Walter and Elisabeth Panknin and their Family


Chapter I

Gotha, my Wife’s Birthplace

Gotha today is the fifth-largest city in Thuringia, Germany, located 20 kilometres west of Erfurt with a population of 44,000. In the Middle Ages, Gotha was a prosperous trading town on the trade route Via Regia. Between 1650 and 1850, Gotha saw a cultural heyday as a centre of sciences and arts, fostered by the dukes of Saxe-Gotha The first duke, Ernest the Pious, was famous for his wise rule. The cartographer Justus Perthes and the encyclopedist Joseph Meyer made Gotha a leading centre of German publishing around 1800. In that period, Gotha became an industrial core with companies like the Gothaer Waggonfabrik, a producer of trams and airplanes. One of the main sights of Gotha is the early-modern Friedenstein Castle, one of the largest Renaissance/Baroque castles in Germany. It was built between 1643 and 1654 and is one of Germany’s first sizeable Baroque residence castles. Some essential scientific institutions were the ducal library (today’s Forschungsbibliothek Gotha as part of the University of Erfurt), founded in 1650, the “coin cabinet” (1712), the “art and natural collection,” basis of today’s museums, and the Gotha Observatory at Seeberg mountain.

Friedenstein Castle

Much of Thuringia’s acclaim as the green heart of Germany is due to the Thuringian Forest (Thüringer Wald), not far from Gotha. Germans have celebrated its landscapes at least since the time of Goethe. Its romantic villages with cottage workshops do little to dispel the illusion of an era that appears frozen in a time when life was still uncomplicated and beautiful.

My Wife’s Birth Place in Gotha

In 1937 Walter and Elisabeth Panknin (née Reifferscheid), moved from Dortmund to Gotha. After they had met and fell in love in 1928, they married two years later, on November 25th, 1930, in Berlin-Charlottenburg. Not long after their daughter arrived in Calgary in April 1966, her parents became my parents-in-law. Therefore, I will, for the sake of simplicity, often call them Papa and Mutti when describing their lives in this family history.

Papa and the Horrors Of World War I

The Arnold Panknin Family: Gertrud, Toni, Rudi, Walter (standing) and Arnold Panknin

Like my parents, Papa had his family roots in the Eastern provinces of Germany, which are now part of Poland. After WWI, when as part of the Treaty of Versailles, West Prussia was incorporated into Poland’s newly re-established state, the Panknin family members resettled and resided in and around Berlin. Walter Panknin was born to Arnold and Gertrud Panknin (née Weber) on May 26th, 1898, in Kalthof near Marienburg (Malbork in Polish), former West Prussia. He had two younger siblings, his brother Rudi and sister Toni. During the early war years, probably inspired by the great naval battles between the British and German Imperial fleets, Papa and Rudi devised a naval battle game, not unlike the war game that I had created during my teenage years. The game board, of course, has long been lost. But the notebook, with its meticulously drawn pictures of Walter and Rudi’s fleets with the neat description of the ships’ tonnage and type in beautiful gothic handwriting, has survived a century-long journey. After WWII, Papa maintained with brother and sister and his old penpal Kampmann an extensive correspondence. I was able to glean a wealth of information, as they referred in their letters to the turbulent times before and during the war.

Page from Papa’s Notebook 1915

When Papa turned eighteen in 1916, the year after his father had passed away, he fought on the Western Front for Germany’s honour and glory. Likewise, in an unparalleled patriotic fervour, young men on the British and French side were willing to die in a senseless and gory war. Papa escaped death on numerous occasions. And when the war that was supposed to end all wars was finally over, he emerged physically unscathed from the horrific slaughterhouse of the killing fields in the West. But Papa had to bear for the rest of his life a heavy psychological burden. For he witnessed the maiming and killing of comrades, the endless shelling, and the miserable life in the trenches. The inglorious forced march back to Germany and the pain of the awareness that it had all been in vain must have affected him deeply.

Walter Panknin 1917

By the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, the German army was reduced to 100,000 men. Thus, there was no future in a military career for Papa, even though he had advanced to a lieutenant’s rank while fighting on the western front. In his search to find meaningful employment, he went into a training program, which at its successful completion allowed him to seek employment as a qualified dental technician. In 1922 he moved to the small town of Gassen (Polish Jasien today), West Prussia, and until 1927 worked in a dental lab facility.

Embarking on a Career as a Police Officer

At age twenty-eight, Papa embarked on a police force career. He was in charge of maintaining law and order in the Weimar Republic during the most turbulent and chaotic 20th century Germany. The hierarchy and structure leaned heavily on the model provided by the army. So within the first five years, thanks to his military experience, Papa worked his way up to a lieutenant’s rank. At the end of a decade of dedicated service to the state advanced to the first lieutenant’s position. As such, he was in charge of about a dozen men and was responsible for the city of Dortmund’s safety and security. One day as he was riding home from work, he fell off his bike. His letters did not reveal whether he had slipped on loose gravel or a patch of oil on the road. But when he landed on the pavement, he must have fallen on his service pistol. A shot went off triggered by the impact of the nasty spill. The bullet went straight through his lower abdomen and destroyed one of his kidneys. It was a miracle that the shot had taken that particular path and caused no life-threatening injury except the loss of a kidney.

