Gisela’s grandparents always received us warmly when Gudrun and I came for a visit, and they treated us with delicious homemade refreshments. They took a genuine interest in our lives and liked to tell us stories of their exciting past, Unlike Gisela, Gudrun was very outgoing and radiated warmth. She always had a sweet smile on her round face. Blond, blue-eyed and well-developed, she liked to take life easy and have fun. While I still wore hand-me-down clothes from my second cousins, Gudrun had the most beautiful skirts, blouses and dresses, which her mom sewed for her. Like Gisela’s mom, her mother was a war widow and a seamstress. She also had a tailoring business at her home. Gudrun’s grandma lived with them. But her grandfather was dead. Gudrun’s Oma did the household chores while her mom sewed on a big long table in the corner of the spacious kitchen close to the window. Gudrun’s well-dressed mom looked glamorous with her fashionably styled blonde hair, heavy makeup and bright red, enormously long fingernails. They were curved like claws. I secretly wondered how she could handle delicate materials with them. She would take frequent smoke breaks showing off her long fingers by gracefully holding the cigarette. She half closed her eyes leisurely and slowly exhaled the smoke through her rounded red lips. Smoking looked so pleasurable and alluring to us girls. Periodically. a male friend of the family who was a truck driver for a brewery would visit Gudrun’s mom. At those times, much laughter and joking occurred, and thick clouds of smoke were coming from the sewing corner, distracting us from studying for school. I think her mom’s friend was a father substitute for Gudrun. Gudrun had a record player, a luxury our family could not yet afford. She owned records of the top hits, most of them gifts from her mother’s friend. We would listen with excitement to the catching songs and rhythms of Little Richard, Elvis Presley. Connie Francis and Brenda Lee. We would even dance around as soon as Gudrun’s mom and Oma ran errands. When our top idol Elvis sang, “Love me Tender,” we were mesmerized and started dreaming of first love.
Biene Hiking with her Father Walter Panknin
With this final post of chapter 6, Biene concludes her contribution to the Walter Panknin story. I will carry on with this family history in Chapter 7.
One day, we were all supposed to write a postcard home. I wrote a desperate plea to my parents to come and get me as soon as possible. A few days later, I received a letter from my father. I eagerly opened this welcome message from home with joyful anticipation. But what my father wrote to me seemed to top off all the bullying I had endured. Instead of comforting words, my father wrote what he may have thought to be a witty “dissertation.” He explained the linguistic origin of the German words ‘dämlich’ and ‘herrlich,’ roughly translated as ‘dumb’ and ‘masterful.’ Unfortunately, the allusions and fine points of his linguistic examinations are lost in translation. There are no equivalents in the English language. He told me that the word “dumb” derives from the word “dame.” On the other hand, “masterful” or “manly” originates from master or man, and ‘Herrlich’ also has the connotation of wonderful or glorious.
I could not finish reading my father’s letter because tears of shame and disappointment blinded my vision. But miraculously, my pain was short-lived. A supervisor approached me and told me I had a visitor waiting for me in the main office. When we entered, there was my beloved mother! It seemed like a miracle. She had made the long and costly trip by bus and train to see me against my father’s advice. I was overjoyed. We spent the beautiful afternoon together walking in the forest and talking. I unburdened my heart, and she listened with empathy. When evening approached, she gave me the choice of going back home with her or staying for the remainder of the vacation.
One thing my father’s letter had accomplished. It stirred up my pride and courage. I was going to show him that I was not that ‘dumb’ weak ‘dame’ intimidated by the ‘wonderful masters.’ I would not give him the satisfaction of proving his point. I decided to stay.I enjoyed the remainder of my time at the youth camp. I learned to ignore verbal assaults and not take them personally. I avoided playing unsupervised games with rough boys and sought out the company of friendly girls. I also noticed that the supervisors intervened more readily when they saw inappropriate behaviours. Maybe due to my mother’s visit, they were more vigilant.
Summer camp, in many respects, was a great learning experience for me and made me stronger. Thanks to my mother’s love, I felt happy and relieved that I did not quit or give in to fears and feelings of insecurity. In retrospect, I also appreciate my father’s words. Although it was not so obvious, he acted out of concern for me. He knew that by taunting me, I would rise to the challenge. In his words, I learned to ‘master’ my fears.
In August 1956, our parents sent us to a summer camp in Bergneustadt, a beautiful town in the forested hills close to Cologne. A charitable organization sponsored us for refugee children from the east. Like many of my classmates, the prospect of having a real vacation away from home seemed exciting at first. But then separation anxiety from my parents took hold of me. Eventually, my mother succeeded in persuading me to go. My brother didn’t appear to have mixed feelings and was eager to leave for new adventures.
