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!’

Food and Cleanliness at the POW Camp

In the next section of his narrative poem, he addresses in a satirical fashion liberally sprinkled with sarcasm all housewives in general and his wife Elisabeth in particular. To wash clothes is easy, he says, when you have buckets, detergent, water, and means of bringing it to a boil. With those things readily available, every man could do the same, he claims. Then he begins to enumerate all the difficulties of doing the laundry in a POW camp. In wartime, people have to line up for butter and bread. Similarly, the prisoners first had to stand in line to receive some water, then sneak into the packed laundry house. To wash your clothes anywhere else was strictly forbidden. For the entire cleansing exercise, the camp rules allowed per company only twenty minutes, during which time the POWs could wash their face and body. Papa bemoaned the resulting failure of keeping body and attire clean. 

I placed a quarter on the tiny paper that Papa had written his POW notes. It gives you a sense of how tiny the paper was he used.

Dust also was a big problem when they were beating their blankets in the morning or frantically tried to sweep off the dusty dirt floors. Following the vigorous action of multiple brooms in action, fine particles remained floating in the air for a long time and eventually settled exactly in nooks and crannies in a never-ending cycle, which would make German housewives boil over in anger and frustration. Papa would have written many more verses on dirt and dust in the camp. Alas, for lack of paper and pencil, he was unable to jot them down. When finally he traded in a good chunk of chocolate for those most precious writing utensils, he had forgotten them all. And indeed, there were more important things to report.

Kinzig-Remagen POW Camp Spring 1945 – U.S. Army Archives

Food or rather its dwindling rations became once again the number one topic at the camp. And the chicaneries resumed. The POWs complained that the kitchen staff had maltreated them at a recent call to a non-existing breakfast. In a sadistic response to the justified complaint, the German kitchen personnel collaborated with their American supervisors and devised another sinister plan to make life more miserable for the prisoners. What they came up with was to serve breakfast between four and five. That would take care of the complaint of being called for breakfast and not getting one. Breakfast consisted from now on of watery vegetable soup. Add to this the long wait for lunch, which made their suffering even worse. When finally they received coffee or tea with one slice of wheat bread, it became evident they were set on a starvation diet. The word circulated from company to company that they should do as little physical activity as possible to conserve precious calories. Their survival was at stake.

POWs on Starvation Diet

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

The Family Constantly on Papa’s Mind

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

Papa’s Partial Book List


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

Sources Backing up Papa’s POW Experiences

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

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

Overcrowded POW Camp

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

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

Sources Backing up Papa’s POW Experiences

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

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

Overcrowded POW Camp

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

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

Light at the End of the Tunnel

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

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

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

Chapter V

Mutti Panknin and her Three Children

The American forces under General George Patton had advanced with lightning speed into Thuringia in April 1945. There, along with thousands of other German officers and soldiers, Walter Panknin became a POW. If the German high command had placed him at the Western front a month earlier, he would have enjoyed spending his captivity in the United States. Life, food and treatment would have been generally good for a German POW. 

The Twins Walter and Gertrud Panknin

In the late summer or early fall, the notorious Rhine Meadows POW camps were shutting down. The western Allied Forces began shipping the POWs to their designated regions of occupied Germany. If you were a soldier with a permanent address in the Soviet-occupied zone, then there they would ship you. By now, the Americans had handed over Papa’s home province Thuringia to the Soviet administration. They had withdrawn their troops to the American Zone in Bavaria and Hesse. Before they left, food was already scarce. However, life was tolerable even in the bombed-out cities if you were among the lucky people who still had a roof over your head.

Mutti Panknin and Her Children Walter, Elsbeth and Gertrud

Papa’s wife Elisabeth recalled a heart-warming event in the spring of 1945, which she passed onto to her daughter Gertrud. An Afro-American G.I . regularly came by the house in Gotha. There she had been living with her family since the early 1930s. At first, Mutti was terrified and believed he was threatening her when he was wildly pointing as if wielding a gun at something at her doorstep. He kept shouting, “Milk for the babies!” Finally, she realized what the kind-hearted soldier intended to tell her when she saw the bottle of milk at her doorstep. Mama Panknin kept this miraculous story in her heart for the rest of her life.

Papa is Coming Home

Great was Elisabeth’s joy when her husband suddenly and unexpectedly arrived at their home at Gotha. Papa could finally embrace his beloved wife, hug his stepdaughter Elsbeth, and hold the baby twins Walter and Gertrud in his arms. He had not seen them for over half a year.

Mutti Panknin with One of her twins

Unfortunately, several flies in the proverbial ointment all too quickly disturbed the family bliss. The house owner had covered up his illegal black market dealings by having a high-ranking police force officer renting the ground-floor apartment in his house. As many essential items were getting scarce during the war, he used Captain Panknin’s status to deflect suspicion from his shady activities. Now that the war was over, the landlord found him no longer useful and tried to get rid of his tenants. Perhaps he knew some well-to-do people able to pay a much higher rent. With so many destroyed cities, Germany experienced one of the worst housing crises in history.

Oma Panknin with her Twin Grandchildren

Being without a job and having no regular income turned out to be a more significant problem. Papa got by for a while, trading in the plum brandy for things they were lacking. Indeed, his foresight and the effort of collecting and bringing home the liquid gold are remarkable.

Trying to Find Work in Post-War Germany

Being without a job and having no regular income turned out to be a more severe problem. Where would he find work in the Soviet occupation zone as a former police officer and a Wehrmacht battalion commander in Croatia? As such, the Russian authorities viewed Walter Panknin with suspicion and kept a close eye on him.

Papa once experienced joblessness after returning home as a young man with the rank of lieutenant at the end of World War I. How fortunate it was that now he could use the skills he had acquired while training to become a dental technician! He had also built up considerable work experience in Gassen in the 1920s. Good or bad times, there will always be a need for skilled people in the field of dentistry. Finally, a job related to these skills provided hope on Walter’s prospects of a steady income after his return from the POW camp at Bad Kreuznach.

Motti Panknin and the Twins

But there was a major hurdle that the Soviet secret service had placed before my father-in-law. The Russians must have received the list of POWs returning from the infamous Rhine Meadows camps. Undoubtedly, they were especially interested in the higher-ranking officers. They aimed to extract valuable information from those with a Nazi background. They also wanted them to rat on former military friends and colleagues.

Harrassing Interogations

Mutti and Little Walter Junior

The Soviet authorities must have known Papa’s background well before they even summoned him to appear for the lengthy interrogations. They mostly took place in the late evening hours. Believing him to be a solid antifascist, they decided to apply the soft treatment on him. Papa was fortunate not to undergo any physical pain or even torture. But the psychological burden weighed heavily on his heart and mind. He never knew what to expect and when he had to show up for the round of these nerve-wracking sessions.

Worst of all, his source of income as a dental technician hung in the balance. For without clearance from the Soviet secret service, he would not be able to work. During one of those evening sessions, the Russian officers took on a very conciliatory approach. They told him that his antifascist background would make him appear in a favourable light. All that Papa would have to do was provide them with names of former Nazi officers in the German army. Indeed, Mr. Panknin would know which ones had displayed through their actions and voiced opinions a pro-Nazi disposition. Ratting on people, however, Walter Panknin was not willing to do.

He courageously replied, “I met so many police force officers and of the German army. But I cannot remember any of these with pro-Nazi leanings.”

“In that case, we will have to keep you here for the night. Perhaps that will help refresh your memory to come up with a list of names in the morning,” was their response via the interpreter.

“But sirs (Meine Herren),” Papa protested, “I haven’t eaten supper yet”.

Upon hearing this somewhat naive statement, the Russian security officers broke out into roaring fits of laughter. For the longest time, Papa could not figure out the cause of their merriment. Somehow Captain Panknin’s remark about not having eaten yet broke the ice. The committee decided to let him go home and stop the interrogations of this honourable gentleman. No doubt, they continued to keep a close watch on my father-in-law. Shortly after, Papa began his employment as a dental technician.

