Posts tagged “Till My Tale is Told”

Reading “The Long Walk” by Slavomir Rawicz

My husband read this book titled “The Long Walk” written by Slavomir Rawicz when he was in 6th grade, it was published in 1956. It’s about a Polish army officer who was “sized up” as a spy for the Germans by the Soviets. The recent movie starring Ed Harris “The Way Back” is based on this book but leaves out all the torture and hardship Rawicz lived through as a 25 year old privileged army officer first in Kharkiv (Ukraine) and then in the terrible prison in Moscow.  That was almost two years worth before the agonizing one month train trip (3,000 miles) on the trans-Siberian. Prisoners were treated like cattle and then these “Unfortunates” were forced to walk in the deep snow with chains north to Camp 303 in the northern part of Siberia close to Yakutsk.  The film makers leave out many things but they DO portray other things quite accurately about the 4,000 mile walk.  I recommend seeing the movie if you don’t want to bother with the book.

The following is the description of what the inmates looked like based on their ages, according to 25 year old author Rawicz:

“And all the time my mind juggling with pictures of the stockaded camp…and always the men about me, the young ones like me who were resilient and quick to recover, the forty-year-olds who surprisingly (to me, then) moved slowly but with great reserves of courage and strength and the over fifties who fought to stay young, to work, to live, the men who had lived leisured lives and now, marvelously, displayed the guts to face a cruel new life very bravely. They should have been telling tales to their devoted grandchildren, these oldsters.  Instead they spent their days straining and lifting at the great fallen trees, working alongside men who were often half their age.  There is a courage which flourishes in the worst kind of adversity and it is quite unspectacular. These men had it in full.”

The same could be said of the “Enemies of the People” women who were depicted in what I have blogged about the last several days in “Till My Tale is Told.” Many women in ALZHIR prison camp should have been with their grandchildren instead of felling trees and being used as slave labor.

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Unwritten Places (Part IV and final)

I know from my studies of the Ukrainian terror famine (Holodomor) that Eleanor Roosevelt was concerned about those people who were trapped in the “displaced persons” camps after WWII was over.  One of the Ukrainians I had interviewed who had survived the famine in 1932-33 as a small child, referred to Roosevelt as saying something to the effect, “if these people in DP camps don’t want to return to their motherland (as Stalin insisted they  MUST) then they should not have to go back.” Many knew upon return to Ukraine, it was either sure death or being sent off to a gulag for having ended up in Germany. Thus, many displaced persons were brought to freedom in the U.S., sadly many others were not.

Unfortunately, 16 women in Vilenksy’s book who survived prison life in the former Soviet Union want their tales to be known and remembered. This is my last installment of what I read from “Till My Tale is Told.” It has been “ghastly” to read what they went through for simply being labeled enemies of the Soviet state.

Perhaps if I looked at some of these films or read the following books, I would get a better sense of what Russian or Soviet life looked like just by reading the titles off the index of Vilensky’s book:

Captive Earth – film

Days of the Rubins (Bulgakov)

The Drowned and the Saved (Levi)

Exploits of a Secret Service Agent (film)

Flow, Swift Volga! (Vesyoly)

The Idiot (Dostoyevsky)

How the Steel was Tempered (Ostrovsky)

In the Abyss (Honret)

Kolyma Tales (Shalamov)

Into the Whirlwind (Yevengiya Ginzburg) – appeared in the West long ago

p. 292 – Bratsk – “Kazbek” cigarettes were expensive (Kazakhstan + Uzbekistan tobacco?)

p. 295 – Karakalpakia in Central Asia

p. 306 – five years exile in Kokchetavsk region in KZ

p. 320 – Stolypin wagons – tsarist minister in charge of putting down the 1905 revolution

p. 327 – “I could gaze very minute through the window

Forgetting all hunger and pain

But all things that I see there

Are twice scored by heavy, black lines

The trees and the sunset above them

The fields and paths cutting through

Crossed out by rusting metal

My life scored by black in on bars.”

By Vera Shulz (this was written @ 1938)

p. 167 – After receiving my sentence – five years exile in Kazakhstan as a “socially dangerous element”

“…I learned from bitter experience the wisdom of Marx’s words that knowing a foreign language is a weapon in the struggle for existence.”

