Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number Summary
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Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number is a non-fiction memoir published in 1981 by the Soviet-born Argentine author Jacobo Timerman. It details Timerman's torture and imprisonment at the hands of Argentine military police serving under the far-right dictator Jorge Rafael Videla from 1977 to 1979. Timerman has been called "the most famous Argentine political prisoner" of the country's so-called "Dirty War," which lasted from 1974 until 1983. The book also offers a disturbing look at how state-sanctioned anti-Semitism, modeled specifically after the Nazis, can take root in a modern and otherwise sophisticated society.
Born in 1928 in Bar, Ukraine, Timerman belonged to a Jewish family. At the age of five, Timerman's parents relocated their family to Argentina to escape pogroms and other brutal forms of persecution against Jews. Though free for the time being of the mass murder that had swept the countryside in Ukraine, Timerman's family faced extraordinary hardships in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Due to anti-Semitic housing discrimination, the Timermans could only afford a single-room dwelling in a highly impoverished neighborhood. When Timerman was only twelve, his father died, forcing Jacobo to become a provider for the family.
Closed off to other industries due to his heritage, Timerman became a journalist. After building up his career by reporting for international outlets such as Commentary and Agence France-Presse, Timerman founded a number of his own news-weeklies, including Confirmado and Primera Plana, the latter of which was frequently likened to Argentina's version of TIME Magazine. But in 1964, in the wake of threats by President Arturo Illia's government against unfriendly news outlets, Timerman was forced to resign as the editor of Primera Plana.
In 1966, the military overthrew President Illia's relatively centrist regime, installing the brutally repressive and authoritarian General Juan Carlos Ongania. The crackdown on intellectuals, students, and journalists was so severe that Timerman didn't found a new news outlet until 1971, a year after the deeply unpopular Ongania was overthrown himself by a military junta. That's when Timerman created the newspaper, La Opinion. La Opinion described itself as "rightist economically, centrist politically, and leftist culturally." Having made enemies on both sides of the political debate in Argentina, Timerman writes:
"As publisher and editor of La Opinión, I received countless threats. One morning two letters arrived in the same mail: one was from the rightist terrorist organization (protected and utilized by paramilitary groups) condemning me to death because of its belief that my militancy on behalf of the right to trial for anyone arrested and my battle for human rights were hindrances in overthrowing communism; the other letter was from the terrorist Trotskyite group, Ejercito Revolucionario Popular (ERP)—the Popular Revolutionary Army—and indicated that if I continued accusing leftist revolutionaries of being Fascists and referring to them as the lunatic Left, I would be tried and most likely sentenced to death."
Meanwhile, Timerman remained a committed Zionist, in the very broad sense that he strongly supported the establishment of Israel as a Jewish homeland territory. His pro-Israel writings, particularly the 1975 tract, "Why I Am A Zionist," would make him a target for the strongly anti-Semitic government of General Jorge Rafael Videla, who was installed as a military dictator in the wake of a 1976 military coup. For a short time, Videla's government did not crack down on La Opinion, leading Timerman to speculate that the newspaper was kept alive because "the continued existence of La Opinión was a credit abroad; it backed the philosophy of future national reconstruction, it upheld the thesis of national unity, and was committed on a daily basis to curbing extremist excesses." But as far right anti-Semitic groups gained more power, they began to target high-profile Jews like Timerman. In late 1976, there were ten anti-Semitic bombings per month in Argentina.
In April 1977, Videla's military government began to arrest people with ties to David Graiver, a Jewish-Argentine banker and one of the financial backers of La Opinion. Graiver was suspected to have helped the Montoneros, a Argentine leftist guerilla faction, launder their money. Despite the fact that Timerman was critical of terrorist groups across the political spectrum, he was arrested in connection with Graiver's conspiracy involving the Montoneros. What happened next is a scene one might expect from Nazi Germany, not Argentina in the 1970s: Timerman is blindfolded and bound to a chair. While subjecting him to a seemingly endless torrent of electric shocks, his captors begin to chant, "Jew.... Jew.... Jew... Jew..."
But what Timerman endured was nothing compared to what he witnessed. He writes:
''Of all the dramatic situations I witnessed in clandestine prisons, nothing can compare to those family groups who were tortured often together, sometimes separately but in view of one another. ... The entire affective world, constructed over the years with utmost difficulty, collapses with a kick in the father's genitals ... or the sexual violation of a daughter. Suddenly an entire culture based on familial love, devotion, the capacity for mutual sacrifice collapses. From my cell, I'd hear the whispered voices of children trying to learn what was happening to their parents, and I'd witness the efforts of daughters to win over a guard, to arouse a feeling of tenderness in him ... in order to learn what was happening to her mother, to have an orange sent to her, to get permission for her to go to the bathroom.''
After suffering unspeakable depredations in Argentine prisons for a year, Timerman was placed on house arrest, still deprived of freedom but at least free from physical torture. But despite the fact that no charges had ever been filed against him, he wasn't officially released until September of 1978, and only in the wake of public outcry and pressure placed on the Argentine government by U.S. President Jimmy Carter. Even then, Timerman was not allowed to stay in Argentina. Instead, he was taken by armed guards to a plane bound for Israel.
As far-right political factions that espouse anti-Semitic beliefs grow once again throughout the Western world, the lessons of Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number are more relevant than ever.