Gotha, my Wife’s Birthplace
Gotha today is the fifth-largest city in Thuringia, Germany, located 20 kilometres west of Erfurt with a population of 44,000. In the Middle Ages, Gotha was a prosperous trading town on the trade route Via Regia. Between 1650 and 1850, Gotha saw a cultural heyday as a centre of sciences and arts, fostered by the dukes of Saxe-Gotha The first duke, Ernest the Pious, was famous for his wise rule. The cartographer Justus Perthes and the encyclopedist Joseph Meyer made Gotha a leading centre of German publishing around 1800. In that period, Gotha became an industrial core with companies like the Gothaer Waggonfabrik, a producer of trams and airplanes. One of the main sights of Gotha is the early-modern Friedenstein Castle, one of the largest Renaissance/Baroque castles in Germany. It was built between 1643 and 1654 and is one of Germany’s first sizeable Baroque residence castles. Some essential scientific institutions were the ducal library (today’s Forschungsbibliothek Gotha as part of the University of Erfurt), founded in 1650, the “coin cabinet” (1712), the “art and natural collection,” basis of today’s museums, and the Gotha Observatory at Seeberg mountain.
Much of Thuringia’s acclaim as the green heart of Germany is due to the Thuringian Forest (Thüringer Wald), not far from Gotha. Germans have celebrated its landscapes at least since the time of Goethe. Its romantic villages with cottage workshops do little to dispel the illusion of an era that appears frozen in a time when life was still uncomplicated and beautiful.
In 1937 Walter and Elisabeth Panknin (née Reifferscheid), moved from Dortmund to Gotha. After they had met and fell in love in 1928, they married two years later, on November 25th, 1930, in Berlin-Charlottenburg. Not long after their daughter arrived in Calgary in April 1966, her parents became my parents-in-law. Therefore, I will, for the sake of simplicity, often call them Papa and Mutti when describing their lives in this family history.
Papa and the Horrors Of World War I
Like my parents, Papa had his family roots in the Eastern provinces of Germany, which are now part of Poland. After WWI, when as part of the Treaty of Versailles, West Prussia was incorporated into Poland’s newly re-established state, the Panknin family members resettled and resided in and around Berlin. Walter Panknin was born to Arnold and Gertrud Panknin (née Weber) on May 26th, 1898, in Kalthof near Marienburg (Malbork in Polish), former West Prussia. He had two younger siblings, his brother Rudi and sister Toni. During the early war years, probably inspired by the great naval battles between the British and German Imperial fleets, Papa and Rudi devised a naval battle game, not unlike the war game that I had created during my teenage years. The game board, of course, has long been lost. But the notebook, with its meticulously drawn pictures of Walter and Rudi’s fleets with the neat description of the ships’ tonnage and type in beautiful gothic handwriting, has survived a century-long journey. After WWII, Papa maintained with brother and sister and his old penpal Kampmann an extensive correspondence. I was able to glean a wealth of information, as they referred in their letters to the turbulent times before and during the war.
When Papa turned eighteen in 1916, the year after his father had passed away, he fought on the Western Front for Germany’s honour and glory. Likewise, in an unparalleled patriotic fervour, young men on the British and French side were willing to die in a senseless and gory war. Papa escaped death on numerous occasions. And when the war that was supposed to end all wars was finally over, he emerged physically unscathed from the horrific slaughterhouse of the killing fields in the West. But Papa had to bear for the rest of his life a heavy psychological burden. For he witnessed the maiming and killing of comrades, the endless shelling, and the miserable life in the trenches. The inglorious forced march back to Germany and the pain of the awareness that it had all been in vain must have affected him deeply.
By the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, the German army was reduced to 100,000 men. Thus, there was no future in a military career for Papa, even though he had advanced to a lieutenant’s rank while fighting on the western front. In his search to find meaningful employment, he went into a training program, which at its successful completion allowed him to seek employment as a qualified dental technician. In 1922 he moved to the small town of Gassen (Polish Jasien today), West Prussia, and until 1927 worked in a dental lab facility.
