Walter Panknin (1898 – 1977) and His Family – Part 10

Papa’s Miraculous Escape

In the first week of January 1945, Papa took the train to Zagreb, the capital and largest city of Croatia, from where he began the long train ride to Vienna. The resistance forces under the leadership of Josef Tito were cutting off all the supply lines from the north, which included the rail connections to Germany. So when Papa arrived in the capital of Austria, he heard that he had been on the very last passenger train that succeeded in leaving Yugoslavia. If we consider all the horrific atrocities that Tito’s guerilla army revengefully committed against German ethnic groups living in Yugoslavia in general and against German officers and ordinary soldiers in particular, it is fair to say that the birth of the twins had saved Papa from certain death.

On May 6, 1945, General Kesselring told Colonel-General Löhr, the commander of the southeast army, that Germany would capitulate on May 9. Löhr then contacted Tito to work out the capitulation details. The Yugoslavs ignored anything agreed upon as soon as the Germans had surrendered and had laid their arms down. They forced the POWs to march in so-called Sühnemärsche (atonement marches). The Geneva Convention states that POWs can march no more than 20km (12.5 miles) a day. One of the POW groups walked 75 km in 20 hours. Whoever straggled or was begging for water or food was shot. Ten thousand perished during those marches.

Picturesque Modern Day Croatia

Camp life was no better. Hardly any food was available. The prisoners had to gather herbs and cook them. The result was diarrhea and dysentery. “Death worked with a scythe” in Belgrade Camp # 1. The dysentery barracks housed eight hundred; it was called the death barracks. The death count was at least ten corpses each day. The camp masters worked the inmates to death in lumber camps and mines. They also forced them to clear minefields without the proper equipment. At times, at the end of a shift, hundreds of POWs were chased onto the cleared field to ensure that no mines remained. Those who died were buried in unmarked graves. The camp authorities did not attempt to record their names.

12 comments

  1. Amy · June 4

    War is indeed hell. It brings out the worst in human beings. Unfortunately the atrocities committed by the Germans themselves likely did not generate much empathy on the part of anyone who had fought against them in the war and had seen what had been done by Hitler and the Nazis to millions of innocent people.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Steve Gingold · June 4

    So many resort to atrocities as either vengeance or intimidation. I would guess that many of those who toiled at times wished for death. Your Papa was indeed fortunate to make it out of Croatia when he did. As much as we feel things are at times bad in our lands these days, and in many cases there is no excuse for them, it is still hard to imagine living in a war torn country and dealing with the aftermath.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Peter Klopp · June 5

      Thank you, Steve, for your thoughful comment! From the very beginning of mankind, war has been part of human history. Too sad.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pure Glory · June 4

    Someone definitely prayed for Papa, whether he knew it or not. To have twins, be granted leave to see them, to escape from sure death is a miracle. Then you were able to meet Biene years later while she and Walter were with Papa. Truly amazing that he escaped from Croatia. God is truly good.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Stella, oh, Stella · June 4

    Papa must have been rewarded for his overall justice and decency with which he treated people. Terrible atrocities happened on all sides during and after that war.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Peter Klopp · June 5

      War is terrible especially in the mids of the atrocities that were committed on all sides.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Ann Coleman · June 6

    War does indeed bring out the worst in people, and part of that worst is the need for “revenge” against enemy forces. I doubt that they realized that most soldiers, no matter what side they fight on, are usually decent people just caught up in horrible situations. Revenge just furthers the evil, I think. I’m so sorry for all those who suffered during that horrible war and its aftermath!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Peter Klopp · June 9

      I wonder if the cycle of hatred, prejudice, revenge, and war can ever be broken. Thank you, Ann, for sharing your thoughts with us!

      Liked by 2 people

      • Ankur Mithal · June 12

        I worry about that too, Peter. In my view, the feelings of pain and humiliation never go away. They are there below the surface ready to boil over or be exploited by some leader who doesn’t care about the human cost as it is for his ’cause.’

        Liked by 1 person

      • Peter Klopp · June 13

        It seems to me that nothing has changed very much in the first twenty years of the 21st century.

        Liked by 1 person

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