Walter Panknin (1898 – 1977) and His Family – Ch07 Part 16

Old Dreams and How the Ems River Adventure Ended

Papa writes, “The Ems is a fascinating little river from a landscape point of view but not like one would envision from reading the river and camping guide. Our trip resembled a rather strenuous exploratory expedition through sparsely populated jungle territories. Numerous weirs – some were not even mentioned in the tour guide – forced us to portage our heavy gear for a 700-metre distance and longer. We were the only long-distance paddlers on the river. That was partly due to the bad weather. At least, we had picked the most tolerable three weeks of this rained-out summer. 

We launched our canoe in Warendorf east of Münster, and broke off the journey at Meppen near the Dutch border. I wanted to move on, but I allowed myself to be guided by the basic principle: Ce que la femme veut, Dieu veut aussi. (What the wife wants, God wants also.) And it was the right decision. The weather, by now, had deteriorated such that stubbornly going on would have ended in disaster.

For Biene, not yet sixteen years old, holding a different notion of a romantic vacation, the River Ems had been a highway of tears. On top of spending a lot of time in the rain, she suffered through unpleasant experiences that her parents strangely found delightful and very nutritious. She painfully recalls one incident when her mother returned from a nearby farm with a pail of milk so recently milked that it was still steaming. For Mama and Papa, it was the ultimate earthly pleasure and a gift from hell for the children.

Walter Panknin (1898 – 1977) and His Family Ch07 Part 14

Early Boating Adventures

Papa Panknin and his wife, Elisabeth (1900 -1974), have been outdoor enthusiasts for as long as I can trace back their vacation activities. Bodies of water, be it the Baltic Sea, lakes, or the mighty rivers of Germany, had always exerted a magical attraction. So it is unsurprising to learn that their love of the great outdoors led them to camping trips, which often included boating adventures in their folding kayaks. Three events, spread over three decades, stand out as highlights for the Panknin family.

Boating on the Danube 1939

Established in 1907, the German boat manufacturing company Klepper is still building folding kayaks. Papa owned one of these floating marvels and took his wife and stepdaughter Elsbeth on an adventurous journey on the Danube from Passau to Vienna in 1939. Then the horrible World War II broke out and ended their idyllic lifestyle. 

Saaldorf, Thuringia, Papa and his Family at the River Saale 1951

When content with the most primitive and essential camping gear, you can still enjoy nature at a very low cost. While living in the former German Democratic Republic under the control of the Soviet Union, my father-in-law and his family pulled a tent, camping utensils, and folding boat out of storage. They set up camp at the lovely meadows at the Saaldorf campground in Thuringia, near Gotha, Biene’s birthplace.

Walter Panknin (1898 – 1977) and His Family Ch7 Part 13

Papa Panknin, the Popular Hiking Guide

Retired Major Panknin enjoyed being out in nature and helping revitalize old trails that had fallen by neglect into disrepair and marking them by following strict environmental guidelines. While reading over the pamphlet on how to prepare a route for the enjoyment of the hiking community, I was impressed by how carefully the details were described, such as the kind of paint to use, where to place the sign, which trees to use and which trees to avoid. I liked the rule: Better to have no sign at all than a sign confusing by its inaccuracy. His daughter Biene often accompanied him in the rewarding outdoor activity.

What Papa Panknin enjoyed the most was serving as a hiking guide for the frequent excursions through the forested hill country of the Velbert territory. Biene tells me that the participants were primarily women. That may have also been part of the reason why he enjoyed becoming a trailblazer for his club.

During his involvement in the SGV Velbert, he received plenty of praise and recognition for his invaluable contribution from participating hikers, the press and the local club president. In a newspaper clipping, I read how much his work was appreciated. “So we see Walter Panknin walking through the woods with a can of paint and a brush as an apostle of a great idea, of the concept of hiking in the automobile age, leading us back to Mother Nature, to the source of healing power. Walter Panknin selflessly serves this idea for others from person to person.”

Walter Panknin (1898 – 1977) and His Family Ch07 Part 11

More Steps to Climb

Three stories from the apartment of the Panknin family was the communal laundry room located another staircase down in the basement. The management set up a schedule to regulate its usage to avoid congestion and quarrels among the renters. Each apartment unit could only use the laundry room at a given time and day of the month.

Mutti Panknin and her Twins Gertrud (Biene) and Walter Jn. 1962

So in addition to the shopping routine, Frau Panknin climbed down the three flights of stairs with a heavy load of clothes. In the early 1960s, many women still washed their clothes by hand. Coin-operated washers and dryers were unknown during the post-war years in Germany. For Frau Panknin, the task was laborious and time-consuming. But the worst part of the laundry was yet to come. She packed the wet wash into the basket. Climbing up the stairs with a load now twice as heavy as before, she frequently stopped on the way up to catch her breath. When she finally reached the top floor, there were more stairs to struggle with to get to the attic, where she hung up the clothes to dry. The reader may be inclined to say. Doing this exhausting chore a few times per month was not all that bad for the sixty-year-old housewife. After all, she would have the rest of the time to relax and recover from all that hard work. But wait before we jump to a conclusion.

The apartment had no central heating. The cost of electricity was and still is very expensive in Germany. To heat your home with coal as a source of heat, however, was relatively cheap. Like all the apartment dwellers, the Panknin’s had a small lockable storage facility, where all the things for which there was not enough room in the apartment would be stored. That was also the place where the coal for heating and cooking was located. When I look back some sixty years and ponder about a fair division of labour for this family of four, I must say that it was shocking to learn how Frau Panknin took on this burden without the help from the twins or her husband.

Walter Panknin (1898 – 1977) and His Family Ch7 Part 10

Papa the History Buff

During his time as a POW in 1945, Papa attended many scholarly lectures that some learned fellow prisoners gave in open-air forums on various topics. As writing was strictly forbidden, he secretly wrote down on the tiny sheets of cigarette paper the authors of books recommended by the lecturers. He was especially interested in history books, which he intended to read later. Fifteen years have passed. Now the time has come to fulfil one of the dreams he had for his retirement. Among the history authors, he admired the famous 19th-century historian Leopold von Ranke the most.  He especially liked the quote that underlines the importance of objectively presenting historical events: “Let the author be quiet, but let the events and documents tell the story.” Proudly Papa wrote in a letter to his friend Herr Kampmann that he had already devoured eight of Ranke’s twenty-five volumes.

The correspondence with his pen pal mainly dealt with political issues of the German postwar era. He drew the most relevant information and its polemic spirit from the German news magazine “Der Spiegel.” Its claim to fame was the publisher’s uncanny ability to uncover and publish government secrets, cases of corruption and scandals. Major Panknin, in retirement, wrote his multi-paged letters on his old typewriter, using carbon paper to have copies for his record. They fill binders carefully ordered by year, month and day. The letters reveal his critical view of the West German political landscape. They describe his disgust over how deep his beloved Germany has sunk into the quagmire of dishonesty and scandalous behaviour. His diatribes take on a familiar ring when we fast forward into the 21st century.

Did I digress from telling the Walter Panknin family story? Having Ranke’s quote in mind, I declare, “Let Papa’s immense correspondence and insatiable appetite for reading history books and historical novels tell the story.”

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.