Frau Panknin Accused of Theft

Tempora mutantur et nos mutamur in illis. This Latin adage, meaning “Times are changing, and we are changing with them,” rings especially true when examining cultural norms for human behaviour. When Papa was a police officer before and during the war, his elevated status in society did not allow him to have his wife working. A man of his rank was supposed to feed his wife and family. Now having been a former officer of the German army, he could not hope to find employment as a police officer in the Soviet-occupied province of Thuringia. Fortunately, he eventually found work as a dental technician at a friend’s dentistry lab. All of a sudden, the honour code of the former police force no longer applied, and his wife Elisabeth was working for a Russian officer who needed help to keep his rather large household organized and running well. For a few hours every day, Elisabeth Panknin had to do housework for him in exchange for a modest wage and some precious victuals from the kitchen. 

Elsbeth, Gertrud

One day when she reported for work, the whole household of the commander was in disarray and upheaval. The commander had lost his precious ring. An extensive search by all the members of the home had been unsuccessful. The ring was not found. Finally, mother Panknin was accused of having stolen it. The commander told her that she had to return the precious object by the following day or face dire consequences. Elisabeth was scared to death. She had seen and admired the ring but had no idea where it was. She spent the night in agony, not knowing what to do. Finally, after many prayers, she decided to offer the commander all her jewellery the next day to prove her innocence.

Mutti Panknin with Little Walter

The following morning, weak with fear and apprehension, she arrived at her workplace. She was immediately sent to the commander’s office, who was holding out his hand when she entered. Frau Panknin could not believe her eyes when she saw the precious ring sparkling on his finger. In his broken German, the commander explained how he had found the ring. When he was getting dressed that morning, he had felt a small object in the lining of his jacket. On further investigation, it felt like his lost ring. He suddenly remembered that he had put it in his jacket pocket for some reason Frau Panknin could not understand. His coat pocket had a small tear in the seam, and the ring had slipped through it into the silk lining. That the ring was found in the nick of time to save my mother-in-law from dire consequences was another miracle. From that day on, the commander rewarded her more generously for her work.

Mutti Panknin’s Loss of her Fiancé

Biene contributed this post.

Born in the Rhineland region of Germany, my mom incorporated all the positive qualities attributed to a typical Rhineland personality.  She was always cheerful and full of vitality. She loved life and, above all, people. Her keen sense of justice and fairness added strength to a tenacious fighting spirit. Her memory was astounding. She could recall events and people of the past in minute detail. She was very resourceful and overcame many insurmountable obstacles.  She always fought for freedom in all its forms.

Biene’s Maternal Grandparents circa 1900

People would gravitate towards her; even strangers would love her almost at first sight. Sometimes my brother and I were a bit embarrassed by the attention strangers gave her when we travelled with her. Her hospitality was famous and all our friends loved to visit our home. She took a genuine interest in other people.  She had good advice, and people accepted it with gratitude. She was also beautiful. After leaving the convent school, she found employment as a receptionist for a photo studio and frequently sat as a model for her employer.

Biene’s Mother and Half-sister Elsbeth 1924

My half-sister was born when my mom was 23 years old. My mother never talked about that time, and the identity of my sister’s father has remained a mystery to this day.  My nephews are still searching to find out who their grandfather was. Until I was 20 years old, I did not even know that my father had adopted my sister.  My parent’s generation kept a lot of secrets. There are some indications that my sister’s father was not acceptable to my mother’s strict catholic guardians. Very likely, he was a Jew. I remember a rare moment when my mother told me that she was once given a beautiful necklace by a Jewish man who loved her very much but died in a motorcycle accident. At that time, I did not know that my sister had a different father. Looking back now, I believe that my mother wanted to force the marriage by her pregnancy. Tragically, her lover died in a fateful accident before my sister was born. This scenario is speculation. I do not know how my mother coped as a single parent and how she eventually met my father.  I only can presume that my father must have loved her very much to overcome the social barriers of that time to marry an unwed mother and thus jeopardize his status as a police officer.

Gotha, Thuringia, Germany

Biene contributed this post.

Gotha is a picturesque city located in Thuringia, one of the most beautiful regions of Germany. It is called the Green Heart of Germany because of its vast pine and mixed forests stretching over rolling hills. My dad did not have the outgoing, cheerful personality of my mom. Although he could be humorous and enjoy company, he was more introverted and loved reading, studying, and writing. History was his passion. But he also was an outdoor enthusiast and loved to hike, bike, ski, swim, go camping and boat in his canoe-like paddle boat. My mom and dad explored all the major rivers of Germany by embarking on extensive boating and camping trips in the summer.

Mutti Panknin and Daughter Elsbeth – Paddling on the Danube

Until late in his life, my dad led hiking clubs. He loved exploring and marking new trails. He also loved collecting mushrooms and became an expert in researching new species and cataloging them. He also liked to compose poetry, especially ballads, illustrating with beautiful ink drawings. The only thing he lacked was practical skills. According to my mom, he could not even “cook water.” While my mom was loved, my dad was respected.

 Our family lived on the main floor of a spacious villa not far from the castle and its fantastic park. It is the most famous landscape park in Germany and contains many rare and exotic trees. This wonderful park became our playground. Every weekend through the changing seasons, my father would take us on long walks to this charming place.

Castle Park in Gotha, Germany

Before we even went to school, he had taught us to identify and name trees, flowers, plants and animals, more than I can recognize now. My brother and I would collect colourful leaves, tasty hazelnuts, shiny chestnuts, acorns, pine cones, rose hips, and other seeds and berries. These treasures would delight us more than toys. We loved to watch the birds, chipmunks, insects, butterflies, frogs, toads, snakes, salamanders and other small animals living in this enchanting realm. Two big ponds were another exciting attraction to explore. Some of my earliest memories are holding my dad’s hand and walking in this peaceful and magical place.

Failed Attempt to Escape

Biene contributed this post.

My brother and I were three years old when my mom made the first attempt to escape with us to the West. Fences, ditches and surveillance towers did not yet fortify the newly established borders between the divided Germanys. Heavily armed border guards patrolled the unmarked dividing line between the East and the West. My mom planned to cross the densely forested border at a remote village with my sister and us two. Once safely across, my sister would take us by train to relatives in the West while my mother would return home to escape with my Dad via Berlin to the West to rejoin us later. At that time, the East German regime had not yet built the wall, and it was still possible to escape from the eastern part of the city to the West by the subway system, which still joined the two parts of Berlin.

Early Border between East and West – Infants Reaching out across a FencePhoto: DW

The memories of that night are etched in my memory forever. My mom and my sister struggled to push our twin stroller over a rugged forest path at the approach of the night. When the going was getting too rough, my mother allowed us to walk a short distance ahead of them. My brother and I didn’t like being cooped up in the stroller for too long. We started to run and chase each other around a bend of the narrow path when a gigantic figure with a gun stepped out of the dense bush and blocked our way. We all stood motionless for a long moment until my mother and sister came around the path.  My sister started to scream with fright, but my mother stayed calm. She tried to explain that we had lost our way, but she could not fool the guard. He told my mother that he would walk the other way pretending he never met us, on condition that she immediately returned to the village. If she refused to comply, he would have to shoot, as were his strict orders. If he showed mercy, his own life was at stake. He did show some pity by giving my mother directions to a house nearby. There we would find the porch door unlocked and spend the night under a roof.  “There will be shooting tonight,” were his last words. 

East German Border Guard with Dog Photo: DW

Once again, we experienced the unexpected mercy of an enemy soldier. We spent the night huddled in the corner of a spacious porch. My sister broke down, crying hysterically. We had never heard her cry before, and it scared us more than the sounds of shots fired in the distance. Part of my sister’s breakdown was that she experienced the first stages of pregnancy still unknown to her.A few months later, she married her long-time boyfriend, and soon after, our first nephew was born. Thus, my brother and I became uncle and aunt at the tender age of four.

The Anemic Yet Picky Eater

Biene contributed this post.

After their failed attempt to flee to the West, my freedom-loving parents had to survive in a totalitarian state. The communist regime had curtailed many of their freedoms. For example, my parents could not visit their friends and relatives on the other side of Germany and the rest of the world.
Before the war, my Dad had transferred to the police force in Gotha. Now, under communist rule, he could no longer keep his position as a police officer. Miraculously, one of my Dad’s old friends, a dentist, remembered that my father had worked as a dental technician in the past. He offered him a job to work in his dental laboratory.
Food supplies were very short for several years after the war, especially in the East. I remember my Dad taking us to small villages in the surrounding area. He would try to trade in his high-quality police boots, belts, leather gloves and other valuable clothing for precious food like flour, butter, eggs and cheese. I will never forget the tasty delight of a freshly baked heart-shaped waffle a kind farmer’s wife handed me on a chilly fall day. It was still warm and tasted heavenly!! I never had one before.

