Walter Panknin (1898 – 1977) and his Family – Part 27

Light at the End of the Tunnel

The soups were getting thinner. The German cooks were stretching the available food supplies to the very limit of human existence. If only the poor prisoners had received a little bit of fat, they would not have lost so much weight. Papa humbly praised the administration when he received an additional allotment of a quarter litre of fresh water. Indeed, a man needs very little food and drink to survive. He was even making a written promise that reads like a solemn oath. ”If I should ever be able to return home, I will be content with even the most basic meal,” and then adds with a full measure of doubt, “thus we think now. But how will it be, once we are free and live a life marked by waste and abundance?”
If you managed to get a job as a kitchen aid in this climate of hunger, your comrades considered you the luckiest person in the world. For your survival, at least as far as food was concerned, had been secured. While helping with the preparation and distribution of the most primitive meals, you always had a chance to stuff a slice of bread or a cooked potato into your mouth. No wonder kitchen service was one of the most sought-after occupations in the entire camp. But it appeared from reading his notes that Papa had no such luck.

In contrast to Papa’s ordeal, these German POWs were lucky to have been captured by the US Army before April 1945. They were shipped to the United States to work on farms. In most cases they were treated fairly according to the provisions of the Geneva Conventions. Many liked it so much they did not want to return home after the war.

One day, when morale was low and hopes were down, there came an unexpected order from the prison guards, “All POWs from Zone II assemble at the sundial.” For the longest time, the captured German soldiers appeared to have been a wholly forgotten bunch. They were the ones that had their homes in the Soviet-occupied part of East Germany. Finally, the camp authorities told them that they could soon return home to their families. Many, including Papa, refused to believe, being well aware of the many times they had been lied to and misled by false promises. But when the guards asked them to line up to receive all their confiscated personal belongings, they put up their hopes again. After Papa had gotten back all his money down to the last penny, he too was convinced that finally, after all these horrible ordeals, his release from the camp would be close at hand. They even received a new name. They were now officially called the ‘reprocessed.’
It is challenging for me to determine the exact time of Papa’s release from the POW camp. However, it is safe to assume that he belonged to the lucky ones. His notes written on minuscule cigarette paper ended abruptly with no reference provided to the date of his release from the POW camp. According to reliable sources, the Western nations had allowed most prisoners to go home by the end of 1948. So Papa was lucky to return home to his family in Gotha no later than late summer or early fall of 1945.

End of Chapter IV

Walter Panknin (1998 – 1977) and His Family – Part 26

Sources Backing up Papa’s POW Experiences

After reading the horrific tales in Papa’s notes, I thought he was exaggerating the conditions he had to suffer through. So I did some research on US administered POW camps in general, but especially on the one near Bad Kreuznach, where Papa had spent most of his camp time. I avoided German websites that might appear to harbour pro-Nazi sentiments. Instead, I sought out American sources to lend credibility to Papa’s eyewitness account. 

The first quote is from the US-based Journal of History: “Half of the German POWs in the West were imprisoned by US forces, half by the British. The number of prisoners reached such a huge proportion that the British could not accept any more, and the US consequently established the Rheinwiesenlager from April to September of 1945, where they quickly built a series of “cages” in open meadows and enclosed them with razor wire. One such notorious field was located at Bad Kreuznach, where the German prisoners were herded into open spaces with no toilets, tents, or shelters. They had to burrow sleeping spaces into the ground with their bare hands, and in some, there was barely enough room to lie down. In the Bad Kreuznach cage, up to 560,000 men were interned in a congested area and denied adequate food, water, shelter, or sanitary facilities, and they died like flies of disease, exposure, and illness after surviving on less than 700 calories a day. There are 1,000 official graves in Bad Kreuznach, but it is claimed there are mass graves which have remained off-limits to investigation. There were no impartial observers to witness the treatment of POWs held by the US Army. From the date Germany unconditionally surrendered, May 8, 1945, Switzerland was dismissed as the official Protecting Power for German prisoners, and the International Red Cross was informed that, with no Protecting Power to report to, there was no need for them to send delegates to the camps..”

Overcrowded POW Camp

The second quote is from the universal online encyclopedia Wikipedia.com: “To circumvent international regulations that dealt with the handling of POWs, the surrendered forces were termed “Disarmed Enemy Forces” (DEF), and the term “Prisoner of War” (POW) was not applied. Due to the number of prisoners, the Americans transferred internal control of the camps over to the Germans. All administration such as doctors, cooks and workforces were all undertaken by the prisoners. Even the armed guards were former troops from the Wehrmacht’s Feldgendarmerie and Feldjägerkorps. Known as Wehrmachtordnungstruppe (English: Armed Forces Order Troop), they received extra rations for preventing escapes and keeping order in the camps. In June 1946, these military police would be the last German soldiers to officially surrender their arms.”

