I was seven years old in 1943 when my father disappeared. It was the fourth year of the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, and he was not at home. I kept asking my mother about my father, and her standard reply became, “Don’t worry—he is on a business trip and will be back as soon as he can.” At first, I believed her, but I wanted a fuller explanation. I missed my father terribly, but my mother never told me that he was assigned to a hard labor battalion or, later in 1944, that he was sent to Theresienstadt. She could not tell me the truth.
We were a small family of three and shared much, including family meals every evening. As the occupation dragged on, I also saw less and less of my mother. She was assigned to work in a German-controlled textile factory on the outskirts of Prague. At first, I would still see her in the evening and we’d eat together, but when she was transferred to the evening shift, I would not see her when I came home from school.
The availability of food also changed dramatically. During the German occupation, ration cards were issued for everything—meat, fat, milk, sugar, and other foods. As the war dragged on, there was less food and fewer ration cards. Each time my mother bought an item in a store, her card was punched. And there were strict rules about the use of these cards.
Often on Sundays my mother and I had lunch together. Because there was a coal shortage, we ate in the kitchen, the warmest room in the apartment. It was easier for my mother, as she could just dish food from the stove. She was tired from working five nights a week. One Sunday she presented a medley of cooked carrots, turnips, Brussels sprouts (which I did not like), and a mound of mashed potatoes topped with mushroom gravy (which I always enjoyed).
Mother hardly ever scolded me, but she was angry that day. As we sat down, she explained that for a while we would have no meat, only vegetables, because the butcher had no meat either. He told her that the Germans were inspecting all of his sales receipts and limiting deliveries. There was not enough food for German soldiers, and according to Nazi authorities, feeding German soldiers was more important than feeding the inferior Czechs. Because my mother was a longtime customer, the neighborhood butcher would sometimes sell her meat even when he said he had none, if she promised to bring in the government coupons.
But I was the main reason we had no meat that Sunday. After a hockey game on the frozen Vltava River, some boys stopped at a street cart to get steaming hot dogs with an irresistible aroma. A portly, mustachioed man—bundled up and wearing gloves—greeted us. Each of us ordered a hot dog, which is called a parky in Czech. He took off one glove and poked a long fork into an open vat of boiling water. He speared two big, juicy parkies, placed them on a scale, weighed them, and sliced each one in half. He then sliced four pieces from a large round loaf of rye bread, smeared each piece with yellow mustard, and placed a piece of parky into each slice. His face lit up with pride, like a sidewalk artist who has just finished a quick portrait. Then he asked for four meat coupons and 20 Czech korunas.
That’s when the problem started. Each of us had a five-koruna coin, but no one seemed to have coupons for meat. Jan kept searching the pockets of his trousers, while Tomáš was searching his jacket, and Edvard admitted that his mother never gave him a ration card. I was taking everything out of my knapsack. The parky smelled great, but things looked bleak.
After a hectic search I finally found ours. My mother, anticipating my needs, put the card in my knapsack. But that card was meant just for me, not for three other hungry boys. I knew it was a bad idea when I handed the street vendor my card, which he took, punched four times, and returned to me, saying thank you.
I told the boys they had to pay me back soon. But I felt uneasy. When I got home my mother asked about the hockey game and whether I’d had a snack. When I told her the parky story, she crossed her arms and rolled her eyes. Whenever my mother rolled her eyes, I knew I was in trouble. She was upset with what I had done and reminded me of the food shortages. I defended myself by saying the boys promised to pay me back, but mother said the boys could not give me their meat cards, and no butcher would take them anyway.
For a week or more after the parky feast, I was reduced to eating bread and mustard without any meat. While I learned to tolerate mustard sandwiches, even trying different mustards, I missed those succulent, steaming hot dogs. My mother, ever the pragmatist, became a vegetarian.
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