Walter Panknin’s 30th Birthday

Near the end of the 1920s, it was pretty standard for people to go to a professional photographer to have one’s picture taken. Many well-to-do citizens were now using high-quality cameras. But people preferred a portrait from a photo studio by a professional photographer for its quality and beauty. Papa had started a successful career as a police officer. I can easily picture him feeling a need to have his picture taken for his mother Gertrud, brother Rudi and sister Toni. I see him drop in at one of the nearby studios, where Elisabeth Reifferscheid was employed.

Elisabeth Reifferscheid 1926

Furthermore, I visualize him being deeply touched by Elisabeth’s graceful preparations for the portrait. He liked how she directed him on the armchair for that perfect pose. He had gone through the rigours of paramilitary training in the sober Prussian environment. Feelings and sentiments were being kept bottled up. They, sadly enough, were considered totally out of place in a man’s world. The young officer took in with delight the sight of that rare combination of beauty, competence, charm and Rhinelandish cheerfulness, which he found in the woman, who was getting him ready for the picture. It was love at first sight, but I do have to declare for the sake of truth that I made up the story of their first encounter. I had looked at the exquisite photos of my beautiful mother-in-law in her mid-twenties. She also worked at the time as a photo model. Her photos inspired me. They reminded me so much of my own experience when I beheld Biene’s beauty for the very first time at Lake Baldeney.

Disaster Strikes the Reifferscheid Family

My Wife’s Grandparents Ernst and Elisabeth Reifferscheid 1900

On the 18th of April, 1901, Mutti was born to Ernst and Elisabeth Reifferscheid (née Krämer) in Burg an der Wupper, a small village south of Wuppertal and Velbert. She was named after her mother, Elisabeth. Her brother Ernst was born in 1903. Then in quick succession followed her brothers Hans and Carl. Three additional children, Margaretha, Anton and Katharina died in their early infancy. When Biene’s grandmother passed away in 1912, most likely from childbed fever at the young age of thirty-six, Mutti was just eleven years old. Her father, who died four years later, could not look after them and placed his orphaned children into the care of relatives and religious institutions. Mutti, motherless and fatherless, spent the next eight years or so in a catholic convent school. She received her education supported by the church and the large, charitable Reifferscheid family, whose guiding principle as devoted members of the Catholic Church can be in James: True religion is to care for orphans and widows in their afflictions.

The Reifferscheid Family 1908 – Biene’s Mother on the Left


As if the tragedy of losing her mother so early in her life and growing up without the nurturing parental love had not caused enough misery, Fate soon dealt her another blow. Soon after she had left the nuns’ protective care that had given her a good foundation in education and matters of Christian faith, she fell in love with a young man. He could – so she was hoping – make up for the lost love she had been missing during the most precious years of her childhood. Alas, he was of the wrong faith and marrying him in the eyes of her religiously devout relatives would have been unthinkable. While such objections are hard to understand in today’s world, we need to be familiar with the background and origin of such strict opinions. Today, the Catholic Church still claims to be the only true church, but a hundred years ago also enforced strict adherence to the dogma that a parishioner must not marry an unbeliever or a member of a different faith. As Biene and I have experienced ourselves in our struggle of coming together, true love is a powerful force that is willing to break all the rules and conventions. So there was nothing that could stop the two. But Mutti, being an orphan for such a long time, did not want to be cut off from all the family members. They had supported her financially and emotionally until now. The only way to get their approval and remain part of the family was to embark on a most dangerous plan. Mutti and her fiancé decided to force the issue by having a baby. In today’s society, teenage unwed mothers can proudly show off their sweet babies and don’t even hesitate to present them to their classmates and friends in school.

Biene’s Mother Elisabeth and Brother Carl 1919

We wonder and ask as to why having a baby would have made such a difference in the opinion of Mutti’s relatives. Without getting judgmental, one must understand the prevailing culture of almost a century ago. Children were and still are considered a gift of God. As soon as they were born, they were baptized into the Christian faith. Godparents were not just there to offer presents and take care of the children when a tragic event would bereave them of their parents. But they were also responsible for providing spiritual nurturing. When the children had grown up, they would get married in a church with the bride’s parents’ consent. At the end of their life’s journey through sorrows and joys, hardships and blessings, successes and failures, wealth and poverty, they departed from the earth with the conviction that there was hope for life beyond the grave. The church in the past proclaimed these views as biblical truths and imposed and enforced them, often regretfully in a dictatorial manner. However, we must not ignore that the believers of those days and still today wholeheartedly sought and embraced the comfort of belonging to the Christian church. A child born out of wedlock would have been a disgrace. Only within the context of the pious Catholic Reifferscheid family’s religious beliefs can we begin to understand Mutti’s and her fiancé’s actions. Aunts and uncles would have readily agreed to the lesser evil of having their precious niece marry a non-member of the church. So, the two so profoundly in love, must have felt. It would most likely have worked if Fate had not decided on a different course and took Mutti’s fiancé away through a fatal accident while she was already pregnant.