Thus, by a mere change of the term “Prisoner of War” (POW) to “Disarmed Enemy Forces” (DEF), the International Red Cross was prevented from entering the camps and providing care packages to the starving soldiers. Terrible things happened to the soldiers of both Allied and Axis nations during World War 2 on the battlefields and in the POW camps. But what happened to the German soldiers after the war was over can only be described as an act of revenge and a crime against humanity. My father-in-law was lucky to survive the ordeal relatively unharmed who perhaps received slightly better treatment because of his officer’s rank in the army.

Walter Panknin (1898 – 1977) and His Family – Part 25

POWs on Starvation Diet

Papa compared the US camp administration with the Sphinx of Ancient Egypt. The secrecy about the political development in their respective home provinces was a riddle to which there was no answer. With its heavily censored articles, the camp newspaper ‘Wahrheit’ (Truth) offered very little information and even less ground for an early dismissal. One thing Papa was able to figure out, though. The Russians had taken over Thuringia and Saxony and had become the master over his hometown Gotha. Whether his wife and children had been able to survive the war, he did not know. He repeatedly expressed his worry and concern over their safety.

The Family Constantly on Papa’s Mind

Among the captured officers, many intellectuals, professors from various disciplines were taken out of their university. They served in the army in a commanding position. To fight boredom and help their colleagues get their minds off the common misery, they offered lectures on their expert knowledge of their particular field of research. These open-air sessions were top-rated and offered a broad range of topics, interpreting operas, 5000 years of Ancient Egypt, understanding Goethe’s Faust, to name a few. Through conversation with some of these impressive presenters, Papa hit on the idea of jotting down all the books, which they recommended for further study and which he was eager to read to feed his idea-hungry intellect. A glance at the list gave me deep insight into Papa’s enquiring mind, and I could not help admiring his fascination for history. Later on, after his release, he began to acquire these books, primarily historical and devoured them at a rapid pace. He went through an entire set of over 20 volumes on world history written by world-renowned historian Leopold von Ranke.

Papa’s Partial Book List


Unfortunately, from week to week, the food situation was getting worse. One day their thin, sugary breakfast soup arrived only at one o’clock in the afternoon. Even the most exciting talk about ancient history could not detract from the fact that the POWs at the Bad Kreuznach Camp were starving and growing weaker every day. Papa noticed the absence of mice, which was highly unusual considering so many men concentrated in such a small area. He concluded that in the most humble household, there was always some food left in the pantry. Here at the camp, with thousands of men milling about in constant search for food around the camp kitchen or some mouldy scraps from the garbage cans, nothing was edible left that might attract even a hungry rodent.

Walter Panknin (1898 – 1977) and His Family – Part 23

Crammed, Deloused and Harrassed

Then suddenly and just as unexpectedly as a balmy spring breeze and sunshine had brought relief, good food and drink cheered up the POWs. Bread, corned beef, cheese and calorie-rich soup, although not too plentiful, have now become part of their daily diet, supplemented by a few chunks of chocolate for dessert. Although the adage says that hunger is the best cook, they all agreed that the cooks were doing an excellent job. To round things off, they had as a beverage a choice of tea or coffee. The coffee tasted so good that many imbibed too much of the excellent brew, which kept them awake half through the night. On June 16, all men, whose hometown had become part of the Soviet-occupied zone of Germany, were put on a special list. Rumours about early release from their prison camp instantly circulated among Papa’s comrades. How soon would the Americans let them go home? Would army trucks drive them to the border? How would the Red Army men receive and treat them? Would Papa be free after his release from the camp? These were some of the questions and worries the POWs had. The troublesome thoughts burdened Papa’s heart at the time when he should have been rejoicing to be finally free from hunger and cold.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia


