of the most prominent factors that shaped the agitation. Kamal played a leading role in the agitation. It was a period of mass agitation – full of energy. This book gives a vivid account of the suffering of the common people.
Kamal writes about the disruption in commutation caused by the curfew imposed in various parts of the country, such as Chattogram, which made it hard for her to get her message across to the people. From April 1971 onwards there was a combination of direct attacks by infantry and bombardment. Some of the places bombarded were Narayangunj and Narsingdi, which were completely ruined as a result. The situation took a turn on 13th April, as she describes, when Mujibur Rahman was elected as the President and Tajiddin as the Prime Minister of the independent East Bengal government in ‘Chuadanga’ (চুয়াডাঙা). On 25th April, Kamal describes ruined state of the city of Dhaka. She also talks about the misinformation spread by the Pakistani regime via the print press and radio. The broadcasting services were abused by the Pakistani regime for threatening the Bengali freedom fighters and masses with the objective of scaring and suppressing them. Massacres were perpetrated by the army across the country. Drawing from survivor’s testimonies Sarmila Bose in her book Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh war points out how during the ‘Operation Searchlight’ when the army attacked the Dhaka university, violence was perpetrated generally on unarmed people (Bose 2011). The Pakistan army did not specifically target only the armed freedom fighters but also the unarmed and non-combatant common people of Bangladesh. It was a desperate attempt to suppress their demand for freedom. Sufia Kamal also points out in her diary that the violence in Bangladesh was not only against non-Muslims, but Muslims too (Kamal 1989: 64). Remembering her son whom Kamal lost during the Liberation War, she writes how she could feel the pain of those who lost their children in the course of war (Kamal 1989: 65). In fact, numerous people from her neighborhood were killed during the war. Some lost their children and some of them, their father or husband (Kamal 1989: 66). The diary of the author is a descriptive account of the Liberation War, from the perspective of a war survivor. She explains the general hardships as an outcome of the war such as disruption in the supply of essential commodities and utility connections. The everyday account provided by Kamal is immensely rewarding in understanding the day-to-day development of war. She expresses her joy when she writes about the liberation of Bangladesh at the culmination of the war when the liberation forces occupied Dhaka (Kamal 1989: 126). However, the violence did not stop immediately at the end of the war. Kamal writes about her despair at the loss of closely known people and other innocent people lost to the war (Kamal 1989: 128-9). Hoping against hope, at every stage of the war Kamal tried to retain her optimism. The massacre of people during the war moved her very deeply and her observations and emotions find expression in her diary. On the one hand it is a testimony of a war survivor and on the other a vivid description of the war.
Primo Levi’s If This is a Man is another survivor testimony. Primo Levi himself went through the horror of the concentration camp. His memoir is first-hand account of the Holocaust. He described it in a vivid way. He begins his account with depiction of his deportment to Monowitz near Auschwitz (Levi 1959: 15). It was a sealed wagon in which Jews were deported, without food or even water, in biting cold. He described the two forms of concentration camp, one was the labor camp and the other, the death camp (Levi 1959: 15). After their arrival in the camp the able-bodied men were separated from the women and children. The men were put in the labor camp. Right at the time of entrance they were humiliated in a very bitter way (Levi 1959: 21). They were deprived of everything they owned, including their dignity. After the initial harassment, they were allotted their cells. The author describes the place as so small that the inmates were often left with no choice but to remain standing (Levi 1959: 27-28). In the latter part he talks about the condition of work, the extremely long working hours and the inadequacy of food (Levi 1959: 29-30). The camps were often towers of Babel with linguistically diverse Jews – all imprisoned together, making communication with each other difficult. He writes that at times it felt like they did not even consider the captives human. Levi referring to himself and fellow inmates writes “we are slaves exposed to every insult” (Levi 1959: 39). They were deprived of even the basic requirements, such as washrooms. Levi explains the struggle to keep the belongings from getting stolen, and how he had to take them with him when he went for defecation (Levi 1959: 38). It was a tough situation. The camp inmates were under constant surveillance. He describes the Ka-Be, the medical examination center (Levi 1959: 46). Despite the fact that they got some rest there, if they failed to respond to the treatment, they were sent to the gas chamber. Levi writes in detail about his nightmares. (Levi 1959: 64-65) The traumatic experiences at the camp left Levi with little hope of survival. There was hardship as he gave an instance of his work, unloading cast iron from the wagon (Levi 1959: 73). Given the fact that the workload assigned to each inmate was disproportional to what a human is capable of, it was just another way of being put to death – that is by physical exhaustion.
All this leaves us asking ourselves if modernity or the modern age has made us humans any better than our former versions or on the contrary worsened us. Primo Levi describes how even the most trivial of things meant a whole a lot for them in the labor camp, such as a bright sunny day (Levi 1959: 82). He writes about the exchange system in the camp. They exchanged their shirts for food despite the fear of punishment (Levi 1959: 88-89). So food deprived they were! Being a primary source, it talks in detail about the ground realities in such details that are hard to find in secondary sources. Levi was a chemist and selected for this job in the camp (Levi 1959: 124). There were jobs for the specialists in the camp. Things started changing from August 1944, when Germans suffered defeat from the allied forces (Levi 1959: 136). As a possible outcome, the captives of the concentration camps were also excited about a possible evacuation. There is a horrifying description of the selection process in the camp: a certain percentage of people from the camp were sent to the gas chamber (Levi 1959: 147-48). What can be worse than this? Can this brutality be described in words?
Hostile living conditions were accompanied by an unbearable weather in the camp. Levi pointed out that there were 174000 Italians in the camp, out of which only twenty-one survived (Levi 1959: 159). In the last section of the book, Levi talks about the allied invasion in January 1945, the camp was soon left by the Germans (Levi 1959: 179-80). The last ten days is the final chapter of this book depicting the last phase of the struggle. Levi was among the lucky few who survived.
While Sufia Kamal’s Ekattorer Diary is a witness account of the Bangladesh liberation war, Primo Levi’s If This is a Man is a survivor’s testimony about his experience of a concentration camp. In sharp contrast to the awareness of the Holocaust across the world, the global awareness of the Bangladesh genocide of 1971 is at a dismal level. Donald Beachler has written on the ignorance about the Bangladesh genocide among Western scholars (Beachler 2007). Given this fact the survivors’ testimonies become all the more important. This study is not a comparison of the scales of these genocides. Rather, it was an attempt to study how survivors of two different instances of genocide remember their traumatic experiences. There are both similarities and differences of approaches in these texts. Our task is simply to learn from them, to draw lessons aimed at the prevention of mass violence.
Beachler, Ronald (2007). “The politics of genocide scholarship: the case of Bangladesh”, in Patterns of Prejudice. Vol. 41, No. 5: 467-492.
Bose, Sarmila (2011). Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh war. Oxford University Press.
Kamal, Sufia (1989). Ekattor er Diary. Dhaka: Howladar publication, 2011. [Original text Bengali language version first published in 1989.]
Levi, Primo (1959). If this is a man. Translated from Italian by Stuart Woolf. New York: Orion Press.
Pai, Nitin (2008). “1971 East Pakistan Genocide – A realist perspective”, in The acorn (2008): 1-10.
Soumik Sarkar is a postgraduate student of the department of history, Presidency University Kolkata. He earned the degree of BA (Honours) in History from Presidency University Kolkata. His areas of interest are religious history, Intellectual history, Inter faith studies and studies on mass violence and genocide.
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