Chapter II

Happy Times for the Walter and Elisabeth Panknin Family

Biene’s Mother with Baby Elsbeth

When baby Elsbeth was born in 1924, her immediate family and relatives did not reject her, as one would have expected under the circumstances. They showed genuine compassion and forgiveness by helping her get on with her life. With their support, she found employment in a photo studio. Four years later, she met Papa and, after a brief courtship, married him. Thus, she put an end to the period of turmoil, grief and the grim prospect of raising alone her fatherless daughter. Not that Papa was the only one smitten with the attractive photo model. She must have had quite a few open and secret admirers who felt drawn to her irresistible charm and infectious cheerfulness. Among her memorabilia, I stumbled over a booklet with poems by Annette von Droste-Hülshoff. The poet’s given name, in all likelihood, became the second part of Biene’s double name, Gertrud-Anette. Significantly, Mutti had kept this book for such a long time. The well-worn pages and binding indicate that she frequently enjoyed reading the most romantic poems with its distinct Westphalian flavour. The handwritten dedication by a certain young man with a heartfelt message of regret about coming too late into her life made me recall my near failure to form a lifelong bond with Biene by ‘courting too slow.’

Walter and Elisabeth at the time of their Wedding
The Wedding Announcement

Before Papa and Mutti got married, Papa insisted that their personal life would follow the expectations that would satisfy the honour code of a German police officer. For one thing, to prevent tarnishing his image among his colleagues, he decided to adopt the ten-year-old Elsbeth as his daughter. Her name was subsequently officially changed in the family register to Elisabeth Panknin. For another, Mutti had to abandon her occupation as a photo model and give up her studio employment. State employees and civil servants were expected to support their wives and family fully. It was considered a disgrace to have one’s wife working. For Mutti, it was a new beginning. And if it had not been for the disastrous and chaotic times at the outbreak of WW2, one could have easily ended the story with the fairytale-like concluding sentence, ‘And they lived happily ever after.’

Honeymoon in Meran, Italy – 1930

After their wedding, Papa and Mutti spent their honeymoon in Meran, Northern Italy. But this trip was just the start of a decade-long travelling experience. They went camping and boating together on all the major German rivers. Rain or shine, they paddled down the beautiful Danube into Austria. They explored the romantic stretches of the castle dotted banks of the Rhine. They also travelled down through the low-lying plains on the Ems and Elbe towards the North Sea. Swimming and sunbathing at the white beaches of the Baltic Sea became memorable events.
Whenever First Lieutenant Panknin made use of his vacation time or transformed some of the statutory holidays into long weekends, the young family was on the go. The decade before World War2 turned out to be the best time of their lives. Photos in the carefully documented albums, showing the newlyweds on their travels, attest to the happy days they were able to spend together. Papa was very fond of little Elsbeth and treated her as if she was his very own daughter. They included her in most of the travelling adventures on land and water, the little outings, the relaxing weekend picnics or the frequent hikes in the nearby forests.

Running Afoul with the Nazi Regime

While these were happy times for the Panknin family, storm clouds gathered over Germany’s political landscape when the Nazis took control of the government in 1933. Two incidents had an immediate disturbing impact on Papa and his family. During election times, at rallies, and on numerous other occasions, the stormtroopers of the SA, whose methods of violent intimidation played a key role in Hitler’s rise to power, carried out physical attacks on political opponents, Jews, communists and trade unionists. 

Police Officer Walter Panknin 1927

On the night when Hitler seized power, roughneck elements of this vast paramilitary organization overpowered practically every local government in the country.  In the small town Kamen near Dortmund, where Papa had been in charge of maintaining law and order for almost ten years, his police staff captured and arrested an unruly mob of some twenty SA men. On the next day, the newspapers, already under the control of the Nazi regime, requested the immediate dismissal of First Lieutenant Walter Panknin. Although he managed to keep his position, his refusal to go with the flow of the political current caused him much grief in the months and years to come. He based all his actions on following the law and his conscience. Rather than blindly following the ideology of a political party, he took a common-sense approach within the jurisdiction entrusted to him by his country. 

Hike in the Spessart Forests 1934

Even more severely affecting his professional advancement in the police force and ultimately safety for him and the family was the second incident. In their drive for complete control over the lives of German citizens, the Nazi authorities stripped the court system of its independent status, which had so far guaranteed a fair trial to all citizens no matter what crime they had committed. Equally sinister was the forced subordination of the arm of the law, the police force, into the new political system. All officers of the security forces were automatically and without exception registered as members of the NSDAP (National Socialist Party). They also asked Papa to leave the church, which he steadfastly refused despite threats of punitive actions and reprisals. Worse, all leaders of the various police departments were under pressure to join the infamous SS organization. When Papa declined, he knew that he would become suspect as someone not following the party line. He was fully aware that his refusal to join would appear to make him an opponent to the Nazi regime further down the road. Walter Panknin had to put up with constant harassment and ridicule by the party-liners. But fortunately, he had some influential colleagues who knew him as a friend and capable officer. They must have put in a word on his behalf. Papa spoke very little about his troubles in the privacy of their apartment. With great determination, he managed to maintain the feeling of peace and security, at least within the walls of their home. 

Daughter Elsbeth Panknin in their Home in Gotha 1936

Chapter III

Punishment that Turned out to be a Blessing

In early 1941 Germany, together with her Italian, Hungarian, and Rumanian allies, had invaded and occupied the multiethnic Balkan country of Yugoslavia. During that time, in punitive response to his refusal to join the SS, Papa received a disciplinary transfer to the Bosnian town of Zavidovici as commander of a battalion. Fierce fighting raged between the Axis armies and the various partisan groups. Under the leadership of Josef Tito, some 70,000 resistance fighters were conducting guerilla warfare against the invaders. By contrast, the provinces of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina were experiencing a period of relative peace and calm until January 1945.