Near the end of the month, it rained again. But the air was mild, and the POWs now found shelter in the hastily erected wooden barracks. But they had to put up with cramped conditions. Space was so limited that there was not enough room on the primitive floor for everyone to sleep on his back. Packed tight like in a can of sardines, many had to sleep on their side. Thus, it was very likely that lice would have a heyday and spread like wildfire among the hapless bunch of humanity. The camp authorities had them march to the delousing stations to prevent the infestation from gaining the upper hand. There they had to undress and wait in the pouring rain for their turn to be deloused. Papa did not fail to see the irony, at least for this embarrassing moment. Like slaves powerless and naked, they stood before their black masters, who searched in a bout of chicanery for anything they deemed dangerous. Nail clippers and files, even pencils, were considered dangerous weapons and promptly confiscated. Papa must have hidden his precious writing tools in the sleeping quarters, knowing full well that he would be punished for having them in his possession. After being thoroughly deloused, they returned to their barracks and felt a lot better after receiving a bowl of sweet soup. Papa bitterly remarked that the worst form of chicanery did not come from their American guards but rather from their own ranks. Those lucky enough to be chosen as helpers and supervisors in the camp kitchen now turned against their comrades to be sure in part to impress their American guards. At 4:30 in the morning, when everyone was still fast asleep, they would holler with a commanding voice, ‘Get up, you sleepy heads! Pick up your grub!’ Everybody understood this message too well. For if you did not comply or you were too slow to respond, you would miss out on your breakfast and have nothing to eat till noon. From all the shelters, you could see the prisoners rushing to the source of food. To have something in your belly was more important than an extra hour of sleep. But when they arrived in joyful expectation of a nutritious breakfast, the German kitchen helpers were laughing their heads off at their successful prank and shouted, ‘Get back to sleep. You should know that we don’t serve breakfast until six!’

Walter Panknin (1898 – 1977) and His Family – Part 22

Reflections on Life as a POW

With more time for thought and reflection, Papa, making full use of his poetic talent, began to describe his life as a POW more vividly and in much greater detail. To make it easier for the reader to decipher this unusual piece of literature, he underlined the rhyming words and indicated with a slash the end of each line. Papa often went beyond a mere description of the good and bad times at camp.


He began by reflecting upon what makes a man truly free and what makes him a prisoner, not just in the literal sense of being surrounded by miles of barbed wire fences and guards ready to shoot at anyone attempting to escape. Freedom for Papa was more than having food, drink and shelter; slavery more than being deprived of these things. If the human spirit prevails despite severe deprivations, it is free. If, on the other hand, it drowns in a flood of material goods, it becomes a slave, not of some exterior force, such as a dictatorial political system, it puts on shackles of its own making.
Papa stated in his notes that something very positive came out of these horrible times at camp. He appreciated food, even the simplest meals, so much more. (Indeed, he would get furious when his children refused to eat what was so lovingly prepared and often left on the plate what he would have gladly eaten while being a POW. ) He addressed the reader directly by saying, ‘There is a sense of fair balance in human life. The hungry and deprived individual relishes a slice of dried bread and finds that it tastes much better than a rich man would ever experience eating a sumptuous gourmet dinner. Indeed simple, modest food will spare the less fortunate in life many diseases afflicting the wealthy gluttons in society. Dear reader, remember that times of adversity can be helpful. So if you don’t forget them, you will savour even the most basic food with great enjoyment when you are doing better. The more you are mindful of your past ordeals, the more you will thank God and be content when you receive your daily bread and no longer suffer from your hunger pangs.’

Walter Panknin (1898 – 1977) and His Family – Part 21

Microscopic Note Writing

Finally, on May 7, the weather showed signs of improvement, and on the following day, the sun broke through the cloud cover, bringing much-needed warmth for body and soul. However, Papa’s feet and toes were numb; he felt a tingling sensation throughout his lower limbs and could barely walk. His heart began to give him trouble. He knew that he would not have lasted much longer. But now, as he was feeling better and his feet were no longer bothering him and after he was finally able to clear himself of all the dirt on his body, wash his shirt and socks, a sense of new optimism was surging through his entire being. Rumours were also circulating through the camp that the POWs would get permission to go home. The war was over now. Why would the Americans want to keep them any longer? Would it not be cheaper to make them go home and save the expense of looking after, feeding and guarding 80,000 men? But just as Papa was looking in vain for blue patches in the leaden sky, so all his hopes for early dismissal vanished into thin air. Camp life went on with its daily routines. The camp guards became rather more severe as days dragged into weeks and weeks into months. They meted out ruthless punishments after some POWs in constant search for firewood had ripped off some of the toilet seats from the camp latrines.

It is truly amazing how much information Papa Panknin could cram onto a small piece of paper.

Papa was not the type who would not want to idle away the time by just sitting around in the sunshine or play cards for endless hours, even if it was his favourite card game, ‘Skat’. He wrote his notes now on slightly larger paper but continued with the same microcosmic handwriting. Of course, Papa knew that it was strictly forbidden to record his experiences at the camp and therefore was extremely careful not to let anyone see him write. I guess the reason for these rules was that nothing should ever go out to the outside world that might tarnish the image of the Americans.