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  • In a Silent City
  • Ilya Kaminsky (bio)

What I remember most of all is washing Leo Tolstoy's ears. The year was 1989, the mornings of Revolution, the year when my birth country began to fall apart. His ears are larger than my head, as I am standing on the shoulders of a boy who is standing on the shoulders of another boy. I am scrubbing the enormous bearded head on a pedestal—in the center of Tolstoy Square, one block from our first apartment. This is childhood: once a year, my classmates and I are sent to the center of the square. Our assignment is to wash the head of a dead writer. We climb on top of each other's bodies and scrub Tolstoy's nostrils, ears.

In the distance, my parents watch, laughing. Their deaf boy climbs and scrubs the enormous ears. Behind them, a band of sailors marches on. Odessa is a seaport with a large navy school. The young captain shouts, though I can't hear him: Left, right, left, right. The sailors' legs go up and down, up and down. Aware that I see her from my Tolstoy post, my middle-aged, slightly heavy mother begins to march at the end of their column, her legs high, mimicking their legs, her skirt flying up, as my father salutes.


I had no hearing aids until I came to America. The Odessa I know is a silent city, where the language is invisibly linked to my father's lips moving as I watch his mouth repeat stories again and again. He turns away. The story stops. He looks at me again, but the story has already moved on.

Decades later, when I come back to this city, I don't feel I have quite returned until I take my hearing aids out.

Click—and people's lips move again, but no sound.

No footsteps of grandmothers running after grandchildren. No announcements by conductors as the tram stops at a station and, finally, I jump off. The cab whooshes by me and abruptly parks at the curb. I do not hear the screech of its brakes.

This is the Odessa of my childhood: my father's lips open, in Provianskaya Street. I see a story. He bends to pick up a coin. The story stops. Then, as he straightens up and smiles at me, it is a story again.


A soldier drags a Jewish child out of the house. His adoptive mother, a half-naked, wailing Russian woman, is running behind the soldiers. Another soldier [End Page 68] blocks her. Another soldier slaps her and laughs. The street empties, child's toys lying in the snow. The neighbors shut windows. Doors slam. A woman kneels on an empty sidewalk as two soldiers shove her child into the van.

That's when it happened, my father's lips pause—

Out of the snow of Odessa, a fat Ukrainian man appears. What are you doing? You bastards! Why are you taking away my child? Give me your names! You bastards. I will go to the authorities. Your names! His spit flies in the angry air. I want to see your documents! He can't stop spitting.

Soldiers pause, bewildered. This is a child of a Jew—can't you see?

You morons! Do I look like a Jew? The fat Ukrainian stomps his foot, he shakes his large body around the young woman on the pavement.

The windows begin to open. Who speaks to soldiers like this in the occupied city? People stare. The soldiers steal a look at the windows. Now they walk quickly to the van. The child is thrown in the snow.

The fat man gathers the boy in his hands, wraps him in an overcoat. I will complain to the authorities! A long, passionate kiss. The van with soldiers disappears into the streets.

Without adding a single word, the fat man walks away with the child and the woman. He makes sure they walk in front of him. The neighbors never see him again. But this story lives on, and my father, the child the man saved, the child who never again sees...


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pp. 68-77
Launched on MUSE
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