Yugoslavia before the country split up

Here at the banks of the River Bosna, Papa was in charge of general security around Zavidovici. The town nestled between dense forests reaching high into the mountains was blessed with large tracts of fertile land along the riverbanks. The area provided plenty of food for the local people and the security forces. The soldiers lived in nearby barracks.

Zavidovici and the River Bosna

Local dairies delivered milk, butter, and various fine Balkan cheeses. Farmers sold eggs, meat, corn and wheat, while tobacco plantations ensured a good supply of high-quality cigarettes. Most of these products had become very scarce back home in Germany. So ironically, in the land where the war was being fought mercilessly against Tito’s communist partisans, Papa enjoyed the good life in a relatively safe region loyal to Germany.

Joyful Times in Croatia

Papa loved the people and their culture. Although they were poor and had to work hard to make a living, they knew how to celebrate. After they brought in their harvest in the fall, or when they gathered at a wedding banquet or welcomed a newborn child into their community, they made good use of these festive occasions. Many of the songs Papa was so fond of listening to come from the Balkan Roma, the people once called Gypsies.

Folk Dance Group of Dalmatia, Croatia – Photo Credit: Wikipedia

If one grew up on a steady diet of Western pop music, Balkan melodies take a little bit of getting used to. While many of the tunes use familiar rhythms, including the driving rhumba beat, some Balkan tunes add spice using asymmetrical meters. The music tells only half the story. The dancers, prompted by the intoxicating rhythm and the ever-increasing tempo, suddenly emerge from the cheerful crowd. The steps in the Balkan dances can be delightfully simple or maddeningly complex. Most are line dances; they rarely occur in couples. What does the music sound like that Papa loved so much? It depends on where you go. In Croatia and Serbia, there is the tamburica tradition of plucked-string instruments. But the musicians are also using accordion, violin and woodwinds. Add to this the wailing melodies delivered by wedding bands that play songs popular across the entire region. Now we will understand Papa’s fascination with the Balkan people, their music, dances, and customs.

Collection of Slivovitz Bottles – Photo Credit: Wikipedia

When it came to alcoholic beverages, nothing would appeal to Papa’s taste buds more than the famous Slivovitz. Orchardists have been producing the sweet, velvety plum brandy for hundreds of years, primarily in Croatia, Serbia, Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria. Late-summer plums are the most commonly used: deep purple, ovoid and freestone, such as damson and Italian prune types. The fruit is pierced, covered with sugar and alcohol and stored in a cool, dark place for months. The most exquisite and complex slivovitzes age in casks, like wine or bourbon.

The Good Life in Zavidovici

Papa, who had recently advanced to the rank of a captain, enjoyed an excellent rapport with his staff. He carried out his business in a strict but fair manner, which earned him the respect of his officers and the people of the Bosnian district around Zavidovici. They were grateful for the security that his troops provided. Tito’s bands and the German army alike were terrorizing towns and villages elsewhere in their attempts to gain control over the enemy. For Captain Panknin, there was just one fly in the ointment. He also had to deal with troublesome disciplinary matters arising from a company of volunteer soldiers under his command soon after Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941. The company mainly consisted of exiled Russians, former Belorussians or their children. As Papa described them in a letter to a friend after the war, they were drunkards, thieves, and good-for-nothings. In his opinion, the military police should have arrested them and put them in an army jail for all kinds of significant infractions. Breaking military rules and criminal activity within and outside the barracks were examples that Papa mentioned in his report. But documenting all the individual cases and summoning witnesses to support the evidence would have taken too much valuable time. The little episode corroborated what I learned from my brothers’ reports in Book I.  It may come as a surprise to most readers that many young men from European countries were willing to fight for Germany against the Bolshevik threat to take over all of Europe.

Picturesque Landscape near Zavidovici, Croatia

On October 30th, 1944, a telegram arrived from the Gotha police headquarters informing Captain Panknin of a very joyful event back home. The message read as follows: TWINS ARRIVED ON 29/10 44 BOY AND GIRL MOTHER AND CHILDREN ARE WELL. Great was Papa’s joy. What a blessing to have twins when it had appeared that he would not have any children of his own after fourteen years of marriage! His staff was equally delighted and created for their boss the most beautiful congratulatory card I have ever seen.

There must have been an artist among the officers. No commercial card could have matched the quality of the picture depicting two storks delivering the babies, the touching message for their dear commandant, and a lovely poem to boot signed by the entire staff. Of course, this extraordinary event called for celebration. But the best part for Papa was that he was granted a rare leave in the New Year from war-torn Yugoslavia to travel home to see his wife and children.

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.

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Papa and His Twins – January 1945

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.

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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.

