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The Refuseniks
By Aviva Dautch

The neighbours crowd into our front room to hear

my father make the calls, discuss tactics for hours,


what’s allowed to be spoken and what merely implied.

My job is to hand round strong tea in china cups,


bridge rolls with chopped herring, egg, smoked salmon,

the strudels and kichels my grandmother’s baked –


they worry her, these meetings, but her soul insists

visitors must be well fed. We are phoning The Russians.


Afterwards there will be whisky but for now we all need

clear heads. Dad picks up the handset. I sit at his feet


untwisting the cord. My mouth tastes of salt and almonds.

There are months we can’t get a dial tone and the line


beeps its morse of silent secrets. I’m sent to bed,

mouth the words of the safe code, Shema Yisrael.


Downstairs, Dad’s on his own, whispering in Yiddish:

stories of work destroyed, of visa requests denied.


Grandma brings him mugs of borscht, blood coloured.

Three years later the Wall’s torn down. After glasnost


and perestroika and my father’s death, the Refuseniks visit.

Their daughter’s almost my age – we share no language


so speak in signs, making phones from our thumbs

and little fingers, tracing lifelines on each other’s palms.

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