Walter Panknin (1898 – 1977) and His Family Ch7 Part 09

The Sunset Years

Before the ‘golden years’ arrived, the division of labour was fair for both husband and wife. In the following posts, I will talk about the injustice of the heavy burden for Frau Panknin as a mother, housekeeper, cook, and wife. I will also show how much, on the other hand, Papa enjoyed his sunset years as a father, hiker, traveller, hobbyist, and history enthusiast.

Grocery shopping has drastically changed since the early 1960s. Nowadays, well-to-do families living in their homes or modern high-rise apartment buildings take the elevator down to the ground floor, step into their car and drive to a nearby shopping centre. After they are done shopping, they may have time to dine in a family restaurant and take the kids to a bowling alley or the movies for some weekend entertainment.

Elisabeth Panknin on her 60th Birthday – 1960

Sixty years ago, in the little town of Velbert, Elisabeth Panknin went shopping at least twice a week. She takes two large cloth bags and descends the 120 steps down to the ground floor of the three-story building. The tiny neighbourhood corner store only carries bare essentials, like bread, milk and butter. Frau Panknin takes the bus to a larger city. She only buys as much as she can carry. Public transportation poses a problem when the bags are filled to the hilt, and there is no seat for a sixty-year-old woman in an overcrowded bus reeking from the nauseating fumes of cigarette smoke. It is also time-consuming. If you miss the bus, you may have to wait up to an hour to catch the next one. Mutter Panknin finally stands at the entrance of the apartment building. Huffing and puffing, she climbs up the staircase with the two heavy bags of groceries. Then, you will not believe this. She immediately starts cooking the evening meal for her husband and the twins Gertrud and Walter.

Walter Panknin (1898 -1977) and His Family Ch6 Part 5

The Judiciary That Sentenced 50,000 People to Death

Walter Panknin’s Fight for Justice – Part 2

I chose the title from the West German News Magazine as the heading for this post. It confirms what my father-in-law had described in a letter to a friend. The title reveals a dark chapter in the judicial system of postwar West Germany. The article, as quoted in the previous post and continued here, is an eye-opener for the legal battles Herr and Frau Panknin had to fight in their struggle for justice.

“Now the halls of justice were even staffed with judges who had once served on the Nazis’ People’s Court (Volksgerichtshof), which was set up in 1934 to handle “political offenses” and became notorious for the frequency, arbitrariness and severity of its punishments. Nevertheless, the civilian courts handling the de-Nazification process merely classified them as “hangers-on.” In 1953, at least 72 percent of judges on the Federal Supreme Court, Germany’s highest court for criminal and civil law, had former Nazi connections. The number increased to 79 percent by 1956 and, in the criminal division, it was at 80 percent by 1962.”


Now we understand the anger and frustration my in-laws experienced for more than five years. Poor Papa Panknin, having demonstrated and documented through his actions before and during WW2 his anti-fascist position, encountered, in an ironic twist of fate, one humiliating rejection of his applications after another. The former Nazi judges were back, making ideologically motivated decisions. In Papa’s correspondence, I found names such as Franz Schlegelberger – Minister of Justice (1941 and 1942), Hans Globke (he participated in drafting the Nuremberg race laws), and Theodor Oberländer – as an academic laying the foundation of the Final Solution. Many were found guilty in the Nuremberg trials, and some were sentenced to life imprisonment, then released after a few years, going into judiciary service or early retirement with a pension six times higher than the average worker in the Federal republic.

https://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/from-dictatorship-to-democracy-the-role-ex-nazis-played-in-early-west-germany-a-810207.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Franz_Schlegelberger

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hans_Globke

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodor_Oberl%C3%A4nder

Walter Panknin (1898 – 1977) and His Family Ch7 Part 4

Walter Panknin’s Fight for Justice Part 1

Bit by bit, in an all-out power grab, the Nazis were taking control of the various institutions, such as the justice system, local and regional police forces, the banks, as well as the army, navy and air force. In a letter to the Minister of Interior Affairs in 1959, Walter Panknin wrote that membership in the NSDAP was mandatory for every police department in Germany. At a time when even foreign ministries initially recognized the legitimacy of the Nazi government, Papa Panknin was forced to join the party in 1934. However, he resisted joining the SS that all the higher-ranked officers were expected to become part of. Despite a barrage of threats and chicaneries, he steadfastly refused to become part of the infamous SS or to quit the Lutheran Church of Germany. Most officers in the armed and police forces had incredible advancements waiting for them, climbing up the rank ladder at a great speed, especially after the start of WW2. My father-in-law never moved any higher than his actual rank of captain during the entire war years. He had to take a punitive transfer to a battalion stationed in Croatia, which turned out as a blessing in disguise. (see chapter 3).

Herr Panknin described, while dealing with the federal and provincial government departments, his battles in army-like terms, his quest for justice. He fought a paper war on many fronts:  

  1. His right to fair and equal treatment as a former officer of the regular armed forces compared with officers of the former members of the SS of the same rank,
  2. Recognition of his refugee status C, which was denied because, as an anti-fascist, he had no reason to leave the Soviet-controlled Zone of East Germany as he was told,
  3. Entitlement to a Pension as a former officer or at least granting a meagre old age pension, 
  4. Compensation for the well-documented bicycle accident in the early 1930s (somewhat like the BC Workmen’s Compensation Board), which he was eligible to receive and did not get.
Papa Panknin

The reason why Papa Panknin and his family had so much trouble  finding justice in West Germany as a refugee from the former German Democratic Republic can be found in an article published by the German News Magazine ‘Der Spiegel.’