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Unwritten Places (Part III)

As I was going through the index of the book “Till My Tale is Told,” by Simeon Vilensky, I was writing down every prison or camp to make sense of it and tease out what I could that might be in Kazakhstan.  Here’s a fitting poem I came across that goes along with the poem “We’re Alive, We’re Alive!”

 “I write in the name of the living,

That they, in turn, may not stand

In a silent, submissive crowd

By the dark gates of some camp.”

Taganka – Moscow prison

Lubyanka – headquarters for Soviet Secret police  in central Moscow

Lefortovo – Moscow prison

Butyrki – largest Moscow prison

Solovki – special camp north of Moscow

Kazan – southeast on the Volga

Kolyma – Magadan, Sea of Okhotsk, Vladimir prison

Suzdal – like Solovki, a former monastery, northeast of Moscow

Verkhneuralsk prison

Elgen – women’s camp, 500 miles northwest and inland from Magadan

Serpantinka

Narym – central Siberia

Yaroslavl prison

Shapalerka prison

Mariinsk camp farther west from Kolyma

You get the idea that there were LOTS of campus throughout the former Soviet Union. An oft spoken saying among those women in gulag camps after living through tedious drudgery day after day:  “It may be worse, but at least it’ll be different”

p. 112 – “What you suffer is not as important as what you learn from the experience.”

p. 271 – “…Eleanor Roosevelt knew about huge numbers of political prisoners in Soviet Union, had come to the country and asked to visit the camps and see for herself.  This request had been categorically refused.”

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Unwritten Places (Part II)

I’m simultaneously reading the very well written book titled “The Long Walk” by Slavomir Rawicz which was published in 1956. The real author (in English) of this great story is Ronald Downing, but the Polish army officer, who showed true grit by surviving lengthy interrogations and brutal torture, is Rawicz who walked 4,000  miles to freedom in the early 1940s from a Siberian gulag.  I’ll blog more about this book when I am finished.

For now, I still can’t get over how an index of a book would ignore the place names in Kazakhstan in the other book I’m reading “Till My Tale is Told.”  The name of this book was taken from a poem I found in Afterword. Notice the word “ghastly” was left out of the title.” Perhaps no one would read a book that was that forbidding. Indeed, it is a painful book to read through from 16 women’s perspectives.

“Since then, at an uncertain hour

That agony returns

And till my ghastly tale is told

This heart within me burns.”

Preface to Russian edition “It seemed as if the monstrous Stalinist regime had given birth to a new type of human being, writes Vera Shulz, in her memoirs, “a submissive, inert creature, mute and devoid of initiative…”

I believe what Vera writes is the continuation of a the “slave mentality” that exists today in Kazakhstan, (i.e. bride kidnapping, human trafficking).  However, the old Soviet laws which the women “politicals” were found guilty of that I found in the index of the Vilensky book are telling.  Also, I think it is an interesting quote by Tolstoy that perhaps still holds true today in contemporary Central Asia.

Tolstoy “Russian laws are tolerable only because everybody breaks them; if not one broke them, they would be unbearable.”

Article 7 – measures in public interest

7:35 – socially dangerous elements

35 – specifying public interest measures

58:8 – terrorism

58:10 – subversion – discrediting a Soviet court

58:12 – failure to denounce

70 – Criminal Code

One more quote that refers directly to these unwritten places in the index but are very much in the contents of this book.

p. 164 – “More than a year passed, and I was living in exile in Kazakhstan on the shores of the Aral Sea, working in a local school teaching Russian to little Kazakhs. The town of Aralsk, if this collection of straw and clay huts spread out under the blazing sun could be called a town, drowned in the arid sandy wastelands around the Aral, and I felt completely homesick for the green of central Russia, blinking back the tears when ever goods trucks passed by loaded with Russian birch logs.” By Vera Shulz (this was written @ 1938)

I can only hope that if Indiana University Press plans to have a second edition of “Till My Tale is Told” they should go through and find the places in Kazakhstan that are “unwritten places” which are not found in the index but in the womens’ tales.