Biene and her Twin Brother Walter

Our diet mainly consisted of porridge, root vegetables, bread, molasses and some butter or other fat. There were strict government food rations. Since I was underweight and slightly anemic, a concerned doctor prescribed extra rations for me. But I was also a picky eater. It upset my Dad tremendously when I refused to eat or left something on the plate. He had experienced extreme hunger as a POW. My mother ended up feeding us children separately to keep him calm.

Early Childhood Education at Home

Biene contributed this post.

When we turned four years old, my father started teaching us on weekends.  He had a large world map, which covered a wall in his study. He introduced us to geography. We had to point to and name all the continents, major countries, capitals, rivers, mountain ranges and oceans.

We had to draw maps and were rewarded with pennies if they were accurate. Papa explained the solar system to us and allowed us to colour his beautiful pen drawings for the ballads he had written. At bedtime, he would read books of the great explorers and inventors of the past or other historical events.  I loved cuddling close to my father on the bench of the big tile stove and listen to the great stories of mankind. 

Hiking – From the left: little Walter, Gertrud (Biene), Walter and Elisabeth Panknin

I learned to read before I even went to school and have always been a voracious reader from then on. I was six years old when I read my first novel. My mom had the book sitting on her night table. It was a gift from my father, who loved historical novels. Whenever I had the opportunity. I secretly read this big book which intrigued me. It introduced me to an exciting world far beyond my years. To this day, it is my favourite novel. The author is Hervey Allen, and the title is “Anthony Adverse.”  It was translated into German. 

Elisabeth Panknin, the twins and their sister Elsbeth

Although religious practices were tolerated under the new regime, they were not being encouraged. My mother had been strictly brought up in the catholic faith by her guardians.  However, my father was protestant.  Shortly after our birth, even before my dad had a chance to meet us, she had us baptized in the protestant faith out of respect for my father. My mother was always a firm believer in the Christian faith and instilled this faith in me. For her, the differences among the various religious denominations were not of great importance. She believed in a personal relationship with God and salvation through Jesus Christ. She would always encourage us to pray and believe in the power of God’s love.

We were introduced to the word of God by an interdenominational Christian group that read bible stories to preschool children. They must have sown seeds falling on fertile ground. To this day, I have never lost my faith in the goodness and truth of God’s word and the miracle of Christ’s promise of salvation.

Bizarre Child Rearing Practice

Biene contributed this post.

“The door flew open, in he ran,
The great, long, red-legged scissor-man.
Oh! children, see! the tailor’s come
And caught out little Suck-a-Thumb.
Snip! Snap! Snip! the scissors go;
And Conrad cries out, “Oh! Oh! Oh!”
Snip! Snap! Snip! They go so fast,
That both his thumbs are off at last.”


I sucked my thumb with passion and abandon right from birth and maybe even before. My parents never got tired of telling the embarrassing story when I tried to suck my brother’s thumb. He often stood still when observing something with his hands folded on his back like a statesman. I played on the floor behind him when I suddenly grabbed his hand and tried to put his thumb into my mouth. He screamed in horror, thinking I was going to bite him. Initially, my parents thought that I would eventually give up this bad habit on my own. But when I continued past the toddler stage, they started to get worried. All their attempts to stop me from putting my thumb into my mouth failed. As soon as their attention was diverted, I made up for the lost time, especially at night.

Heinrich Hoffmann: Der Struwwelpeter;

Finally, my mother and sister decided on more drastic measures. To me, they read the then bestselling children’s book ‘Struwwelpeter’ by Heinrich Hoffman. I listened attentively, sucking my thumb peacefully when suddenly my ears pricked up. There was a story of a little boy who had this habit of thumb sucking like me. Like me, the boy did not stop when told so by his parents. Then one day, the thumb cutter came and cut off his thumbs. Thus he stopped him once and for all.

I was getting a bit worried hearing the story when suddenly the doorbell rang. My sister got up to answer it. She returned after a few minutes looking very serious. “The thumb cutter is here looking for Biene,” she told my mom. “Should I let him come in?” My mom replied, looking at me, “Tell him to go because Biene will not suck her thumb anymore.” My thumb was out of my mouth in an instant. I was shaken to the core. “Miraculously” from that day on, I stopped this bad habit for good.

More Questionable Child-Rearing Practices

Biene contributed this post.

Another child-rearing practice my parents employed is also of dubious nature. My parents’ generation stood under the influence of the naturopathic medicine movement of Sebastian Kneipp. He believed in the therapeutic power of cold water. My parents wanted us to grow up strong and healthy. Every Saturday, my brother and I had our weekly bath in a big zinc tub placed on two chairs in our spacious kitchen. A hot bath was a luxury at that time.  We enjoyed this rare pleasure tremendously. But all treats come to an end, and for us, it was very abrupt. Without warning, my mother would dump a bucket full of cold water, which she had hidden under the chairs over us, as suggested by Sebastian Kneipp.

This “shock therapy” was supposed to toughen and strengthen us. Before we could utter desperate cries of protest, we were wrapped in warm towels. Time and again, my mother would assure us that she would not do it again. But she never kept her promise and was very skillful in hiding the bucket of frigid water. Until the end of his life, my brother detested cold water. I, on the other hand, started to like this invigorating therapy. To this day, I love swimming in cold lakes and conclude my warm bath with a cold shower. 

Another Kneipp practice my parents employed was even more dramatic and terrifying. As a small child, my brother had terrible temper tantrums. He frequently would fly into such a rage that he almost turned blue in his face screaming.  All measures to calm him down failed until my mother and sister started to resort to another Kneipp treatment. They would quickly pick up my hysterical brother and hold his head under running cold water from the tap.  The shock would instantly calm him. I was very scared watching this cruel procedure.

Like my brother, I was also strong-willed. But I did not voice my protests in furor. I would instead use passive resistance. My mother tried to give us one teaspoon of pure cod liver oil every day during the fall and winter season to prevent rickets and other health conditions. I vehemently detested this foul-smelling and even worse-tasting liquid. My mother could neither coax nor threaten me into compliance. I kept my mouth pressed shut. When all attempts failed to change my mind, my sister would hold me down on the couch, open my mouth forcefully. In an instant, my mother would pour the disgusting sticky liquid down my throat. I could not understand why my mother and sister, who loved us so much, could do such horrible things to us.

School Memories

Biene contributed this post.

As I already mentioned, my dad prepared us well for school. Before every lesson in his roomy study, he would say in English, “I am your teacher.” He wanted to acquaint us with a foreign language early on in life. He refused to teach us Russian, which would have been more helpful in a communist state controlled by the Soviet Union. Math was always fun. My brother and I had competitions in mental math, which I would usually win. Until my last years in high school, I consistently outperformed my brother. But then he surpassed me, and I could never catch up. Calculus was my downfall.


We had to memorize poems, ballads and, of course, lots of folk songs, which we would sing on long hikes in the beautiful forests of Thuringia. Most of the songs are still fresh in my mind. They bring back happy memories of picking berries, swimming in rivers and lakes, and picnics under beautiful trees. My dad would tell us legends and fairy tales often connected to the region’s folklore on these outings. Since the German language has fairly consistent phonetic rules, I learned reading almost on my own before entering school.

Walter and Biene

The famous German “Zuckertüte” or sugar cone bag originated in Thuringia near Gotha. This giant, brightly decorated cone-shaped paper bag was filled with chocolates, candies and other delicacies or little gifts to “sweeten” the first day of school. I wished we had a picture of ours. But at that time, my parents did not have the means to buy films.
We only had a few hours of school every morning for the first few years, including Saturdays. Students were expected to do homework and practice their new skills after school. Since my brother and I were fast learners, we had lots of free time to play when we returned home for lunch.

Scarlet Fever and Diphtheria

Biene contributed this post.