Embarking on a Career as a Police Officer
At age twenty-eight, Papa embarked on a police force career. He was in charge of maintaining law and order in the Weimar Republic during the most turbulent and chaotic 20th century Germany. The hierarchy and structure leaned heavily on the model provided by the army. So within the first five years, thanks to his military experience, Papa worked his way up to a lieutenant’s rank. At the end of a decade of dedicated service to the state advanced to the first lieutenant’s position. As such, he was in charge of about a dozen men and was responsible for the city of Dortmund’s safety and security. One day as he was riding home from work, he fell off his bike. His letters did not reveal whether he had slipped on loose gravel or a patch of oil on the road. But when he landed on the pavement, he must have fallen on his service pistol. A shot went off triggered by the impact of the nasty spill. The bullet went straight through his lower abdomen and destroyed one of his kidneys. It was a miracle that the shot had taken that particular path and caused no life-threatening injury except the loss of a kidney.
Near the end of the 1920s, it was pretty standard for people to go to a professional photographer to have one’s picture taken. Many well-to-do citizens were now using high-quality cameras. But people preferred a portrait from a photo studio by a professional photographer for its quality and beauty. Papa had started a successful career as a police officer. I can easily picture him feeling a need to have his picture taken for his mother Gertrud, brother Rudi and sister Toni. I see him drop in at one of the nearby studios, where Elisabeth Reifferscheid was employed.
Furthermore, I visualize him being deeply touched by Elisabeth’s graceful preparations for the portrait. He liked how she directed him on the armchair for that perfect pose. He had gone through the rigours of paramilitary training in the sober Prussian environment. Feelings and sentiments were being kept bottled up. They, sadly enough, were considered totally out of place in a man’s world. The young officer took in with delight the sight of that rare combination of beauty, competence, charm and Rhinelandish cheerfulness, which he found in the woman, who was getting him ready for the picture. It was love at first sight, but I do have to declare for the sake of truth that I made up the story of their first encounter. I had looked at the exquisite photos of my beautiful mother-in-law in her mid-twenties. She also worked at the time as a photo model. Her photos inspired me. They reminded me so much of my own experience when I beheld Biene’s beauty for the very first time at Lake Baldeney.
Disaster Strikes the Reifferscheid Family
On the 18th of April, 1901, Mutti was born to Ernst and Elisabeth Reifferscheid (née Krämer) in Burg an der Wupper, a small village south of Wuppertal and Velbert. She was named after her mother, Elisabeth. Her brother Ernst was born in 1903. Then in quick succession followed her brothers Hans and Carl. Three additional children, Margaretha, Anton and Katharina died in their early infancy. When Biene’s grandmother passed away in 1912, most likely from childbed fever at the young age of thirty-six, Mutti was just eleven years old. Her father, who died four years later, could not look after them and placed his orphaned children into the care of relatives and religious institutions. Mutti, motherless and fatherless, spent the next eight years or so in a catholic convent school. She received her education supported by the church and the large, charitable Reifferscheid family, whose guiding principle as devoted members of the Catholic Church can be in James: True religion is to care for orphans and widows in their afflictions.
As if the tragedy of losing her mother so early in her life and growing up without the nurturing parental love had not caused enough misery, Fate soon dealt her another blow. Soon after she had left the nuns’ protective care that had given her a good foundation in education and matters of Christian faith, she fell in love with a young man. He could – so she was hoping – make up for the lost love she had been missing during the most precious years of her childhood. Alas, he was of the wrong faith and marrying him in the eyes of her religiously devout relatives would have been unthinkable. While such objections are hard to understand in today’s world, we need to be familiar with the background and origin of such strict opinions. Today, the Catholic Church still claims to be the only true church, but a hundred years ago also enforced strict adherence to the dogma that a parishioner must not marry an unbeliever or a member of a different faith. As Biene and I have experienced ourselves in our struggle of coming together, true love is a powerful force that is willing to break all the rules and conventions. So there was nothing that could stop the two. But Mutti, being an orphan for such a long time, did not want to be cut off from all the family members. They had supported her financially and emotionally until now. The only way to get their approval and remain part of the family was to embark on a most dangerous plan. Mutti and her fiancé decided to force the issue by having a baby. In today’s society, teenage unwed mothers can proudly show off their sweet babies and don’t even hesitate to present them to their classmates and friends in school.
