Walter Panknin (1898 – 1977) and his Family – Part 1

Gotha, my Wife’s Birthplace

Gotha today is the fifth-largest city in Thuringia, Germany, located 20 kilometres west of Erfurt with a population of 44,000. In the Middle Ages, Gotha was a prosperous trading town on the trade route Via Regia. Between 1650 and 1850, Gotha saw a cultural heyday as a centre of sciences and arts, fostered by the dukes of Saxe-Gotha The first duke, Ernest the Pious, was famous for his wise rule. The cartographer Justus Perthes and the encyclopedist Joseph Meyer made Gotha a leading centre of German publishing around 1800. In that period, Gotha became an industrial core with companies like the Gothaer Waggonfabrik, a producer of trams and airplanes. One of the main sights of Gotha is the early-modern Friedenstein Castle, one of the largest Renaissance/Baroque castles in Germany. It was built between 1643 and 1654 and is one of Germany’s first sizeable Baroque residence castles. Some essential scientific institutions were the ducal library (today’s Forschungsbibliothek Gotha as part of the University of Erfurt), founded in 1650, the “coin cabinet” (1712), the “art and natural collection,” basis of today’s museums, and the Gotha Observatory at Seeberg mountain.

Friedenstein Castle

Much of Thuringia’s acclaim as the green heart of Germany is due to the Thuringian Forest (Thüringer Wald), not far from Gotha. Germans have celebrated its landscapes at least since the time of Goethe. Its romantic villages with cottage workshops do little to dispel the illusion of an era that appears frozen in a time when life was still uncomplicated and beautiful.

My Wife’s Birth Place in Gotha

In 1937 Walter and Elisabeth Panknin (née Reifferscheid), moved from Dortmund to Gotha. After they had met and fell in love in 1928, they married two years later, on November 25th, 1930, in Berlin-Charlottenburg. Not long after their daughter arrived in Calgary in April 1966, her parents became my parents-in-law. Therefore, I will, for the sake of simplicity, often call them Papa and Mutti when describing their lives in this family history.

20 thoughts on “Walter Panknin (1898 – 1977) and his Family – Part 1

  1. My great great grandmother was born in Schalkau which is 91.5 km south of Gotha. Her name was Agnes Kümmelmann. She later moved to Scharmbeck and then boarded a ship in Bremen to New York City in the 1840s. Agnes and my great great grandfather Johann Friedrich Theler were married in New York in 1847. Their son William, my great grandfather, was born in 1848. William’s daughter, Mabel Elise Theler Dwyer, was my grandmother. And that in a nutshell is my German heritage! Any Kümmelmanns in your wife’s family tree, Peter?

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    • It would be more than a coincidence if indeed my wife and you were related. My father-in-law and mother-in-law were not originally from Gotha. My daughter-in-law Laura Fitzgerald has her roots in Ireland. There is a little bit of a connection through the countries of our origin.


  2. Ah, Thüringen! I have only ever really seen Erfurt. A friend of my father’s lived their (he had a Collie kennel), but we had to say that he was a cousin, because during DDR times one could only enter and visit family. And we were not allowed to make longer trips outside Erfurt and had to take the shortest way from the border to get there, no detours allowed. As soon as we arrived we had to register with the police that we were there, and we also had to unregister again. Sad times …
    But my father chose the time well, because at that time the international garden exhibition (IGA 1966) was taking place in Erfurt … 🙂
    I drove through Thüringen with my husband later on. It is indeed very beautiful.


  3. I am excited to learn more about Biene’s history.

    Reading about Gotha reminded me how rich and ancient is the history of places like this in Europe. US and Canadian history are so short in comparison—at least the non-indigenous population’s history, that is. And that house is beautiful—was it just for one family?

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  4. I confess my knowledge of Germany is very limited. When I looked up Thuringia on a map to see where it is, I found that it’s pretty centrally located within Germany. As for Gotha, I wondered if it was named after the Goths, but a Wikipedia article says the name comes from the Old High German gotaha that meant ‘good waters; the last part of that name was presumably a cognate of Latin aqua.

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      • You’re welcome, Old English also had a native cognate of Latin aqua. It’s hidden in the first part of the word island, which in Anglo-Saxon was written igland and ealond, meaning ‘watery land,’ i.e. ‘land surrounded by water.’ German replaced its native word with Insel, borrowed from the unrelated Latin insula.

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