 Shortly before we started school, my brother and I fell ill with scarlet fever, a severe disease at that time, often leading to death. We were hospitalized. It was a very traumatic time for us. Missing my mother was almost more agonizing for me than the pain and the fever of this savage disease. My brother was far worse off than I was and was put in an isolation chamber partitioned from the ward by glass walls. I often saw doctors and nurses bend over him with serious expressions on their faces.

Our Home in Gotha

My mother knew how distressed we were. During the day and even at night, she would race on her bike to the hospital. She would find ways to sneak into our ward and comfort us, disregarding strict visitor regulations until she was asked to leave. My bed was close to a window. I would often stare out onto the street in the hope to spot my mother in the distance on her bike.

Antibiotics were very scarce in East Germany. Even in the West, there was only a limited supply because of the recent war. My brother was at the point of death when a desperate doctor asked my mother if she had relatives in West Germany. He suggested to phone them and ask for antibiotics to be sent to the hospital. He helped my mother contact her aunt via his private phone and make arrangements with a doctor in the West. Making these calls was a risky undertaking because contact with the West was considered a severe offence. Miraculously the mission was successful.

When the antibiotics finally arrived, I was already on the road to recovery. However, for my brother, they came just in the nick of time. He was saved from death but suffered from a weakened heart for the rest of his life. Shortly after we recovered, my newlywed sister and husband came down with a severe case of diphtheria, from which they took a long time to recover. They were in quarantine for many weeks, and my parents had to look after their infant son during that time.

Looking back now, I wonder how my parents coped with all these extreme hardships. As my mother often told us, my brother and I were the reason why they never despaired or gave up. We were their pride and joy. Trying to raise us for a better future gave them strength and hope. Especially my mother was prepared to sacrifice anything for our well-being and prospects for a happy future. Without personal freedom, these prospects were compromised. My parents felt increasingly oppressed by the totalitarian state.

A Happy Childhood in a Time of Fear and Oppression

While my parents increasingly suffered under the oppressive political system, my brother and I experienced a happy childhood. We were oblivious to the hardships my parents had to endure. My mother had to struggle every day to provide food and other necessities.

The Three Panknin Children

Even essential food items such as butter, flour, sugar, meat and cheese were scarce, and there were long lineups at the grocery stores every day for the limited supplies. Luxury items such as coffee, cocoa, chocolate, citrus fruit and cigarettes were hardly ever available. Ironically, the most coveted things for many people were cigarettes and coffee.

Food was scarce, but basically, everything from clothing to building materials was in short supply or unavailable. Regular planned outages rationed even electric power. While West Germany had a rapid economic boom after the war, East Germany had an economic decline. People in the East were angry and upset that they had to struggle for survival under a totalitarian system while their brothers and sisters in the West were enjoying freedom and prosperity. If people complained or criticized the system, they could be “denounced” to the authorities and severely punished. People could no longer trust each other. For many demoralized people in the East, West Germany became the “Promised Land,” They started calling it the Golden West. Significant numbers of desperate people escaped to the West, risking their lives and giving up all their material possessions in the pursuit of freedom and happiness. There wasn’t much that West German people could do to help their friends and relatives across the border.

The Golden West

Biene contributed this post.

To share some of their newly acquired wealth, West German people would send precious items to relatives and friends. We received large gift packages from my mother’s relatives at Christmas time. There were delicious sweets, chocolates, beautiful toys, well-made, stylish clothes and shoes for us. Fragrant “real” coffee beans for my mom and aromatic cigars for my father were some of the desired luxury items you could not get in the East. My brother and I were fortunate that we always had comfortable and well-made shoes because of my mother’s relatives who owned big footwear companies in the West.

Biene and her Twin-brother Walter at School

Books and other printed materials were forbidden because they could contain “propaganda” against the political system. Letters and parcels often were confiscated if they looked “suspicious.” My mom tried to keep a good relationship with the mailman so her letters and packages would not get “lost.”
In my imagination, the Golden West was a fairytale land where all the houses had golden roofs like the castles and palaces I had seen in the movie theatre. My father’s friend owned the “White Wall” movie theatre close to our home. My dad took us on many a Sunday to watch Russian fairytale cartoons and other movies. Since I had no concept of the “Golden West,” I thought it was a beautiful place in fairyland where you lived “happily ever after.”

Hiking and Other Outdoor Activities

Biene wrote this post

My parents protected and shielded us from their increasing hardships and sorrows. We had many friends and were allowed to play in our quiet neighbourhood without restrictions. After the war, only a few people could afford cars. There was hardly any traffic. Most people travelled by bike, streetcar, train or horse buggy. Special forest trams would take us out into the beautiful surroundings for hiking or other outdoor activities. On weekends my mom prepared a simple picnic lunch, and we would either go by tram or on the back seat of my parents’ bikes out into the forests.

A few relaxing moments for the family and friends

It’s incredible how far we could hike at an early age. My dad would goad us on by promising a pop-like beverage if we made it to the next village or any other destination he wanted to reach. Picking berries or mushrooms would supplement our diet. However, at that time, I was not too fond of mushrooms.

Biene and Walter enjoying the great outdoors

Located close to our home was a public outdoor swimming pool in a beautiful forest setting. My father was a passionate swimmer, and he taught us to swim before we even entered school. I inherited my dad’s passion and went to the pool every day during the open season, no matter how cold the water was. Even before I was six years old, I was allowed to go there on my own without adult supervision,

In the winter, we would get lots of snow. Every day we would spend hours tobogganing with friends down a steep street in our neighbourhood. At suppertime, we would trudge home tired but with glowing cheeks looking forward to our big warm tile stove and my dad’s nightly stories about the great explorers and inventors of the world.

The promise of a New Hat

Biene wrote this post.

It was on such a day in January 1953 that our lives changed forever. It had been clear and cold. Our tobogganing hill was slick and fast. Many of our friends were out, and we raced down the steep street again and again. One of my friends wore a new fur-trimmed hat which I liked very much. It was so much prettier than my hand-knit wool tuque. She had just received it in a belated Christmas parcel from her aunt in the West. She also shared some chewing gum with us, which we never had before and enjoyed tremendously for the first time in our life. What a wonderful place the West must be, I thought when I looked at my friend with the pretty hat trying to blow bubbles with her bubble gum.

Biene’s Home Province Thuringia – Photo by her late twin brother Walter 1982

It started to snow softly when suddenly I saw my mom approaching us. She never called us home before supper. Puzzled, we ran to her. Taking hold of my brother with one hand and me with the other, she told us that we had to go quickly to town with her before an important office closed. Despite our protests demanding to stay with our friends, she pulled us hurriedly along. I started whining, insisting that she at least buy me a new hat as pretty as the one my friend had received from the West. My mother pulled us relentlessly along without responding to my increasingly vocal demands.

Eventually, we reached the office. My mother signed and received some papers. It was pitch dark when we headed home. I was exhausted and hungry by then and had given up whining.  Suddenly I heard my mom whisper that I would soon get a new hat in the West. I was too drowsy to understand what her words meant.

Escaping to the ‘Golden West’

Biene wrote this post.

Finally, at home, we hastily ate some hot cabbage soup. After supper, my mother made us change into good warm clothes instead of getting us ready for bedtime. Without explanation, she made us kiss our dad goodbye and then, grabbing a big suitcase from a closet in the hallway, whisked us out of the front door. When we stepped out on the snow-covered sidewalk faintly illuminated by occasional street lights, my mother whispered to us that we would have to go on a long walk, but there would be a surprise. We walked silently like in a dream world enveloped by the thickly falling snow. Tired and dazed, we walked for a long time until we finally reached the railway station.

Biene’s Birthplace

Once we were settled in an empty train compartment, my mother told us that she had received permission to visit her sick guardian aunt in the West. My dad had to stay back as a guarantor for our return. If we did not come back, he would be severely punished.
My brother immediately fell asleep in my mother’s arm when the train started rolling. I, however, had my face pressed against the cold dark window. I did not want to miss the “Golden West” first glimpse once we crossed the border.

First Impressions of the Golden West

Biene wrote this post

My sister’s friends,  who hosted us while my parents were in the refugee camp in Berlin to ask for asylum, were very kind.  Their two young sons became our friends, and especially my brother loved their toys.  The Meccano set was his favourite.  He would amaze us with his elaborate constructions.