A Gruesome History Lesson

No Photos Here – Let The Words Suffice

The partisans stilled their thirst for revenge first on members of the Waffen-SS. According to a report, on Pentecost Sunday, 450 soldiers were shot near Reichenberg, their arms tied together with telegraph wire in groups of six, all shot in the back. At the capture of Krusevac, 2,000 soldiers of the “Prinz Eugen” division were murdered. In Reichenegg, the partisans forced POWs into a bunker and dynamited it. When the stench became too intense, survivors had to cover the bunker with dirt. At Susegrad, partisans undressed 90 soldiers and chased them into the Sava River. Whenever possible the inmates buried the dead and marked the graves with stones or wooden crosses. In 1948, after the last POWs had left the provisional camps, locals dispersed the rocks, gathered the crosses and burned them.
Most of these former regular Wehrmacht troops perished in postwar Yugoslavia in three stages. As already mentioned above, during the first stage more than 7,000 captured German troops died in Communist-organized “atonement marches” stretching 1200 km from the southern border of Austria to the northern border of Greece. During the second phase, in late summer 1945, many German soldiers in captivity were summarily executed or thrown alive into large karst pits along the Dalmatian coast of Croatia. In the third stage, 1945-1955, an additional 50,000 perished as forced labourers due to malnutrition and exhaustion.
The total number of German losses in Yugoslav captivity after the end of the war including ethnic “Danube German” civilians and soldiers, and “Reich” Germans, may therefore be conservatively estimated at 120,000 killed, starved, worked to death, or missing. One may wonder why I would go to such length to describe the gruesome details of past events in an area of seemingly minor importance to us. There are two reasons. Firstly, I noticed so many similarities in the brutal treatment of the German civilian populations in East Prussia and Pomerania, where my parents and grandparents had their roots, and Yugoslavia, where Biene’s Papa spent most of the war years. I found it appalling that so little can be found in today’s historical literature about these events. The suppression of the atrocities committed by the victorious nations of WWII lends credence to the claim that the victors write the history books and determine and define justice.

Additional information on other ethnic groups in Yugoslavia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bleiburg_repatriations

Fate or Coincidence?

But more important was the second reason for letting me dwell on the dark side of the postwar Yugoslav history. When Germany was losing the war on all fronts, Papa had been granted leave because of his twins’ birth. He would have most certainly died if not on the atonement marches, then most certainly later, executed as an officer of the much-hated German army.

Mutti Panknin with the Twins Walter and Gertrud

When Papa told me his survival story on one of our walks in the lush Gruga Park near Velbert in July 1968, I could not help but notice the similarity between the miraculous escape from death between Biene’s Papa and our family. Was it a coincidence? I remember well my thoughts on the strange circumstances under which Biene and I met at Lake Baldenay and how, against all odds, our relationship developed into a lifelong union. Some may claim that everything in life is coincidental. But as for me, I take comfort in the way God, through our faith, provides the means to go beyond a fatalistic attitude and offers deep spiritual meaning to life even in the midst of death.

Proud Papa Panknin

The twins Walter and Biene were already more than two months old when Papa was finally able to hold them in his arms. When looking at the photograph of the proud father looking down on his precious brood, I had a rare glimpse of true happiness at the sight of new life that transcends all human tragedy. Despite the spectre of death and destruction at the front lines and the constant bombing raids, Papa, for that short moment in time, seemed far removed from the ravages of war and the worries of an uncertain future. His smile reflected a genuine picture of paternal pride, which prompted him to muster his inner resources in the battle of survival during the final stages of WW2, no longer just for himself but more importantly for his wife and children. The one-week leave and his visit at Gotha with Mutti, his two babies, Grandma Gertrud from Berlin and his adopted daughter Elsbeth came to an end much too soon.

The Vienna Slivovitz Hunter

Being cut off from his unit in Zavidovici, Papa returned to Vienna to report for military duty and to prepare a newly formed battalion to defend the city. Fortunately for him, there was not much action during the next two months except for the endless allied bombing raids on the capital of Austria. Since there were virtually no German fighter planes, American bombers brazenly made daily attacks in broad daylight on the beautiful city on the River Danube. With the regularity of a clock, they flew in from their air bases in France.

Vienna Amusement Park Prater in the 1930s – Photo Credit: pinterest.com

Ignoring the lethal blows to entire neighbourhoods, Papa remarked in one of his letters employing his peculiar kind of sarcasm that the Americans were knocking down one café after another. He would soon have none left to go and enjoy with a colleague a game of chess while sipping coffee and tasting delicious Viennese pastry. Knowing that the war would soon be over and all his money worthless, Papa spent his off-duty time scouring the local liquor stores for the liquid gold, his cherished slivovitz. He perceived it to be more valuable than the war-tarnished currency of the German Reich. On his final official leave at the end of February, Papa had assembled a dozen 1-litre bottles of his favourite plum brandy, for which he had a wooden crate especially built for the transport on the train to Gotha. However, he did not quite satisfy the desire for this precious drink. Indeed, he had also considered its trade-in value for scarce essential items later down the road. He managed to scrounge up a keg containing about 10 litres of slivovitz, which he stuffed into a huge rucksack.

Vienna Coffee House – Photo Credit: unsplash.com

With all these goods unavailable in Gotha and a suitcase full of foodstuff for the family way back home, he had to struggle to make his way to the railway station with a rucksack on his back, suitcase on the one hand and a small cart loaded with a box full of bottles on the other. People must have watched in amazement the most peculiar sight of an army officer that Papa offered to the curious Viennese onlookers. He was homeward bound and did not care much about the image that a German army officer was supposed to present to the public eye. Despite constant propaganda promising final victory, Papa and everyone else knew that the war was lost and that it was time to think of survival and to ignore how ridiculous one might look when plodding along with a load of valuables on the sidewalks of Vienna.