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Unwritten Places in a Book Index…and a poem…

I’m speed reading the actual copy of the book “Till My Tale is Told” put together by Simeon Vilensky. I automatically went to the index to find Kazakhstan.  Nothing about this far flung republic of the former Soviet Union in a book that was published in Russian in 1989 and then translated into English and published by Indiana University Press in 1999.  So, what I see as I pored over the pages were many references to Djezkazkan, Turkestan, Karaganda, Kazakhstan, Aral Sea written by those female survivors who were exiled to Central Asia. However, no listing of these remote places in the book index.  To me, it shows a kind of Russo-centric approach to this faraway place from “Purge-Central” in Moscow.  In fact, the following is a quote that might be taken wrong by Kazakh readers who read this blog but it is actually what was thought and written:

p. 272 – Hava Volovich’s story: “In the UN, questions had been raised about Soviet violations of human rights, and there had been talk of sending a special commission to investigate.  Our representatives at the UN had stalled for all they were worth, but the home authorities had become alarmed and began to collect the “rubbish” and dump it as far away as they could, in places like Djezkazgan.

There had been mines there for a long time, but the exceptionally harsh living conditions (especially the lack of water) had meant that it was next to impossible to find workers, and the mines were limping along feebly.  But now there was a supply of prisoners, to whom ordinary human rights did not apply.  All you needed was rolls and rolls of barbed wire, handcuffs, machine guns for the guards, Alsatians…”

Where was Djezkazgan?  I only know about it because of a Kazakh friend of mine who was from there.  Several years ago she was in the U.S. for a summer on Work and Travel. Then she came to Astana to teach after she finished her pedagogical training in Karaganda.  This is what the book said about this far off place:

p. 83 – Djezkazgan – camp at Kengir – 50 miles from Karaganda – Copper mines there (on the waterless Solochak steppe – p. 271)

I need to find out more about Kengir and see if my Kazakh students who wrote narratives about their grandparents and great grandparents lives ever referred to this place.   Seems there is lots of history in Kengir, especially being a prison camp.  I’d like to find out more about this uprising:

p. 341 – 1954 – mass acts of disobedience by prisoners in Kengir (Central Asia) where tanks were used to suppress protests

Also, I want to find out more about this, I know my students have written about Basmachi in Turkestan

p. 89 – 1919 – anti-Soviet Basmachi groups in Turkestan (Central Asia) – Yelena Vladimirova helped organize famine relief in Volga region

I’ll end this blog post with a poem by Yelena Vladimirova, it shows just how very bleak things were for these women who were considered dangerous elements against Soviet society, similar to what was going on at ALZHIR.

p. 91 Poem “We’re Alive” by Yelena Vladimirova

“We grow fewer and weaker, my friends,

There are more farewells with each day…

We cannot tell what tomorrow may hold –

We don’t know what will happen today.

We live in hard, in frightening times,

Uncertainty followed by lies;

How we long to believe we are not alone,

To hear a cry from the dark, “We’re alive!”

As before, we hold true to the banners we love;

The skies may be clouded, but still

We measure our joy, now a thing of the past,

By what suits the commonweal;

Though my path be hopeless, though it be soaked in blood –

Yet I shall not cease my cries;

Summoning my last drops of strength, I’ll shout,

“Comrade! We’re alive, we’re alive!”

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“Till My Tale is Told” – Part VI – “Stalin’s Broken Omelette”

The following will be the last of my series from the book “Till My Tale is Told.”  Here are three quotes that were the “unwritten laws” and the mentality of Marxists, Leninists and Stalin himself was attributed for saying the following:

“You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.”

Obviously people of Stalin’s ilk knew nothing about cooking and nurturing of the family with providing food. However, he DID know a lot about destruction and keeping people off balance with his different diabolical tactics.  All the early Bolsheviks could think about was destroying the aristocracy and catching up with the western nations by industrializing. (Where were the environmentalists who claim to care about the environment then?  Look no further than the Aral Sea for your answer to Stalin’s broken omelette) The Soviet mentality was to crush as many people who stood in the way of that goal to be omnipotent.

Another quote common in that era of frenzied fervor was “If you chop down trees, the chips are bound to fly.” Also, these Soviet agitators against families who worked the ground for sustenance probably couldn’t pick up an axe and chop trees if their life depended on it.  All Marx knew how to do was write volumes on the very paper that came from these felled trees. Marx had a secure life, he was underwritten by a man who believed in what he wrote.  Oh, to have such a patron, but what devastating consequences because of Stalin’s zeal for revolution using Marx words to buttress his strategies.