For a while, we were distracted by our exciting new experiences.  But as time dragged on without any contact with our parents, I started getting very homesick. I missed my parents, who had vanished so unexpectedly.  I also missed my loving sister and my two little nephews. I missed school and our friends.  (Except for a short visit to see what a West German school looked like, we were not allowed  to attend class with our host children.) I missed our beautiful, spacious home in Gotha with the large windows letting the light shine in.  I missed the comfort and warmth of sitting with our dad on the bench of our tile stove, listening to his stories.  I missed exploring the world on the big map covering the wall in his study. I missed playing with our friends on our quiet street flanked by old linden trees leading to our beloved castle park. I missed our family bike or tram excursions into the vast forests…   I forgot my mom’s cooking since I was a picky eater.   I even missed my teacher Mrs. Goose, whom my father did not like.

Cramped Apartments

 Before going to sleep, I dreamed about what I would tell my best friend Anneliese about the Golden West. I would say to her that our home in Gotha was a much better place.  In Dortmund, people lived in small cramped apartments on busy streets where it was not safe to play or even walk alone. On weekends instead of going to the park or hiking in the forests, people would visit the graveyards that looked like parks.  But you could not freely run or roam about or play and explore.  You had to walk respectfully and quietly like adults and sit on stone benches near the graves to pray or meditate silently.

Castle Friedenstein, Gotha

I would tell my friend that the Golden West was not golden.   It was a figment of the mind like the story of Santa Claus or the Easter bunny.  As for the big allure of freedom, it was overrated.   Although  I could have chocolate and even bubble gum,  I felt more restricted here than home. My sister’s friends did not let their boys and us go anywhere without supervision except the nearby fenced-in playground.  They would drop us off and pick us up; In Gotha, we were allowed to play for hours in our neighbourhood.  Once my brother and I decided to visit the castle Friedenstein on our own.  A  friendly castle guard noticing our curious glances at the open castle portal, invited us in and gave us a tour telling us some of the historical highlights. Thus, we learned that the great Emperor Napoleon had slept in the pompous, canopied bed that looked like a sailing ship.  Since our dad was a history buff,  he had told us about Napoleon, who fascinated him. Suddenly I longed for all the familiar things of home.  Every night I prayed that we would return to Gotha soon. But day after day, my brother and I were told to wait a bit longer for our parents to get us.

Finally Reunited with the Parents

Biene wrote this post.

 I would tell my friend that the Golden West was not golden.   It was a figment of the mind like the story of Santa Claus or the Easter bunny.  As for the big allure of freedom, it was overrated.   Although  I could have chocolate and even bubble gum,  I felt more restricted here than home. My sister’s friends did not let their boys and us go anywhere without supervision except the nearby fenced-in playground.  They would drop us off and pick us up,

In Gotha, we were allowed to play for hours in our neighbourhood.  Once my brother and I decided to visit the castle Friedenstein on our own.  A  friendly castle guard noticing our curious glances at the open castle portal, invited us in and gave us a tour telling us some historical highlights. Thus, we learned that the great Emperor Napoleon had slept in the pompous, canopied bed that looked like a sailing ship.  Since our dad was a history buff,  he had told us about Napoleon, who fascinated him. Suddenly I longed for all the familiar things of home, which I seemed to be losing.  Every night I prayed that we would return to Gotha soon. But day after day, my brother and I were told that we had to wait a bit longer for our parents to get us.

One afternoon, my brother and our new friends were at the nearby playground with a group of other children.  I was gently swinging back and forth, dreaming of playing with Anneliese, when a boy I had never met started pushing me.  At first, I didn’t mind.  Then despite my protests, he pushed me higher and higher.  My screams to stop seemed to entice him to push even harder and higher. I was terrified of the dizzying height and the unrelenting forceful behaviour of the big boy who seemed to delight in my distress. Suddenly, I lost control and fell flat onto the ground face first.  The fall knocked the wind out of me, and I struggled for a long time to gasp for air. Suddenly it was very quiet on the playground.  All the kids had run away except my brother and our friends.  They stood around me, looking worried. Luckily, I was not seriously hurt.  However, my faith in the kindness of people in the Golden West was shaken.  I had never met such a mean bully at home.

Panknin Family Reunited in West Germany

Miraculously, the following day our hosts told us that our parents were on their way to get us.

Finally Reunited with the Parents

Biene wrote this post.

 I would tell my friend that the Golden West was not golden.   It was a figment of the mind like the story of Santa Claus or the Easter bunny.  As for the big allure of freedom, it was overrated.   Although  I could have chocolate and even bubble gum,  I felt more restricted here than home. My sister’s friends did not let their boys and us go anywhere without supervision except the nearby fenced-in playground.  They would drop us off and pick us up,

In Gotha, we were allowed to play for hours in our neighbourhood.  Once my brother and I decided to visit the castle Friedenstein on our own.  A  friendly castle guard noticing our curious glances at the open castle portal, invited us in and gave us a tour telling us some historical highlights. Thus, we learned that the great Emperor Napoleon had slept in the pompous, canopied bed that looked like a sailing ship.  Since our dad was a history buff,  he had told us about Napoleon, who fascinated him. Suddenly I longed for all the familiar things of home, which I seemed to be losing.  Every night I prayed that we would return to Gotha soon. But day after day, my brother and I were told that we had to wait a bit longer for our parents to get us.

One afternoon, my brother and our new friends were at the nearby playground with a group of other children.  I was gently swinging back and forth, dreaming of playing with Anneliese, when a boy I had never met started pushing me.  At first, I didn’t mind.  Then despite my protests, he pushed me higher and higher.  My screams to stop seemed to entice him to push even harder and higher. I was terrified of the dizzying height and the unrelenting forceful behaviour of the big boy who seemed to delight in my distress. Suddenly, I lost control and fell flat onto the ground face first.  The fall knocked the wind out of me, and I struggled for a long time to gasp for air. Suddenly it was very quiet on the playground.  All the kids had run away except my brother and our friends.  They stood around me, looking worried. Luckily, I was not seriously hurt.  However, my faith in the kindness of people in the Golden West was shaken.  I had never met such a mean bully at home.

Panknin Family Reunited in West Germany

Miraculously, the following day our hosts told us that our parents were on their way to get us.

First Impressions of the  Sandhorst Refugee Camp

Biene wrote this Post

My mother was distraught after our first night in the crowded dormitory shared with twelve strangers and other strangers passing through our room from the adjacent sickroom.  She feared for our health and well-being due to the proximity of the contagious people who had to pass frequently through our door to visit the facilities or other places in the building.

Mutti Panknin at the Refugee Camp

After my mother voiced her concerns to the management, we were assigned to a small private room furnished with two metal bunk beds, a table with four chairs and a small wardrobe.  Although this room was smaller than my father’s study in Gotha, we felt happy to have more privacy.  We still had to share our door to the hallway with the occupants of the neighbouring room; a young widow and her two children.  Her son was five years older than my brother and me, while her daughter was two years younger than us.  But despite the age difference, we became good friends.

Rainer and Gabi’s mom always looked glamorous. She dressed like a film star.  I knew what film stars looked like from pictures of American actors and actresses in the packages of chewing gum.  I started collecting those pictures when staying with our friends in Dortmund. When I commented on her mom’s clothes to Gabi, she told me her mother’s secret.  Her mom had found a way to contact actors’ fan clubs in the United States.  She would tell them about her plight as a widowed refugee asking for charitable donations.  She would receive big parcels with the most fashionable, expensive outfits, shoes and accessories, often only worn a few times by her idols. Gabi’s brother Rainer went to the Merchant Marine Corps as a cadet after he turned 14 years old and had passed grade 8.   He brought me a beautiful scarf from one of his training sessions in Hamburg, the biggest harbour in Germany.  My mom proudly displayed it on the wall, as you can see in the picture. I admired and adored Rainer.  He would be travelling to many of the places my dad had shown us on the world map.

The Picky Eater

Biene wrote this post.