Chapter IV

Utter Chaos and Contradictory Orders

Near the end of March 1945, SS-Colonel Josef Dietrich had taken over the defence of Vienna. A few days later, artillery fire was thundering and warning that the Soviet frontlines were moving closer. Opa fortuitously recalled his marching orders commanding him to report for duty at his hometown Gotha. So with these documents on hand, it was in the eyes of the military authorities quite proper and legitimate for him to leave the endangered Austrian capital and not be considered a deserter. Yet, with his keen survival instinct, he saw a golden opportunity to be near his family in his leaving the city. Papa also saw a chance to get through the final stages of the war alive. To fall into the hands of the Americans as a POW was, in his mind, the lesser evil. He managed to reach Erfurt by train a short distance east of Gotha, which was already under attack by US troops and tanks. This event prevented him from taking on his new assignment there. So on the highway to Gotha, where he was walking, he joined the German forces in full retreat from the enemy. Papa did not indicate in his notes the army units under his command in the final stages of the war.

Erfurt 1945 – Photo: Wikimedia


Later, on a beautiful sunny April morning, when he would have preferred to take a relaxing hike with his family through the Thuringia Forest, he walked instead in the direction of the Central Station in search of provisions. When he passed by the railway station, the ordinarily busy and often overcrowded place was utterly deserted. Enemy tanks had bypassed the town during the afternoon on the previous day and threatened to cut off the local defence lines set up for the region around the city. Rumour had it that an order would come that very same night regarding a desperate attempt to hold the town with troops drawn from the so-called ‘Volkssturm’ brigades long enough for the bulk of the battalion to reconnect with the German defence lines farther east. Despite the town mayor’s opposition to the inevitable house-to-house combat and the danger of more destruction to his beloved city, the order was carried out to the effect that the regime-loyal Nazi officials had also taken flight together with a remnant of the retreating army. Expecting the arrival of the American vanguard of tanks and troops at any time and being no longer afraid of their oppressive regime, audacious town folks tore down the pictures of Adolf Hitler from public buildings and the walls inside the railroad station.

American Troops in Erfurt April 12, 1945 – Photo: erfurt-web.de

For Papa, these were turbulent times. With a small company of soldiers, he stayed behind, having received an order to fight as long as possible to delay the advance of enemy units converging on the city of Erfurt. On April 2nd, 1945, he recorded on his notes that the lines of command and communication were in a complete state of disarray. In the chaos and the rapid disintegration of the command lines, coordination of troop movements became increasingly more challenging to maintain. Often conflicting orders were sent out by the high command resulting in total confusion for the officers in charge down the military hierarchy. For instance, since his return from Vienna, Opa had received two marching orders, one for Leipzig and another for Dresden, while at the same time, he was supposed to provide leadership in the defence of Erfurt.

The Horrors of War

Small army units had found temporary shelter and accommodation in private homes. Opa and his war-weary comrades slept in a basement from 22 hours till three in the morning when enemy shellfire woke them up. The barrage lasted for three hours. Some shells exploded in close vicinity of the house, where he was staying. At 7:30, a series of fierce skirmishes erupted while Allied dive-bombers were pounding their position at Steigerwald, a district of Erfurt. One bomb hit their temporary home. It smashed through the roof and exploded inside, causing the building to collapse like a house of cards. Fortunately, the civilians had all been evacuated, thus preventing unnecessary injury and loss of life.

Incendiary Bombing of Leipzig – Before and After Photo Credit: Leipzigbuch


On Wednesday, April 5th, following the first marching order, Opa arrived by train in Leipzig at 22 hours. He quickly hid the wooden box filled with food supplies intended for his family while sirens were announcing another bombing raid. He managed to find shelter in a private basement room, from where he made a phone call to his superior and old acquaintance by the name of Jepsen. The German signal corps was still able to keep the lines of communication open, whereas the public telephone system had been out of order for some time. Opa received a heart-warming reception from his former colleague and friend. While he was being brought up to speed on the current frontline situation, he also received instructions about his role in the constantly shrinking space being held by German troops. Another bombing raid rained terror, fire and death from the unprotected sky. At three in the morning, Opa finally went to bed and found some much-needed rest. But he could not fall asleep.

Incendiary Bombing of Leipzig – Before and After Photo Credit Leipzigbuch


Worries about his family kept him awake. Hundreds of questions occupied his mind, to which he had no answers. Had the Americans already reached Weimar? Was the rumour true that their tanks have pushed their way to Gotha? How was his wife faring under these chaotic conditions? Was she still alive? And what about his stepdaughter Elsbeth? Then his thoughts turned to his twins Gertrud and Walter, whom he had held on his arms only two months ago? How were they doing? Was Mutti able to take care of them? When seen through the eyes of a caring and loving father, who must serve as a soldier fighting for his country, war takes on a new horrific dimension that goes beyond killing the enemy, worrying about getting killed, about death and destruction all around you. For every soldier killed in action, a mother will mourn the loss of her son. A sweetheart will never meet her lover again. A wife will have lost her husband and the father of her children. But when a soldier survives the horrors of the killing fields and returns home from a POW camp, and discovers that his entire family had perished in one of the horrendous aerial attacks, then what more is there to say about the utter and total senselessness of war? Having been a conscientious police officer and army captain faithful to country and convictions, Opa meditated deeply about things of concern to him. He often liked to share his views with friends and relatives in his massive correspondence later in the early sixties, from which I derived a lot of valuable information.