Lastly another quote appropriate to the Russian Revolution of 1917 was, “You can’t make a revolution wearing white gloves.” How many people were wearing white gloves in those days?  The aristocracy perhaps but also if you did manual labor, gloves were a way of hiding the callouses on the hands. Much blood will be on the hands of Stalin and all who followed his orders, millions of people perished during his autocratic rule of 30 years.  His was a broken omelette and with this final series, I will use one more poem from Anna Barkova which she wrote in the Karaganda prison camp in 1935, close to Astana, Kazakhstan:

In the Prison-Camp Barracks

I can’t sleep, and blizzards are howling

In a time that has left no trace,

And Tamburlaine’s gaudy pavilions

Strew the steppes… Bonfires blaze, bonfires blaze.

Let me go, like a Mongol tsaritsa,

To the depths of the years that have fled;

I’d lash to the tail of my steppe mare

My enemies, lovers, and friends.

And you, the world that I’d conquered,

My savage revenge would lay waste;

While in my pavilion the fallen

Ate the barbarous meats of my feast.

And then, at one of the battles –

Unimaginable orgy of blood –

And defeat’s ineluctable moment

I’d throw myself on my own sword.

So I am a woman, a poet:

Now, tell me: what purpose has that?

Angry and sad as a she-wolf

I gaze at the years that are past.

And burn with a strange savage hunger,

And burn with a strange savage rage.

I am far from Tamburlaine’s bonfires,

His tents are far away, far away.

Karaganda 1935

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“Till My Tale is Told” – Part IV – “Officially Enforced Amnesia”

“A reluctance to speak out, personal reticence, public disbelief and indifference – were compounded by an officially enforced amnesia that for decades continued to deny and ignore the individual and collective trauma, suffered by millions.  With little hope of ever living to see publication, it required stubborn persistence to record and preserve these testimonies.”  from Simeon Vilensky’s as editor of “Till my Tale is Told” published by Indiana University Press, 1999

I can’t get over how people are turned off by history, this is a subject of immense importance to inform the present and the future decisions for any country.  Then again, I’ve presented papers at history conferences and I try to tune in to the white haired academicians who are boring to listen to and I can understand the dilemma. Yes, history can be made boring by boring men and women who don’t care about the facts or about truth!!!  These “learned men” read straight from their notes and if they insert a phrase “Marx wrote…” or “Marx believed…” then that scores BIG points among those in the elites of any given university history departments.  What amazes me is that it is like the Chinese saying, “Confucius said…” I say, who CARES WHAT MARX thought?  I care about what other people thought, wrote and said.   Those victims of Soviet Marxist thought will continue to remain nameless because of the diabolical agenda enforced against Kazakhstan and other countries suffer a collective amnesia about the tragedies that happened during the Soviet period.

Here’s another poem from the book “Till My Tale is Told”  written by one of the Soviet victims Anna Barkova which was translated from Russian to English:

He lived in a cold back garret

In Judea, in ancient Greece.

“I shall borrow the warmth of a lamb’s breath,

Warm my blood with a match’s heat.”

He gazed at the constellations,

Was a beggar, sang hymns to life;

Who murdered Osip, * life’s lover,

Yet chose to leave me alive?

With all my heart I curse life,

But just as intently hate death.

Who knows for what I am searching,

Who knows for what reason I battle on?

No doubt on the Day of Judgement

I shall laugh to myself in contempt

When I hear the seraphs talk nonsense,

And see that their harpstrings are frayed.

The refuse of denunciation

Has seen sifted by God himself,

And the acting Procurator

Is the Master and Chief of the Devils.

22 January 1976 * The poet Osip Mandelstam, who died in the Vladivostok transit camp in 1938.

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“Till My Tale is Told” – Part III – “Tortuous Hearts”

“People today will tell me:

all that was over and done with long ago,

So there is little point in recalling it.

I know very well that the tale of these events

Has indeed been long buried and forgotten.

Yet why, then, do they sometimes still rise

So vividly before our eyes?

Is it not because there was

Something else in this tragic past,

Apart from the tale,

That lies far from forgotten but,

To this day, continues to loom over our lives?

By Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedin in “Bygone Poshekhonie”

I know some of my blog readers might think that I focus too much on the tragic Soviet past and would rather I look to the hopeful future.  However, I can’t work in Kazakhstan without being reminded that there was a tragic past here, as the poet Mikhail above wrote, it “continues to loom over our lives.” Yes, I need to look at the past in order to understand what is happening presently while I work with the future of this country, the hardworking Kazakh and Kazakhstani students.

The following is another poem by Anna Barkova, she indeed had her share of struggles.  She witnessed how Stalin wanted to build up the former Soviet Union with collectivization, she saw the destruction of any trace of religion.  Not sure what was going on in Anna’s heart, it was tortured as was her body and mind. She left behind poems that reveal her love of words, this passage is found in “Till My Tale is Told” edited by Simeon Vilensky:

What’s the point of faith to some fatherland,

Why pretend that we’ve one settled home?

Now, facing life’s judgement, each one of us

Is merciless, indigent, strong.

With a sneer of disapprobation,

We’ll remember our fathers’ mistakes;

We know now that our sainted relations

Were gambling for worthless stakes.

And with a slave’s quiescence

We shall pay our blood-stained toll,

In order to build a useless

Heaven of concrete and steel.

Behind a door hoped with iron

In the dark of our tortuous hearts

A priest conducts godless rituals,

A suffering saint, and a liar.

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“Till My Tale is Told” Part II – “Tatar Anguish” poem

“It seemed as if the monstrous Stalinist regime had given birth to a new type of human being, a submissive, inert creature, mute and devoid of initiative.  So it is important that our contemporaries hear the voices of the surviving representatives of another generation of women, born at the beginning of the century, who through the nightmare of false accusation, torture, humiliation, hunger and unspeakable deprivation, bring to the us the ideals of true humanity.” Written by Vera Shulz (Taganka prison)

From the preface of Simeon Vilensky’s Russian version of “Till My Tale is Told: Women’s Memoirs of the Gulag”

As I wrote in yesterday’s blog, a former student of mine in Almaty sent me the link to this fascinating book published in 1999 by Indiana University Press titled “Till My Tale is Told: Women’s Memoirs of the Gulag.” She knew that I have inordinate fascination about what happened in the former Soviet Union, particularly in Kazakhstan where a third of its territory was taken up in the Gulag system.  GULAG is really an acronym which means: Main Administration for Corrective-Labor Camps.   Read on the pathos here as written by Anna Barkova

Tatar anguish, anguish of the Volga.

Grief from far-away and ancient times.

Fate I share with beggars and with royalty,

Steppe and steppe-grass. ages gallop by.

On the salty Kazakh steppeland

I walk, head bare beneath the skies;

The mutter of grass dying of hunger,

The dreary howl of wolves and wind.

So let me walk, fearless, unthinking.

On unmarked paths, by wolfsbane clumps.

To triumph, to shame, to execution,

Heeding no time, saving no strength.

At my back lies a palisade of barbs,

A faded flag, which once was red;

Before me, death. revenge. Rewards,

The sun, or a savage, angry dusk.

The angry twilight glows with bonfires,

Great cities blaze. put to the flames;

Knowing slave labour’s agonies.

They choke and putrefy with shame.

All is alight, all flies to ash.

Yet why should breathing hurt me so?

Closely you cleave to Europe’s flesh,

Dark Tatar soul.

(c.1954) Translations from “An Anthology of Russian Women’s Writing, 1777-1992, edited by Catriona Kelly, Oxford University Press, 1994

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“Till My Tale is Told” – Part I – “No justice”

“The Soviet totalitarian regime existed for more than 70 years.  It was neither overthrown nor formally brought to justice.  Unlike the Nazis, not one of the Bolshevik leaders were ever tried and punished.  Whereas the Nazi elite was expelled from German public life, the Soviet elite transformed its appearance and remained in power.  Moreover, many sections of Russian society today are nostalgic for the Communist past.”

