Walter Panknin (1898 – 1977) and His Family – Part 24

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.

Natural Splendour of the Arrow Lakes

Early Fall Excursion in the Kootenays

Last week we were blessed with three days of perfect early fall weather that is typically described as Indian summer. The air was crisp. When the morning fog lifted from the valley, the sun brilliantly illuminated the landscape and the sky was finally blue, which we had been missing so much during the wildfires. We followed the lower Arrow Lake to the picturesque town of Nakusp, then turned south past Box Lake and stopped at the beautiful Summit Lake. Then we moved on to New Denver where we took in the sights of the the Slocan Lake with its Valhalla Mountains presenting a magnificent backdrop. Here is a small sample of our trip. Enjoy.

Walter Panknin (1898 – 1977) and His Family – Part 23

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!’

Natural Splendour of the Arrow Lakes

Sunsets without the Wildfires

Last week, I presented five photos of spectacular sunsets that I captured during the forest fires we had experienced repeatedly during the past five years. Red skies and fiery clouds were the hallmark during these frightening summers. Today, I will show a few more sunsets that are a bit less dramatic but give you the feeling of peace and serenity. After a few more rainy days with cooler temperatures, the air is clear now and the sky is finally changing from toxic-gray to the brilliant blue we have been missing all summer long. Enjoy.

Walter Panknin (1898 – 1977) and His Family – Part 22

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.’

Natural Splendour of the Arrow Lakes

Wednesday’s Photos

Sunsets and Wildfires

We all heard about the devastating effects forest fires can have on wildlife and humans. The destruction of homes and entire communities was horrific especially this summer. It also appears that the fires become more frequent and more destructive with each new year. However, it is easy to forget that there is a positive side to nature’s rebellion against humanity. The wildfires are also a form of cleansing creating new feeding grounds and much needed habitats for wildlife, and getting rid of pests and diseases from ailing forests. For the photographer, wildfires are also the cause of spectacular sunsets. Here are a few examples from the past few years from my archives. Enjoy.