Papa Lending a Helping Hand

Places Walter Panknin Mentioned in his Notes

The following night Jepson invited Captain Panknin to sleep at his place. For the first time in weeks, Papa had a good night’s rest. Refreshed from a deep sleep, having recharged his internal batteries, he set out to go to the police HQ to receive further instructions. He had barely walked a few steps when Leipzig came under a sudden and unexpected aerial attack. The bombs were already falling when the sirens belatedly began their alarming howling in the city. An incendiary bomb plunged into a neighbour’s house, which almost immediately burst into flames. Papa helped the poor inhabitants with salvaging valuables from the burning inferno. His clothes singed by the fire and exhausted from the hard work, he arrived at the HQ, where to his greatest surprise, he was presented with yet another marching order, this time to Dresden-Hellerau. He had hardly received his provision for this eastern journey when the order was replaced by yet another, which sent him back to the latest hotspot at the western front near Weimar, where the Americans had launched a major offensive under General George Patton.

On April 8, shortly after midnight, he arrived by train at Weimar, where he went straight to the police HQ. By 06:15, he was climbing with a small troop under his command onto an army truck, which took him straight to the provisional front line near Erfurt. From there, they marched to Schmira amidst a barrage of shellfire and attacks from the air. Upon arrival, Papa looked in amazement at the bewildering array of the hastily set up feeble defence measures, most peculiar-looking anti-tank obstacles, and highly questionable battle preparations. It was dead quiet; the shellfire had suddenly ceased. Was it the calm before the storm? In the ominous stillness of impending doom, Papa found time in a nearby inn to write a letter to Mutti and family, which he passed on to a female communication aid to deliver it if at all possible to his wife in nearby Gotha. All day long, he could hear the droning of enemy planes over Erfurt. After a restful sleep in the basement of the police HQ, he felt his confidence returning, especially regarding Mutti and the children. He began to contemplate the best strategy to survive during the remaining few weeks of the war.  In anybody’s reasonable mind, the fighting should stop. However, the regime-loyal fanatics were bent on dragging the German people into even greater misery than they had already suffered so far. Should he stay at the frontline and count on becoming a POW of the American forces? Or should he follow the marching order to Dresden, which was most likely already occupied by the Red Army and try his luck as a POW of the Soviet forces? As a higher ranking police officer, not quite fitting into the overall scheme of an increasingly chaotic defence plan, he had, in contrast to the common soldier, at least some freedom to move.

Life is More Important than a Clean Shirt

On Monday, April 9, Captain Panknin received yet another marching order. German troops were retreating to Weimar, where he was supposed to report for duty. After hearing that the trains were no longer running in the area, he debated whether he should walk there or try to get somehow to Erfurt. He decided to go to the latter, where he received a decent meal and accommodation at the local police station. He complained in his diary that he had not taken a bath for several weeks. Also, the dirty clothes on his body began to bother him. But when he heard that Schmira was under attack by enemy shellfire and was burning, he realized that he had been lucky again and that life was more important than the temporary inconveniences caused by lack of hygiene and cleanliness.

Front Lines April 1945

The following night Opa wrote another letter to Mutti in the relative security of the HQ. At 23 hours, he had just stretched out on his bed when enemy shells exploded in closest proximity to the building, where Opa was trying to find some rest. He quickly rushed down the stairs to the basement that served as a bomb shelter. Many people from the neighbourhood were packing the already overcrowded facilities. Opa had to sleep in the hallway. But it was not a night of good sleep, as stragglers were stumbling over his cot. During these fitful moments of sleeplessness, he was debating in his mind whether he should attempt to walk to Weimar the very next morning. For all train services into and out of Erfurt had been discontinued. An inner voice advised him to stay put and wait with the other police force members until the end of these crazy chaotic conditions. I heard the desperate silent cry of despair while reading the question in his notes, “When will finally somebody come and take us prisoners?”

American Army at Erfurt April 12, 1945 – Photo: erfurt.de


At last American soldiers appeared at the basement door. An army captain was calling him and his bedraggled troop to come out of the basement. Earlier other German soldiers had put on civilian clothes. There was one among them who had some command of the English language. When the Gi’s stormed the building, he cried out with a pleading voice, “Don’t shoot. I am not a German Hitler soldier!” These were the final moments when around eight o’clock in the morning of April 12, 1945, Opa became a POW of the US forces in Thuringia.

Papa’s First Experiences as a POW

As a US sergeant was marching a miserable lot of captured German soldiers to the railway station, a drunk Red Army man attempted to strike them with the butt of his rifle but refrained when ordered by the GI to back off. However, great was their horror, when shortly afterwards they saw an American soldier from under a bridge aim his gun at them apparently for the fun of target practice. Papa heard distinctly the click of the trigger followed by the soldier’s derisive laughter, clearly displaying his pleasure of having struck terror into the hearts of the hapless bunch of captives. After a tiring march, they finally arrived at a provisional POW gathering station, where they spent a cold night in the open-air facility. Their treatment was good. Papa felt great relief knowing that, at least for him and fellow prisoners, the war was finally over. He was also becoming optimistic about the near future after hearing the officer in charge of the camp say that they would be treated fairly in keeping with international law and the Geneva Convention.

American HQ near Erfurt April 12 1945

After another cold night without shelter, they received, considering they were POWs, a royal breakfast. It consisted of seized German army provisions such as pumpernickel, canned meat and even chocolate once intended as rations for the Air Force. Thus, strengthened by the high-calorie intake, they went on a four-hour march, bringing them to a stadium. They had permission to salvage wood from the dilapidated buildings to make a fire for cooking and to build primitive shelters for protection against the cold and the rain. During the next couple of days, they were being moved frequently from one place to another until they arrived by army truck at a camp at Kirchheim near the city of Bad Hersfeld.