From the preface of Simeon Vilensky’s English version of “Till My Tale is Told: Women’s Memoirs of the Gulag”

A former student of mine in Almaty e-mailed me about this great book published by Indiana University Press in 1999.  Liya sent me the poems of Anna Barkova which I’ll feature in my blog this week.  Much different than showing the colorful Buddy Bears, there are some dark, sad stories I believe that need to be revealed.  The following poem is quite graphic but very effective in showing the wrenching of soul against the tethers of Soviet injustice.  Probably in the Russian language it is even more powerful, but see for yourself, the English translation is as good as any Emily Dickinson or Robert Frost.

In a common pit, without a headstone,

I shall finish walking my life’s road.

The pages of my writings, rubbed and faded,

May be found by someone in the end;

Perhaps he’ll be insane enough to like them,

To like the vicious prickles of my verse,

‘Genius and power of prophecy suffice here.,

He’ll say. ‘to make this stuff a name of sorts.

And by the verb and adjective agreement

I’d say it was a woman who wrote these texts,

She was a restless soul and nothing pleased her ,

But she’d a sharp, a fierce intelligence.

I’ll send my pupils round the dusty attics,

Yes. all the dusty attics in the town.

With luck they’ll find, I hope, some other matter

That’s written in the same, though unknown. hand.

The students sift the heaped-up sheets of paper .

And grab assorted refuse by the ton.

Mixing the sins I actually committed

With other people’s dull and trifling ones.

All in good time these pupils get to work and-

Enlightening themselves, enlightening others too-

They write their dissertations by the dozen

About my life, sunk in obscureness now.

Their style’s by turn gushing, dull, or dogmatic,

From day to day hypotheses they mint,

So in my common pit I’m fit to vomit,

O, fit to vomit with the tripe they print.

For reasons that the years have cloaked in mystery

(For who can map the darkness of those times?)

This poetess, we’re loath to tell our readers,

Was flung into a labour camp, it seems.

Records allow us to make no suggestion

Of how and for what reason she transgressed;

Without a doubt her action was detestable,

A crime that would make the law-abiding gasp.

And whilst in prison, she was often beaten

(So, at any rate, we may suppose),

But her disciples all showed her devotion,

And her students loved her none the less.

From Fragment Number Eight we may construe that

A patron of the arts came to her aid;

But the paucity of evidence is such that

We cannot speculate on names and dates.

The other texts (q.v.) all have lacunae

So that the work of many future years

Is requisite if scholars are to pinpoint

The reasons why this poet suffered thus.

Oh! Poetess”, not ..poet”! Please excuse me!

But wait a moment! Let us pause for thought!

Might it not be that there is some confusion,

Might my mistake not guide us to the truth?

This intellect, so bitter and unsparing,

Dear colleagues-surely it is masculine?

Cool clarity of spirit so unwavering,

The manner caustic, dry, as desert winds-

Yes, all quite foreign to a woman’s nature:

Colleagues! We ought to track down all the facts,

And when the evidence is on the table,

We may determine character and sex.

How much there is in this that’s truly touching!

How much of general interest in these themes!

Well, to the documents! Begin researching!

Gather the verse, prose, letters, all in reams!

It seems our poet attained the furthest boundaries

Of fame, poetic genius, and old age;

And every town in Russia wished to tender

For the chance to be his final resting-place;

But his bones were buried in deep secret

And proselytes in their devoted crowds

Walked to the place of burial beside him

Along a little path outside a town.

They were decked by the night in starry robes of mourning,

Torches were lit along the coffin’s way…

But regretfully I must inform you

That we have yet to find the famous grave.

‘ But here my bones ring out in indignation,

Beating against a stranger’ s in the pit:

What’s this? I’m buried in a northern graveyard!

You filthy hack, you’re lying through your teeth!

I know that your parade of erudition

Is meant to net you a professorship;

But readers who want to know what I have written

Won’t find me in your fly-blown vinaigrette.

Beyond the grave they’ve given me a sex-change,

When all my life, each hour, I was a she!

Patrons- to hell with them. What use were patrons

In the days that I was forced to see?

And I never had a single pupil

And they didn’t beat me in the gaol;

I was condemned by a ludicrous tribunal,

And my ..crime” was just as laughable.

I lived amongst young women who were stupid

And old ones who were senile and ran mad;

And the watery prison soup they fed me

Made my flesh dry up, my spirit fade.

The funeral procession and the torches

Are all a figment of your clichéd brain-

In a common pit my body rotted,

Whilst alongside five others did the same.’

(c.1954)

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