The big, bright youth hostel was nestled in the forest. There were many children our age, about 10 to 14 years old. We slept in large dormitories. It reminded me of the refugee camp in Aurich. I felt intimidated by the crowds of strange children, especially the boisterous teenage boys. There were a few bullies who made life miserable for some of us. They verbally abused us and were physically rough when we played unsupervised games. These boys mercilessly teased us and gloated when they saw that they had upset or hurt us. The group leaders were overwhelmed by the many kids in their care. They often overlooked or did not seem to notice these negative behaviours. Since I was timid, I did not dare to complain; I suffered silently. We did some exciting excursions to the Aggertalsperre (dam at the river Agger) and the Atta limestone caves. We hiked in the beautiful natural surroundings. Nevertheless, I felt increasingly homesick. I couldn’t eat or sleep. I withdrew even from girls who were trying to be friends with me.
I have wonderful memories of the time I spent with Angelika at her loving home. Her parents would do anything to make life after school pleasant for us. They’d take us to fancy pastry shops, and we could choose the delicious cakes and sweets for our afternoon snacks. After we completed our assignments we would sit on Angelika’s bed, our feet dangling onto Torro’s warm fur and we would talk and daydream and joke around, laugh and giggle. Her mom and dad seemed to like to hear us laugh and giggle.
One morning in school Angelika was missing. Mecki told the class that she was very sick and would not be in school for a while, I was shocked. She seemed fine the day before. My mother looked very concerned when I came home and told me that I could not visit Angelika because she was too ill.
I was very worried and missed her terribly. Finally one day my mother told me that Angelika’s parents wanted me to see her because she had asked for me. Angelika’s mom looked pale and thin. She took me by the hand. “Please, don’t tell her how shocked you are when you see her”, she pleaded. In spite of the forewarning, I was shocked. Angelika was lying in her bed. She had sores all over her skin and mouth, and she looked very pale. But she managed a small smile in greeting. Her eyes even sparkled a bit. She told me that she had a severe blood disorder and needed a bone marrow transplant. But now she was on the road to recovery. She told me about all the strange things she had to eat to get better. “Next time you come you have to try sprouted wheat”, she told me. When I told her stories from school, she even managed to laugh a little. “The sores in my mouth still hurt a bit”. she said, but she seemed proud that she had overcome her illness. “I could have died, but I made it”.
Every day I visited her after school, and I could see how she was getting stronger. But she never came back to school. Another shock was waiting for me. Angelika’s dad was being transferred to Wolfsburg where the famous Volkswagen was manufactured. They would be moving soon.
One day I talked to my mom about this, and she told me Angelika’s story, which offered a possible explanation.
Angelika’s parents married very young, towards the end of the war. Her mom was still in medical school studying medicine when she became pregnant. Angelika’s dad was fighting at the front.
Angelika’s mom decided to put her newborn daughter in a foster home to get her back when her husband returned, and she had completed her studies.
For four years, Angelika lived in foster care until she was finally reunited with her parents. Trying to make up for a lost time, they showered her with love and attention, but Angelika did not seem to return their affection. She was reticent, almost withdrawn and easily upset. She avoided social interactions and did not like to play with other children. Her parents were overjoyed when Angelika finally developed a close friendship with me. Angelika was capable of closeness and affection with other human beings.
Angelika never talked about the time she spent in foster care. But she often told me that she always wanted a sister or a brother; she envied me for having a twin brother. She thought I was never lonely and had always had a close friend. I did not want to shatter her illusion, but at that time, my brother and I didn’t love and appreciate each other.
It didn’t take us long to overcome our initial shyness, and we started to get to know each other during recess. Towards the end of the week, Angelika asked if I would be allowed to visit her on the last day of the school week. We could walk together to her place, and her dad would drive me home at night.
My parents had no objections, and on Saturday, after early dismissal, we walked together to her home. It was a long walk to an unfamiliar part of town. There were lots of trees and beautiful yards. In Germany, most people do not own houses but live in apartments. Angelika stopped at a big cast-iron gate and opened it with a key. We walked through a long garden path to a big house with many windows. A slender young lady opened the front door. She had raven black hair and pale blue eyes. She kissed Angelika on the cheek with a gentle smile and then greeted me. I hadn’t expected Angelika’s mother to look so young. She served us some delicious little pastries in a bright sunroom. The delicate cakes looked like the ones I had longingly admired in the window of the fancy pastry shop in town. Finally, I tasted these small fruit tarts covered with strawberries and topped with whipped cream. Frau Janzen asked me many questions about my family, interests, hobbies, and school. She had a gentle voice and kind eyes. After our refreshments, she showed me all the rooms in the beautiful house, and I was reminded of our big, wonderful home in Gotha, which we had lost. Our room at the Old House where we lived now was about the size of this sunroom.