We wonder and ask as to why having a baby would have made such a difference in the opinion of Mutti’s relatives. Without getting judgmental, one must understand the prevailing culture of almost a century ago. Children were and still are considered a gift of God. As soon as they were born, they were baptized into the Christian faith. Godparents were not just there to offer presents and take care of the children when a tragic event would bereave them of their parents. But they were also responsible for providing spiritual nurturing. When the children had grown up, they would get married in a church with the bride’s parents’ consent. At the end of their life’s journey through sorrows and joys, hardships and blessings, successes and failures, wealth and poverty, they departed from the earth with the conviction that there was hope for life beyond the grave. The church in the past proclaimed these views as biblical truths and imposed and enforced them, often regretfully in a dictatorial manner. However, we must not ignore that the believers of those days and still today wholeheartedly sought and embraced the comfort of belonging to the Christian church. A child born out of wedlock would have been a disgrace. Only within the context of the pious Catholic Reifferscheid family’s religious beliefs can we begin to understand Mutti’s and her fiancé’s actions. Aunts and uncles would have readily agreed to the lesser evil of having their precious niece marry a non-member of the church. So, the two so profoundly in love, must have felt. It would most likely have worked if Fate had not decided on a different course and took Mutti’s fiancé away through a fatal accident while she was already pregnant.
Happy Times for the Walter and Elisabeth Panknin Family
When baby Elsbeth was born in 1924, her immediate family and relatives did not reject her, as one would have expected under the circumstances. They showed genuine compassion and forgiveness by helping her get on with her life. With their support, she found employment in a photo studio. Four years later, she met Papa and, after a brief courtship, married him. Thus, she put an end to the period of turmoil, grief and the grim prospect of raising alone her fatherless daughter. Not that Papa was the only one smitten with the attractive photo model. She must have had quite a few open and secret admirers who felt drawn to her irresistible charm and infectious cheerfulness. Among her memorabilia, I stumbled over a booklet with poems by Annette von Droste-Hülshoff. The poet’s given name, in all likelihood, became the second part of Biene’s double name, Gertrud-Anette. Significantly, Mutti had kept this book for such a long time. The well-worn pages and binding indicate that she frequently enjoyed reading the most romantic poems with its distinct Westphalian flavour. The handwritten dedication by a certain young man with a heartfelt message of regret about coming too late into her life made me recall my near failure to form a lifelong bond with Biene by ‘courting too slow.’
Before Papa and Mutti got married, Papa insisted that their personal life would follow the expectations that would satisfy the honour code of a German police officer. For one thing, to prevent tarnishing his image among his colleagues, he decided to adopt the ten-year-old Elsbeth as his daughter. Her name was subsequently officially changed in the family register to Elisabeth Panknin. For another, Mutti had to abandon her occupation as a photo model and give up her studio employment. State employees and civil servants were expected to support their wives and family fully. It was considered a disgrace to have one’s wife working. For Mutti, it was a new beginning. And if it had not been for the disastrous and chaotic times at the outbreak of WW2, one could have easily ended the story with the fairytale-like concluding sentence, ‘And they lived happily ever after.’
After their wedding, Papa and Mutti spent their honeymoon in Meran, Northern Italy. But this trip was just the start of a decade-long travelling experience. They went camping and boating together on all the major German rivers. Rain or shine, they paddled down the beautiful Danube into Austria. They explored the romantic stretches of the castle dotted banks of the Rhine. They also travelled down through the low-lying plains on the Ems and Elbe towards the North Sea. Swimming and sunbathing at the white beaches of the Baltic Sea became memorable events.
Whenever First Lieutenant Panknin made use of his vacation time or transformed some of the statutory holidays into long weekends, the young family was on the go. The decade before World War2 turned out to be the best time of their lives. Photos in the carefully documented albums, showing the newlyweds on their travels, attest to the happy days they were able to spend together. Papa was very fond of little Elsbeth and treated her as if she was his very own daughter. They included her in most of the travelling adventures on land and water, the little outings, the relaxing weekend picnics or the frequent hikes in the nearby forests.