Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2020

My Father’s Dictionary

My Father’s Dictionary

Photograph via Flickr by Photo Tractatus

Ge·burt, die          Substantiv          birth [bɜrθ]

My father was young once, I am told, but never small. A fourteen-pound fetus pulled by his own mother’s hands into the motherland, Germany, into a war that had not yet begun in 1936. For the next years, Klaus Jung would eat well while his father worked as a customs officer; his mother, a mother. He was given a language, German, but discouraged from using it—never to talk back, never to ask about the hushed voices in the other room. They were not a wealthy family, but their cabinets displayed the fine china, silverware, and linen tablecloths that the middle class owns but never uses. He wore knickerbockers, because that’s what people wore back then. His shirt was always starched. He swam in the Rhein and played soccer in the street with his three younger brothers and cousin who owned the only soccer ball in the neighborhood. It would be several years before he knew hunger.


Brot, das          Substantiv          bread [brɛd]

At first, the ration was hardly noticeable. A minor inconvenience, perhaps, to keep track of one’s ration card and make sure to get it stamped by a hand of the government. One pair of shoes per child per year, two pairs of trousers, enough wool for his mother to knit two gloves and two socks. All of the clothing was recycled, handed down. The uniform of a soldier could be recovered, cleaned, and altered to clothe a tall boy. The next year, that cloth would be altered again, this time for a smaller boy. And again and again, year after year,  until the dead soldier’s clothing returned to infancy.

Next came luxury food items like sugar and butter. About once a month, Klaus and his brothers walked down the street to the house of an elderly woman. They walked to her house in silence, quickly ate the cookies she had made from meager portions of her ration saved up for them each week. The woman and her husband disappeared one night. No one knew why. No one asked. There were no more cookies, and no more Jews.

There was no more fullness. The ration had been extended to include milk, flour, and potatoes. Two slices of bread per child per day: one half slice for breakfast, one half slice for lunch, and a full slice for dinner. One serving of milk waited for in line, ladled into cracked cups carried from home by small hands. The children were required to drink their allotted liquid immediately, lest it be spilled or stolen.

On Sundays, Klaus and his brothers collected dandelions while their mother combed through plowed potato fields to find a few that the harvest might have missed. The resulting stew was watery, salty, hollow inside them.

My father did not steal food, and no one stole from him. The consequences would have been unthinkable.

The ration was doled out town by town, family by family, and then person by person, each step closely scrutinized by men in crisp uniforms, men with guns. After her family’s portion was set aside, I am told, my grandmother placed a pebble in her own flour sack as it was being weighed to sacrifice some of her own food for her sons. For this, she was beaten.


Russ·land, das          Eigenname          Russia [rʌʃə]

Klaus was six years old when it finally happened, when they handed his father the note as he left work one Friday evening. A crisp, official document. His father did not unfold it right away but cradled it like a volatile explosive—the first of many—in his fingertips as he walked the miles home. It was not unexpected, and when he and his wife finally did open the letter, there was no need to read most of the words printed on it. The only word that mattered was “Russia.”

That was the word that made his mother cry. She prepared an unusually large meal that night and sobbed into her potatoes while Klaus and his brothers ate and avoided eye contact and did not notice their father and felt guilty for enjoying the extra. The draft notice remained on the table. To look at it was to feel paper cuts.


Brief, der           Substantiv          Letter [ˈlɛtər]

Albert Jung. Missing in Action.


Schu·le, die          Substantiv          School [skul]

It was a small school, and there were only nine grades. My father’s marks, according to him, were “better than average.” He was not an intellectual. He aspired to play soccer and swim in the Rhein and maybe become a mechanic. He did not mind the daily bomb drills. The scream of the sirens sent him and his classmates shuffling, unpanicked, into the cement bunker adjacent to the school. It was a ritual like any other, numbed by repetition. The bunker was a single room, a gargantuan monolith in my father’s childhood memory where the children huddled, together, in darkness, unafraid.

Sometimes the drills were not drills.

The intended target was a railroad junction one mile away, but when the bomb collided with cement above him it did not feel accidental. It was a malevolent, crumbling roar from all directions. It punched and jarred the breath out of him.

The dust cleared, and everyone coughed and stood up and survived.


Nach·richt·en, die          Substantiv           News [nuz, nyuz]

A man with a remarkable capacity for remembering names escaped a prisoner of war camp in Siberia. After memorizing the names of his 400 fellow prisoners, he deliberately relinquished some tiny nugget of information to his captors. Ordinarily, this would be grounds for arrest and execution in his native country, but he was acting on official orders. As planned, the Russians set him free in order to make an example of him to the more reticent prisoners. He traversed miles of tundra on foot, continuously rehearsing the hundreds of names under his breath.

Upon returning to Germany, he refused to sit down. He demanded a typewriter. The resulting list of names was delivered to Hans who handed it to Stephen who told Heidi who told Berndt who mentioned something to Aunt Berta who lived in Frankfurt. My father’s father was alive.


Schok·ol·ade, die          Substantiv          Chocolate [ˈtʃɔkəlɪt, ˈtʃɒkə-, ˈtʃɔklɪt, ˈtʃɒk-]

The American soldiers introduced my father to chocolate when he was nine years-old.

They also shot him.

He was carrying a box of ammunition from a warehouse to a truck, a popular pre-Hitler youth activity for a young, robust German male, when he heard a gunshot from the other side of the Rhein. This sound was nothing out of the ordinary, and he did not immediately connect it with the sudden flash of heat in his right calf. He collapsed and felt himself grow warm with leaking blood. Several hours later, a horse and buggy delivered him home to his mother and grandmother.


Tep·pi·che, die          Substantiv          Carpet [kɑrpɪt]

Carpet bombing. That’s what they called it—a world carpeted in chaos, a country carpeted in shame, an apartment complex carpeted in ruin.


Berg, der          Substantiv          Mountain [ˈmaʊntn]

Klaus and his brothers marched single file behind their mother, whose resolute body and broad footprints cleared a path for them in the snow. Each son carried a small suitcase; she carried two. They had left the apartment complex in Bonn, locked the door, turned off the lights, abandoned the walls and furniture. Having left their skeleton home to the mercy of falling explosives, they were shivering their way to Lennestadt, where Aunt Helga lived. Bonn’s factories and railroads had made the city of my father’s birth an attractive target, but the allies would not waste bombs on the quiet farming community of Lennestadt. Or so Aunt Helga assured them.

One hundred and twenty six kilometers. Eighty miles. Klaus’ mother limped with her left foot bound up in a pair of pantyhose because a week earlier she had been cutting potatoes in the kitchen when one of her sons accidentally startled her and the knife landed on its point, in the floor, through her foot.

The family lived in Lennestadt for two years. Aunt Helga was mistaken.

It was indeed a quiet farming community, nestled behind an industrial steel plant. To prevent the allies from bombing the plant out of commission, the Germans had surrounded it with giant tubs of fuel. When alert came from the coast that an attack was imminent, the fuel was set ablaze to cloak the plant in thick black smoke, making it invisible from above.

During these raids, the citizens of Lennestadt were required to evacuate their homes. If they stayed, the noxious smog that they had created would kill them before the bombs of the enemy would even arrive. At least once per week, they gathered in the makeshift shelter, a hollowed-out cave on the side of a mountain.

Wailing sirens was “planes are coming.”

One long tone and two short tones was “it’s safe to go back.”

The wailing continued for two or three days.

The wind was a cold shout heard by skin through threadbare clothes.

Someone forgot something.

My father forgot his gloves and fell asleep and was disfigured by frostbite. He still cannot uncurl his left ring finger. It never unfroze.