Although we did not like to eat in the crowded and noisy dining hall, my brother and I adjusted quickly to our new life in the camp. I, in particular, was a very picky eater and often felt nauseous just from the food odours permeating the building. My father had experienced extreme hunger as a POW. Therefore, he had no sympathy for me and would get very upset and angry when I refused to eat certain foods or left something on my plate. Eventually, my mother would feed us separately at different times so my dad could enjoy his meals without stress.

The Panknin Family 1954

After a long break in Dortmund, my brother and I could go to school again right at our camp. Makeshift classrooms were set up in one large lecture and meeting hall. We sat at round tables, which was a nice break from individual desks. I always loved school and even enjoyed homework. Since one teacher instructed us in a multigrade setting, we often had to work independently. Math problems were my favourites because we could read or draw when they were completed. I would always draw beautiful princesses in elegant dresses.

I remember the day I received my first report card. My brother and our friends walked across the big courtyard back to the living quarters. All of a sudden, we were stopped by a stranger. “Well,” he asked, “who of you children received the best report card today?”  Immediately some of our friends pointed at my brother, some at me and some at another boy. “Let me see your report cards,” the man demanded. Timidly we handed them to him. After studying them for a while, he handed them back except mine. “You have the best,” he said, “congratulations, you deserve a reward.”  He reached into his wallet and gave me some money, about $5.00. I was so stunned that I could barely say thank you. I had never had so much money before. My dad was so proud to hear the story that he matched the stranger’s reward.

Imagination Run Wild

Biene wrote this Post

Although I missed my best friend in Gotha, I made many new friends. After school, we would play on the large meadows surrounding the buildings. Contrary to our parents, the restricted living area in that small room was not an issue. We had lots of space and freedom to roam on the meadows and green spaces surrounding the barracks.
One day we ventured as a group out of the camp confines to a nearby treed area to play hide-and-seek. It was almost getting dark when one of the kids shouted, “Let’s go back. A dangerous man is trying to catch us!” We raced back to the camp gate with pounding hearts and breathlessly told the attending guard that a dangerous man had pursued us. Although I found out later that none of us had seen this man, we were sure we were telling the truth. In our minds, he existed. I guess this is a small example of mass hysteria. We never ventured into that forest area again.

Putting on a play (Biene with the big hat)


Later I will tell you about our move to the Old House of Rocky Docky in the Rhineland region of Germany. But now, I want to talk a bit more about our experiences in the refugee camp in Aurich, East Frisia. Most children live in the present. I have always liked to live in the present moment to this day. However, writing my blog now forces me to relive the past.

A Visit to Aurich

Biene wrote this post.

Every day is a new experience for children, and I enjoyed every day of my new life—no time to think of the past. The school was exciting because of our inspiring and kind teacher. With so many families living nearby in the camp, my brother and I had many friends. We spent most of the time outside playing in those endless meadows surrounding the base. There was never a dull moment because someone would always come up with an exciting activity or game. We skipped rope, played ball games, did yoga-type gymnastics and often invented new poses. We had talent shows singing and performing songs we had heard on the radio. We played old-fashioned games like marbles, hopscotch, hide and seek, catch or make-belief games. Sometimes we would collect daisies, dandelions or other flowers for braiding wreaths or lie back in the lush meadows and daydream.

Looking back now, from an adult perspective, life for my parents was not that idyllic. They were eager to have a place again to put down roots and call it home. But time dragged on. Sometimes my mom would take us to the picturesque town of Aurich, where my dad had found a temporary position as a dental technician at the local dentist’s office. My mom would slip quietly into the beautiful old church to kneel and pray for a few ‘Our Fathers’ on those outings. Often it looked like she was crying. My brother and I loved these town outings because my mother would buy us cones with whipping cream, a region specialty known for its sweet and rich cream from happy cows grazing on those lush pastures. My mom would drink East Frisian black tea with little “clouds” of heavy cream, also a specialty of the region.

Moving to Another Camp

Biene wrote this post.

One day in early spring, our mother told us that we would soon be leaving the camp in Aurich, East Frisia; we would move to Velbert, situated in the Rhineland region of  West Germany.  My mother sounded very excited and joyful because she was born and raised in the Rhineland, a beautiful part of Germany. It meant saying goodbye to my best friend Ingeborg and all our other playmates with whom we had shared so many exciting adventures and experiences.

However, before moving to Velbert, we first had to spend several weeks in a transitory camp in Massen,  a small town near Unna, close to Dortmund,  our second station in the “Golden West.”   I remember from that short stay that my mom was quite upset because we had to sleep in a big dormitory again with lots of strangers.  And to make things worse, we had to lie on straw mattresses.  But my parents consoled themselves with the prospect that we would soon move to Velbert.  That’s where apartment buildings for refugees were being constructed rapidly.

Biene’s Brother Walter Standing in Front of Transitory Camp in Massen

On a bright, sunny day in early Spring, we were loaded with all our luggage and several other families onto the open back of a big, old transport truck with makeshift benches. My brother and I had rarely ridden in a car.  This was my first time in a vehicle. For us, it was exciting!  My mom thought it was odd that we were transported like baggage. She didn’t like that we were all crammed together in this small, draughty and not too clean space. But my brother and I were laughing with the other kids and some boisterous men enjoying the cool breeze and the changing scenery. After a few hours, we were all shaken up by the bumpy ride.  The increasing cool drafts, the loud noise of the motor, and the vehicle’s rattling started to make us feel sick. Suddenly the truck came to an abrupt halt beside an old, dilapidated stone building that looked almost like a dungeon, dark and foreboding.

This Old House

Biene wrote this post.

The driver jumped out of the cab, opened the truck ramp, and started unloading the luggage and helping us jump out.   Dazed and bewildered, numb from the cold and very hungry, we all stood speechless for a moment.  “Take your belongings and follow me,” the driver told us.

When the Panknin family had moved into this dingy, rundown place in 1954, the single ‘THIS OLE HOUSE” had just been released in the US and became very popular in Germany with the version in German. The song provided some joy despite the depressing living quarters.

He led us around the extremely long building to a courtyard with a row of several outhouses.  “You can go there in a minute,” he told us, “but let me show you your quarters first. This old building used to be a pub and a bowling alley,” he continued,  “now it has been converted into an emergency shelter for people like you.  I’ll introduce you to the manager of this establishment.” He laughed and pointed to a man who had just stepped out of the entrance to receive us.

THIS OLE HOUSE IN GERMANPapa Panknin liked this song as it gave a fitting description of the refugee camp they now had to live in until they had found an apartment.

We were the first ones to be led to our room.  We had to go through a long hall with several big sinks, laundry tubs and a wash line with a few rags drying.  There were brooms, mops, pails, garbage cans and other equipment stored along the walls.  The evening light coming in through oversized windows could hardly soften the drabness of this dingy hall.

Mama Panknin in Agony

Biene wrote this Post

At the end of it, there was a door leading to a small room with a large recessed window in the bare rock wall.  It looked like a prison cell, except there were no bars on the window.  There were two sets of bunk beds, a table with four chairs, a small table with a two-burner hotplate and a small dresser.  “This is your temporary place until your apartment is completed,” the manager told us.  And in response to my parent’s questioning glance, he added, “This may take up to two years.  We just don’t know where to house all you people,” he grumbled, leaving us to attend to the other families.

We all stood dumbfounded until my mother’s loud sobs broke the silence for a moment.  She collapsed on one of the beds and cried and cried.  I had never seen my mother cry like that before, which shocked me deeply.  My father looked helpless.  Eventually, he started stroking my mother’s back.  My brother and I climbed onto our top beds, completely bewildered.

Mama Panknin Making Tea on the Hot Plate

Eventually, my mother’s crying stopped.  She rallied and took us to the outhouse.  She found a clean wash basin to scrub the grime off our face and hands’ long dusty truck ride.   She magically produced some bread, butter, cheese and jam. She also made some weak tea on the hot plate.   We were so starved; it tasted heavenly. Then she hugged us warmly and said,  “With God’s help, we’ll make it through.”

Finally Regular School Again

Biene wrote this post.

When I woke up from a deep sleep the following day, I could see through the big window that a clean blanket of snow had covered the drabness of the yard outside the Old House of Rocky Docky.  My father had heard the famous song on the radio and aptly applied it to our new abode.  It would always cheer us up to listen to our “theme song,”  We would sing it with gusto to make the old house rock.

