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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Happy Times for the Walter and Elisabeth Panknin Family
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.’
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.