“Roughly 80 percent of the judges and prosecutors who had served Hitler’s regime of terror until May 8 were soon dispensing justice once again — but this time in the young Federal Republic. “Perhaps there is truly evidence,” wrote Nazi expert Jörg Friedrich, “that a constitutional state can stand on a judicial mass grave.”

In the misery of the postwar era, lawyers were urgently needed. Although the crime rate skyrocketed in the era of black markets and refugees, there was a shortage of judges to hear cases. To make up for the deficiencies, the occupiers of the western zones appointed judges who had retired before 1933, or they hired lawyers untainted with Nazi connections. Starting in October 1945, the British practiced the so-called “piggyback procedure” in the recently established judicial administration: For each judge without a Nazi past, one judge with former Nazi connections could be appointed. But, by the summer of 1946, even this restriction had been dropped.

To be continued …

Walter Panknin (1898 -1977) and His Family Ch7 Part 3

Papa Panknin’s Life in Review

Born and raised in Kalthof, West Prussia, steeped in the traditional work ethics of his time, Walter Panknin perceived his employment as a police officer as a contract between the state and the individual. The state offers the individual a permanent position with an income commensurate with his rank and the prospect of a pension providing security and a comfortable living for retirement. In return, the individual faithfully and honourably delivers a service to his country.

Walter Panknin 1918

In 1915, barely seventeen years old, Papa volunteered and served as a soldier in the Great War. When the German army was reduced to 100,000 men in 1919, he embarked on a career in the police force in North Rhine-Westphalia. His leadership qualities were soon recognized, and he moved quickly up the ranks, becoming a leader of a police detachment in a small town near Dortmund during the turbulent time of the Weimar Republic. One day, while riding his bike to work, he took a spill and fell to the ground. Unfortunately, as he landed on the cobblestone street, his service pistol went off and sent a bullet through his abdomen. At the hospital, the surgeon discovered that the shot had destroyed his left kidney. So Papa had to spend the rest of his life with only one kidney.

Walter and Elisabeth Pankin on their Honeymoon in Italy

The night before the Nazis seized power in 1933, rowdy Brownshirts (SA stormtroopers) terrorized the townspeople with their unruly behaviour in the streets. Walter Panknin, responsible for law and order, sent out the police force and had the troublemakers arrested. The very next day, a call came from the Nazi headquarters, demanding his immediate resignation. His career as a police officer would have ended if some influential friends had not put in a good word for him. That was his first brush with the new dictatorial regime.

Walter Panknin (1898 – 1977) and His Family Ch7 Part 2

Struggle for Justice

Biene described in vivid detail her mother’s exhausting trips by public transportation and on foot to the government offices in the bigger cities. With unwavering determination, she bypassed the lower-ranked officials. She gained access to the ministers of justice and social services, an incredible feat that only people familiar with the German bureaucracy can understand. In those days, there was no phone service for the general public, no emails, and no Internet search engines that we in the twenty-first century take for granted. With her tenacity and unshakeable resolve, she managed to open doors, scout for invaluable information and find assistance in the fight to recognize their refugee status and Papa Panknin’s pension claim.

Walter Panknin at the Dental Lab 1957


To fully understand their situation, we need to go back to 1957. The Panknin family, like so many refugees from the Soviet-controlled eastern part of Germany (GDR – German Democratic Republic), lived in extreme poverty. My father-in-law, former captain of the police force and later commander of an army unit in former Yugoslavia, provided with his meagre income the cost of food and shelter for the family of four. He worked as a dental technician in a lab in a nearby city. What his wife had accomplished by blazing a trail and opening doors to influential politicians, Walter Panknin complemented her efforts by resorting to his powerful writing skills. Reading his elaborate correspondence with the movers and shakers of the government ministries of the West German province of Rhineland-Westphalia, I gained great insight into their struggle for justice. What really impressed me was how the couple worked together as a team. I also learned that despite the glitz and glamour of the economic boom (Wirtschaftswunder), there was something rotten in Germany.

Walter Panknin (1898 – 1977) and His Family Ch7 Part 1

Switching Authors Again

Biene wrote the preceding chapters based on a wealth of experiences from 1945 to the early 1960s. The story begins with her father’s return from the Bad Kreuznach POW camp to his family and home in Gotha. It ends with a vivid description of life as a refugee family in the so-called ‘Golden West.’ In loving memory, she sees her mother as a pillar of strength. She did not hesitate to jeopardize her health and well-being in the fight for justice for her husband and children. Biene depicts Papa Panknin’s stern appearance without the usual negativity often found in a father-daughter relationship. She briefly mentions her squabbles with her twin brother Walter. For example, the abusive ‘burrowing’ of her dolls and toys and often wrecking them bothered her. In retrospect, she preferred to dwell on the joys and emotional support she received from her friends while entering her teenage years.

Modest Beginning in the ‘Golden West’ – Christmas 1958

The task at hand of writing about the rest of the story will be a challenging one for me. In contrast to Biene, I did not have personal experiences with my parents-in-law. Indeed, I only had the pleasure of meeting them three years after our wedding in Canada. However, what enables me to throw detailed light on Papa and Mutti’s life is their love and passion for expressing themselves through their immense correspondence with friends and relatives. They meticulously sorted and preserved their work in well-organized, dated folders and binders.

Papa Panknin suffered from nervous tics in his facial muscles and hands dating back to WW1 shell shocks. Therefore, he used an old typewriter for his letters to government officials, friends, and relatives. Typing had the advantage of producing carbon copies for his records, for which I am very grateful, making my job as a family chronicler much easier. My writing will be drier for the most part and less colourful than Gertrud’s autobiographical notes. However, I hope that many excerpts from his correspondence, especially those dealing with family events, will be noticed even in translation. So without further ado, let the extraordinary story of the Walter Panknin family continue.

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