Modern Bad Hersfeld – Photo Credit: Tripadvisor

When Papa had identified himself based on the official documents that he had always carried with him and thus convinced his captors that he was indeed a high-ranking officer, he was immediately given at least for now preferential treatment. He found some relatively comfortable sleeping quarters in the attic of a house confiscated and occupied by the American forces. When Papa arrived, eight other German officers had to share the room. By evening eight more POWs were added to their lot, making things so tight that Papa had to lie down under the table for a good night’s sleep. There was plenty of food. In his notes, Papa marvelled how quickly one could forget past ordeals if one only has some decent food in one’s stomach. The following day, he enjoyed taking in a sumptuous breakfast with delicious items he had not consumed for the last couple of weeks. He felt refreshed, and a new sense of optimism filled his entire being. Some of the items on the breakfast menu were cake and coffee, tea and lemon. Feeling liberated from the ideological shackles, most officers present, even those, who had once strong leanings to the Nazi regime before, displayed a very noticeable shift in their outward behaviour. Less than twenty-four hours after their arrival, they no longer saluted each other with ‘Heil Hitler’ but were quite content to greet one another with a simple ‘Good morning.’

Arrival at the Rheinwiesen Camp

 Soon an army truck pulled up at the house to pick up the prisoners. The order was to move them farther to the west. After all, the war wasn’t over yet.  The prisoners had to be as far away from the battlefield as possible. The Germans had built the concrete superhighways, the so-called Reichsautobahns, to carry troops and supplies under the motto ‘The wheels must roll for victory.’ Now they ironically assisted the enemy in bringing in war materiel even faster while moving the POWs away from the front. Together with thousands of other POWs, their final destination was Bad Kreuznach, a picturesque town west of the River Rhine. But the camp near the city was anything but romantic. Sheer horror seized Papa when he saw a giant empty field surrounded by a high barbed-wire fence. It did not even remotely look like a camp. There were no buildings for shelter against the cold and the rain. Soon it began to dawn on him that the cramped quarters at the confiscated house in Hersfeld were luxury accommodation by comparison to this desolate place without tents or barracks.

Papa Panknin wrote his POW experiences on cigarette paper. The example above is one of the over 60 papers I found among his belongings. Only after scanning and magnifying them I was able to read his notes. How he was able to write on these tiny pieces of paper with a pencil is a mystery.

Like cattle, the guards drove them onto this field of muck and clay. There they left them without any provisions for shelter during the night. However, the food was nutritious and plentiful for the time being. Before nightfall, the American camp officers organized the new arrivals into companies and then ordered them to build primitive hovels out of clay. They were somewhat like the sandcastles that tourists would make on the beaches of the Baltic Sea. Fortunately, although the nights were uncomfortably cold in late April and early May, the bright sunshine and fair weather contributed a lot to make life quite pleasant for the POWs. Some were sunning themselves, while others played games to while away the time. It didn’t take Papa, a passionate Skat player, very long to find partners for the most popular card game in Germany.

Coping with Rain, Mud, and Hunger

Suddenly, the weather changed from one day to the next and brought rain and more for the next seven days. Temperatures plunged to near freezing at night, while water soon filled their clay huts and made it impossible to sleep on the ground. Poor Papa Panknin tried to sleep while standing on one leg for a couple of minutes, then switching to the other. Once, he succeeded in catching a few winks, only to wake up in horror discovering to his utter dismay that he had plunged face down into the mud. He summarized his dismal experiences as triple torture of standing, starving and freezing. From the highest-ranking officer down to the common soldier, every POW had to endure the cold nights and the rainy days. The weather made no distinction. It fooled the prisoners by raising their hopes when short periods of clear skies promised a sunny, dry day, only to revert to more rain during the day.

One of the many overcrowded POW camps: The Rhinewiesen Camps, where Papa landed in April 1945

In the first week of May, the sun did not show its face for five long days. Papa was constantly scanning the sky for a sign of change in the weather. His long gaze created the hope that if he looked hard enough, he would perhaps discover a patch of blue on the murky horizon. Indeed, Papa thought he had found a definite shift from gray to blue. When he proudly announced his comrades the changes he had observed in the clouds, they all laughed at him. Like a desert traveller fancying an oasis, where there is none, so Papa had fallen victim to the mirage that had formed in his desperate mind. Perhaps hot, nutritious meals would have helped a little to provide some strength and warmth. Alas, the thin soups were getting lighter and often arrived cold at their swampy mud hole.

The posts on Walter Panknin are based on the notes he had written on tiny cigarette paper before and during his POW time. How he could write his experiences on such miniscule paper will be perhaps be forever a mystery.

During one night, Papa tried to find some rest for his tired feet by sitting on a water container, but completely exhausted fell two times asleep and into the muck. Unkempt and unshaven, covered in filth, he felt more like an animal than a human being. There was strife and petty spats over tiny morsels of food. There was no wood to make a fire, not even for roasting the few potatoes that had been made available for the hungry men. Papa built a primitive grating tool out of a tin can, into which he had punched some twenty holes. Now he could shred a potato into a porridge-like pulp, which he ate raw to get some badly needed nutrients, minerals and vitamins into his belly.

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 Good American.

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.’

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!’

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