Walter and Elisabeth Panknin smile at the prospect of having their own apartment soon.

The bright morning sun made the snow crystals sparkle and dance; Despite the first signs of spring earlier, winter was not over yet. My parents were already dressed to go out. My mother told us that the manager of the refugee shelter had allocated them some funds to buy household items, utensils and other necessary equipment for everyday living. Our mother told us that before she would go shopping, she would enroll us in the nearby school called Elementary School at the Tree.   Since we had missed classes for more than a month in the transition camp in Massen,  we were looking forward to regular school life again.

The New School

Biene wrote this post.

The school looked new and bright. Our teacher was a young, tall man with a severe expression. He didn’t smile at us once. About thirty students quietly stared at us when we entered the classroom. I recognized a girl and a boy I had seen last night at the Old House. When our teacher introduced us as refugee children from Thuringia, a tall girl with big brown eyes smiled at me. Gisela was her name, and she eventually became one of my best friends. She still lives close to Velbert, Germany. We have only seen each other twice after moving to Canada, but we have been corresponding for almost 50 years. I soon discovered that she was born in the “East” and from Eisenach, close to Gotha in Thuringia. Eisenach is renown for its imposing Wartburg castle.

Historical Photo of the Castle Wartburg (late 1960s)

When school was dismissed, a girl from one grade higher than us approached me and introduced herself as Margit. I had briefly seen her through the window at the Old House this morning. Margit smiled at me warmly and invited me to walk back with her. She became my closest friend when we lived at the Old House. Margit was mature beyond her age. She was a motherly type and a born leader. We liked her cheerful and outgoing personality. Fights amongst us kids never lasted long because she was a peacemaker, and we trusted in her judgement. 

About 15-20 kids about our age lived in the Old House, and we spent most of our time playing in the big yard around the old building. The Old House used to be a beer garden restaurant with a bowling alley in its younger days. The hedged-in yard with old trees had been the garden area of the venue where people would eat and drink on warm and sunny days.

Hard Work in the Golden West

Biene wrote this post.

Although the yard was neglected, it was an ideal play area for kids. We had plenty of safe space to engage in ball games, skip rope, play badminton, hopscotch, marbles, tag and even hide and seek in the bushes and behind the old trees. There were even grassy areas where we could put blankets to suntan, read or do gymnastics. We played outside in all kinds of weather until nighttime. The rooms in the Old House were too small for children to play in. Our parents struggled to cope under the primitive and restrictive conditions in the decrepit emergency shelter. However, we had lots of freedom, space and companionship with other kids. We were happy.
Velbert is a big town in North-Rhine Westphalia. Its primary industry is small-scale steel production. It is renowned worldwide for the manufacturing of keys, locks and fittings. You can see all kinds of exciting locks and keys in the local museum. Velbert has a primarily small-based metal industry that evolved from backyard forges. Right beside the Old House was such a small forge. At suppertime, we would see tired, and grimy-looking workers emerge from the dark, windowless stone building to trudge home.

Peter took this photo near Velbert in 1968.

My mother had respect and pity for these hard workers looking emaciated and pale from working long hours in that hellish plant. North of Velbert is the city of Essen, where the largest steel manufacturing plant in Europe was located. My dad found employment in the dental laboratories of the 400-year-old Krupp dynasty of steel manufacturing.

Papa Panknin Working in a Dental Lab

Every morning my dad would leave by bus around 6:00 a.m. to go to work. It would take him about an hour to get to his workplace in Essen. He would return at 6:00 p.m., dead tired but happy to have employment with a prestigious and socially progressive company that treated its employees well. For my parent’s 25th wedding anniversary, a representative of the Krupp management visited my parents at the Old House and delivered some gifts and well wishes. My parents were touched and honoured by my dad’s employer’s caring and generous treatment.

Long Walks with Papa

Biene wrote this post.

Located near Essen is the beautiful lake Baldeney, a dammed reservoir of the Ruhr River.  It was the destination of one of our first family excursions on a sunny spring day.  It would become our favourite recreation spot.  Lake Baldeney has personal significance for me because it changed my life forever.  But I won’t get ahead of myself.

My dad, who loved nature and, above all, water sports, was delighted to have this jewel of a lake in our vicinity.   It would still take some effort to travel there by bus, but these outings were recreational highlights and brightened our otherwise drab existence in the Old House.

 My dad and I walked approximately 16 km distance through forests and fields a few times.  I felt very proud to keep up with my dad on these long hikes.  My brother, who was not fond of swimming in cold water and hated exertion, seldom accompanied us.

Papa Panknin and his Daughter Biene

My dad and I would often daydream about the future on those hikes.  We envision a beautiful home built on a hill surrounded by forests and overlooking a big lake.  Far, in the end, this dream would come true for me at the Arrow Lakes in Canada.  On his last visit to Canada before his death, my father experienced the fulfilment of our vision for a short time with us.

The first time we walked barefoot at the shore of Lake Baldeney, we were puzzled that our feet were sooty black even after a swim in the clear water.  At that time, the coal industry was still in total production, and there was heavy pollution around Essen.   As seen in these pictures, blue skies were rare in my childhood, but I appreciated it when we had them.

Injustice and Humiliation at School

Biene wrote this post.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I was happy to have regular school again and looked forward to classes every day.

Two days after my mom had enrolled us at the Elementary School Am Baum  (at The Tree),  I woke up with a sore throat.  I was prone to severe allergies,  especially during the pollen season in the spring.  My mother suggested I stay home, sending my brother off at the usual time.  I did not want to miss school and pleaded with my mother to let me go until she relented.

I ran as fast as I could not be late, but classes had just started when I arrived.   Out of breath, I reached the classroom door where my teacher received me.  As I already indicated earlier, he seldom smiled and was very strict.   He looked earnest this morning,  “Why are you late?”. he asked in a stern voice; still out of breath, I stammered, “I wasn’t feeling well.”

“Don’t lie to me!” he shouted and, without warning, slapped me across the face.

Never before had I been physically punished by my parents or other adults. For a moment, I felt frozen in time.   I was so stunned and shocked that I did not know what was happening.  Eventually, like a sleepwalker,  I made it to my desk and sat there dazed until dismissal time.  I felt humiliated by this unjust punishment and very sad.  Until then, I had idolized and adored teachers.  In my mind, they embodied the highest human qualities like wisdom, knowledge, fairness, justice and kindness.  This undeserved slap in my face shattered that illusion.

Elementary School Velbert

Only when I got home did I cry.  It wasn’t the physical pain of the slap in my face that hurt but the emotional pain of undeserved punishment and the betrayal of trust by an abusive person in authority.

Most people did not own phones when I grew up, so my mother talked in person to the teacher the next day, but the damage was done.

Injustice and Humiliation at School

Biene wrote this post.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I was happy to have regular school again and looked forward to classes every day.

Two days after my mom had enrolled us at the Elementary School Am Baum  (at The Tree),  I woke up with a sore throat.  I was prone to severe allergies,  especially during the pollen season in the spring.  My mother suggested I stay home, sending my brother off at the usual time.  I did not want to miss school and pleaded with my mother to let me go until she relented.

I ran as fast as I could not be late, but classes had just started when I arrived.   Out of breath, I reached the classroom door where my teacher received me.  As I already indicated earlier, he seldom smiled and was very strict.   He looked earnest this morning,  “Why are you late?”. he asked in a stern voice; still out of breath, I stammered, “I wasn’t feeling well.”

“Don’t lie to me!” he shouted and, without warning, slapped me across the face.

Never before had I been physically punished by my parents or other adults. For a moment, I felt frozen in time.   I was so stunned and shocked that I did not know what was happening.  Eventually, like a sleepwalker,  I made it to my desk and sat there dazed until dismissal time.  I felt humiliated by this unjust punishment and very sad.  Until then, I had idolized and adored teachers.  In my mind, they embodied the highest human qualities like wisdom, knowledge, fairness, justice and kindness.  This undeserved slap in my face shattered that illusion.

Elementary School Velbert

Only when I got home did I cry.  It wasn’t the physical pain of the slap in my face that hurt but the emotional pain of undeserved punishment and the betrayal of trust by an abusive person in authority.

