Twenty years had passed after their memorable vacation on the River Danube in 1939. With financial security secured, they could think again of a major travel adventure. In the early 1960s, tourism in southern Europe was still in its infancy. Many people of West Germany, tired of rained-out summers, were looking for warmth and sunshine and found inexpensive places in Spain, France and Italy. So the Panknin family went to a lovely vacation spot in northern Italy at the beautiful Lake Garda.
In the following year, in 1962, they ventured out a bit farther and visited the Island of Corsica. There, they experienced the beauty of the wild and mostly untouched land- and seascapes. The only fly in the ointment was Papa’s snoring. Biene reports it was so loud that the thin cabin walls did not prevent the annoying sound from disturbing the entire vacation community in the adjoining bungalows.
For the history buff Papa, the French island offered many research opportunities to explore the remnants of the Roman civilizations on the island where Emperor Napoleon was born. The highlight for the twins Gertrud (Biene) and Walter Jr. was spending time at the beach and swimming in the Mediterranean Sea’s warm waters.
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.”
Papa Panknin was a man of the old guard. Born in 1898 in Kalthof, a small village in what was once called Royal Prussia. He grew up in Imperial Germany, absorbed the social values of his time, and, imbued with love for his country, fulfilled his duties as a civil servant in an honourable manner. Above all, he dearly loved his wife, his stepdaughter Elsbeth, and the twins Walter and Gertrud. Captain Panknin survived two world wars and experienced runaway inflation, the Great Depression, the Nazi era, and the post-war stress in East and West Germany. The cliches about the typical German describe him almost perfectly, a hardworking, intelligent, reliable individual. However, in today’s world, with its emphasis on gender equity and its rainbow-coloured trendiness, he would have had a tough time fitting in.
As I alluded to earlier, his view as a civil servant (Beamter) of the police force was that the relationship between the state and its employees is a two-way street. This contract promises financial security in return for honourable services rendered. During the years of the Weimar Republic and National Socialism, he adhered to the prevailing code of conduct that did not allow a reputable civil servant to have his wife go out and have a job. In his opinion, the wife has a vital role at home and needs to take care of and nurture the children in a safe and loving environment. I share many of his views and thus, to some degree and without apology, have become a living relic of the past. Where I disagree with Papa will be the topic of the next post.
Eventually, Walter Panknin’s persistence paid off. Acting on a friend’s advice, he directed his request for justice to the governing president of the West German State of North Rhine Westphalia. In his 3-page letter, he logically and respectfully outlined his family’s dire financial situation. Reading his correspondence, I was surprised that he could directly address by letter the state president. When people wish to present their concerns to the upper authorities, they have to use the proper channels set up for them. Apparently, Papa’s letter went to the right place and got the ball rolling. However, another five years passed within the notoriously slow mill of the German bureaucracy. After many more letters, documents, and court hearings, all his key requests were finally granted. In 1962, promoted to the rank of a major in retirement, he could collect the pension payments that he was entitled to. He had his refugee status fully recognized and could move into a modest but modern apartment in the City of Velbert near Essen.
We should not think that Papa’s struggle was an isolated case. In a previous publication, telling the story of my Mother’s family, I reported that my uncle Lieutenant-General Gerhard Kegler was sentenced to death by a Nazi military tribunal for disobeying Himmler’s order to defend an eastern town and for leading his poorly equipped and exhausted division to the relative safety of the eastern front. Shortly before the execution was to take place, the death sentence was put on hold. My uncle was degraded to the rank of a private and sent to fight the Soviets near Frankfurt, Oder. Severely wounded, he was shipped by train to a military hospital in Schleswig-Holstein, where the surgeons amputated his left arm to save his life from a virulent infection. As a POW, he survived the war and was reunited with his wife and family in 1947. But when he applied for a pension, the authorities, under the influence of old Nazi lawyers, tried to reject his application because he had been demoted to the rank of a common soldier. There was such a public outcry over this form of injustice made public in all major newspapers that the president of the German Republic stepped in and exonerated my uncle and granted him the full pension as required by law.
Angelika’s bedroom was huge and so bright and colourful. She even had a piano in the middle of the room, and her mom made her play some tunes. Then she left us alone, and we spent some time in the park-like yard playing badminton on the lawn. We had fun and laughed a lot. Later we sat on her bed talking about school and joking about our teachers.
Suddenly I heard barking and a male voice. Angelika’s dad, the manager of the municipal hydro corporation, had returned from his office with their German shepherd dog called Torro. Angelika and Torro greeted each other exuberantly. Angelika’s dad looked on with a big boyish smile on his face. Then he turned to me.
“You must be that special girl I have heard so much about, “he said. “Don’t be afraid of Torro; he is very gentle and would never hurt anyone. Come and pet him so he gets to know you.” Overcoming my fear, I managed to stroke Torro gently on the back, which he seemed to like. He sat in front of me, staring at my face expecting more attention. Angelika’s dad looked very easygoing and friendly. He laughed a lot and made me feel at ease.
My first visit with Angelika and her parents at her beautiful place was coming to an end. Her dad told us to go to his Volkswagen Beetle so he could drive me home.
“I’ll take Torro as well,” Angelika’s dad told me, “but he has to go in the car last. He’ll get agitated and bark at you if he is in before you. He is very possessive of the car.”
When Angelika and I were settled on the backseats, Torro jumped in last, and I could see how happy and proud he was to sit beside his master. A car ride was a unique experience for me since we had never owned one. We rode by bus or train and did a lot of walking and biking. Initially, I enjoyed the ride in the cute little Beetle, but the closer we came to my street, the more apprehensive I felt. I did not want Angelika and her dad to see The Old House of Rocky Docky. I felt ashamed to live in such a shabby small place and feared I would never be invited by Angelika again.I feigned carsickness and asked to walk the last stretch home. I think Angelika’s dad sensed why I wanted to get off and let me go without protest.