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Naftaly Aronovich Frenkel
Architect of the Gulag System

[1]317 words

for Robert Conquest


Each day Naftaly greets a prison train.
Two days ago: spies and reactionaries,
yesterday: kulaks from Ukraine,
this morning: counter-revolutionaries.

Snug in his fur behind militia guards
who hold thick water hoses in the snow,
he looks at blue-lipped prisoners in cars,
exposed to frost of twenty-five below.

He tells the “fascist cattle” to undress
because they’re going “to take nice warm baths.”
“Enjoy this hot Siberian steam,” he says,
then slams the door. Behind it, no one laughs.

Not the young mother and her infant son,
not the old teacher leaning on his cane,
not the wry poet and the tender nun
whose final prayers and tears are frozen rain.


Only the strong make it to Magadan
to labour for a crumb or crust of bread,
a spoon of fish-bone soup. Tonight each man
is one of many pillars that must tread

through ice and snow from toil in the mines.
Now they rest in the barracks. Half are gone,
completely at odds with their freezing minds,
and half won’t live to see the light of dawn.

Together they stand, leaning up along
the walls to shore the gaping holes and cracks.
The weakest are supported by the strong,
those who wear rags and old potato sacks.

And every now and then one hears a cry,
not of agony, — but of despair,
as time and justice pass the pillars by
and barracks dim with each forsaken prayer.


And when I look down at the crimson map
I see the countless trains in permafrost,
and I see Frenkel, the star on his cap
above the twenty million who were lost.

I hear the broken Russian in each command;
The pillars and barracks rise up from the page
of the great Atlas, and I understand
the architecture of that place and age.

From Leo Yankevich, Tikkun Olam and Other Poems [2]