Most people did not own phones when I grew up, so my mother talked in person to the teacher the next day, but the damage was done.

Field Trip to Cologne

Biene wrote this post.

To my relief, the school year came to an end about two weeks later.   Our new teacher in grade 5 quickly restored my faith and trust in teachers. Although he was very strict,  he never lost his temper or control.  I loved his exciting lessons, fairness, warm smile, and sense of humour.

This teacher decided to take us on a field trip to meet Vater Rhein or Father Rhine, as it is fondly called the longest and mightiest  German river. On a beautiful sunny spring day, we went by train to Cologne.  Cologne is the fourth largest city in Germany, situated on the Rhine river. We visited the awe-inspiring cathedral, which towers majestically at the river shore.  We went down to the banks and immersed our hands in the water to greet Father Rhine.  He was starting to get polluted.  When revisiting the Rhine river, my friends prevented me from putting my hands in the water because of the dangerous pollution levels.  Now Father Rhine is clean and safe again.

Towards the end of our excursion, we walked through the Altstadt, the picturesque historic part of the city.  We did window shopping and were allowed to buy some small souvenirs in the romantic boutiques. I remember the fun we had reading the ornate and artistically designed shop and pub signs hanging on beautifully crafted cast iron brackets. We laughed at the often funny and clever names.  A butcher shop was called  The Jolly Fat Pig; A wine pub was named  The Bottomless Barrel.  In the Busy Bee Bakery, we bought some honey-sweetened pastries.

Back at school, we had to write about our excursion.  Our teacher told us that the best report would be published in our class journal.   We all had to read out what we had written and then voted on which one we liked best.  I was the proud and happy winner because I described all the humorous signs and other fun impressions of our exciting trip.

Biene and Her Twin Brother Attending Separate High Schools

Biene wrote this post.

When my twin brother and I were at the end of grade 4,  my parents had to decide if they wanted us to attend high school. After successfully concluding grade 13, we would obtain the senior matriculation certificate, Abitur in German, a prerequisite for post-secondary education at a university.

Biene and her twin brother Walter with their parents

Only a tiny percentage of students would enter high school.  Your elementary teacher had to recommend you based on your performance, and you had to pass a stringent entrance exam.  While all children by law received eight years of free elementary school education,  high school students had to pay tuition fees and finance their books and other educational materials.  It was an honour and a privilege to attend high school.  You belonged to an elite group if you passed your senior matriculation.  Only about half the number of students that started high school would accomplish that goal.

There were scholarships for top students who had financial difficulties paying the tuition fees.  My twin brother and I, plus my best friend Gisela,  were the lucky recipients after completing grade 4 with top marks.

My twin brother and I would attend different schools for the first time in our life.  The two high schools in Velbert were segregated by gender and academic orientation.  I went to the modern language branch for girls and my brother to the science and ancient language branch for boys.  While the school buildings were nearby,  we had no contact with students of the opposite sex for our entire high school life except for a short extracurricular ballroom dancing course in grade 10.

While our school had a high percentage of male teachers, my brother only once,  for a short time,  had a female teacher teaching at his school.  She enjoyed a special status that was “sensational” for the boys.  The boys “adored” her like a queen.

Two Outstanding Teachers

Biene wrote this post.

This is the beloved school I attended for nine years. Over the entrance was a stained glass window that read “Non scholae sed vitae.” I hardly ever missed a day and was always eager to go and learn for life.

Biene’s High School in Velbert

We started with 45 girls in grade 5, and after nine years, only 15 of us graduated. Our homeroom teacher was called Mr. Meckenstock. He mentored us for the entire school time. We fondly nicknamed him Mecki after our generation’s beloved little stuffed hedgehog toy. Mecki faintly resembled the little toy because he had lost most of his hair. However, he was very strict (like almost all German teachers) and also kind and warm-hearted. Above all, he was a unique character full of contradictions. He taught us English and French with lots of enthusiasm. He was proficient in both languages, even though he had never studied them in his native country. He had never been abroad until we went on a field trip to Paris with him in grade 11. The comical adventures of that memorable trip I will never forget. But I will talk about them in detail later. Mecki laid great stress on oral participation in classroom discussions which I liked. I enjoyed sharing thoughts and opinions on ideas or books we had to read in English and French.

Biene’s Class in Paris

Our math teacher, nicknamed Ata (father), was also popular; this short, round, red-cheeked jovial man was a wizard with numbers. Every math lesson he magically turned into a fun experience by engaging us in group math competitions on the blackboard. He cared that we understood and freely helped us when we had problems. We tried very hard not to disappoint him.

These two outstanding teachers probably had the most significant influence on my academic achievement. I will talk more about other teachers soon; teachers at my time were highly respected. When they entered the classroom, we had to rise and greet them in unison. Whenever we volunteered an answer, we also had to stand up. In their presence, we had to act and speak politely and respectfully. But life is full of paradoxes. We girls were not as docile and disciplined as was expected.Before concluding this post,  one more afterthought on our school building.  As I mentioned, the boy’s high school was adjacent to ours.  The schools were so close that we had to cross the boy’s schoolyard to go down some rock steps to our yard. We were not allowed to talk or interact with the boys when walking to our yard below.   The boys would stand at the retaining wall and look down on us.  Maybe that reflected an attitude symbolic of that time.

Biene’s High School in Velbert

Biene wrote this post.

 Life was school, and school was life for me in those days.  Everything revolved around school. Every morning, except on Sundays, school started strictly at 8:00 a:m. and the big portal with the stained glass motto “Not for School but for Life”  was locked by the caretaker.   If you were late, you had to ring a bell.  The custodian would open for you and ceremoniously accompany you to the principal’s office on the school’s top floor.  Frau Lindemann reigned like a queen at her huge shiny mahogany desk.  She was a short, round lady with snow-white hair, bright blue eyes, and red cheeks.  She looked kind, but that was deceiving.  She was a strict disciplinarian.  She would give you a severe reprimand the first time you were late. If you were late three times, you would be suspended.  If you had three suspensions, you would be dismissed from school. We feared Frau Lindemann and would only enter her office with great trepidations.

Typical High School Classroom of the Olden Days
Photo credit: Eventfotografie von Tom Schweers

Our classrooms looked austerely functional. There were giant blackboards on the front and side wall opposite the big windows.  We would sit in neat rows of two side-by-side desks facing the central blackboard in front and the teacher’s workstation. The room was bare of pictures, displays, plants, or decorative items.  There was nothing to distract us. However, we had the most exciting experiences in this dull physical environment.  We would vicariously relive humanity’s quest for scientific knowledge and spiritual truths.  Most of our teachers were passionate about expanding our minds.  They tried to teach us skills to foster critical thinking, problem-solving, and effective oral and written communication.

Biene’s High School Curriculum

Biene wrote this post.

We read works of world literature, first in German and then in English and French, and in the last three years, a few excerpts in Latin. We would discuss, debate and talk about the great themes which moved and influenced man’s quest for the meaning and purpose of life. I loved our philosophical discussions and would always actively participate.  Although our teachers were authoritarian in many respects, they encouraged free thinking.  We were expected and allowed to have our ideas and opinions as long as we could back them up with solid arguments to prove their validity. We were fortunate to have “Mecki” as our classroom teacher.  He eloquently expressed deep thoughts and guided us through difficult discussions.   He was a great model.

Our school emphasized language arts, while science-related subjects were neglected.  Our physics teacher did not expect much of us.  He would spend most of his lessons telling us interesting and entertaining anecdotes about his life and war experiences.  Maybe he did not want to waste his efforts teaching science to girls who would never pursue a career in that field.  This was still the pervasive opinion at that time.  Although I was not scientifically inclined, I once delivered an amazing technical drawing of a Wankel motor.  That was my only success in science, and I earned the respect of my teacher. I have to admit remorsefully that my brother had helped me with it.

Biology was another neglected subject.  Our squeamish elderly teacher was supposed to provide sex education.  She would show us a film of a pregnant mare who miraculously suddenly had a newborn foal beside her.  The actual birthing scenes were left out.  We were left in the dark. Another substitute teacher took over the topic by telling us a Greek legend of a pot that eventually finds its matching lid.  It sounded all Greek to us, and we were quite bewildered. Finally, we searched for answers in real life, not at school.

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