Walter Panknin (1898 – 1977) and His Family – Part 9

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.

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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.

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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.

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Walter Panknin (1898 – 1977) and His Family – Part 8

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.

Walter Panknin (1898 – 1977) and His Family – Part 7

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.

Chapter XIV of the P. and G. Klopp Story – Part 4

On a Two-Seater Scooter to Yugoslavia (1961)

 

Peter Saying Good Bye to Mother
Peter Saying Good Bye to Mother

One of my favorite tunes that I often played and still play on my harmonica was the popular scout song about the Adriatic Sea. So that was where Klaus and I were heading in the summer of 1961. Klaus had just passed his driver’s license test and had acquired a used scooter that was going to carry us via Austria and Northern Italy into Yugoslavia, which later on after the death of communist leader General Tito broke apart into half a dozen small countries due to strife and ethnic tension. Yugoslavia was just opening up its borders to attract tourists to their beautiful rugged coastline.

Klaus and Peter on the Way to former Yugoslavia
Klaus and Peter on the Way to former Yugoslavia

I remember very little about our journey to the southeastern part of Europe, partly because we kept no journal, but also because sitting on the back seat of a scooter does not offer as much opportunity for human contact as you would have traveling by car or train.

Klaus Taking a Break from Hours of Driving
Klaus Taking a Break from Hours of Driving

After a smooth ride on the newly built super-strada from Trieste to the border of this immense Balkan country, we were quite a bit disappointed by the shabby look of towns and villages we were passing through. Dilapidated houses in various stages of neglect and decay, communist slogans crudely written on house walls, the red star painted on any bare surface, dusty streets gave us the impressions as if we had traveled back in time. I cannot remember how far we traveled south along the Adriatic coast.

Adriatic Sea in Croatia
Adriatic Sea in Croatia

Our aim was to find a secluded beach at the rugged coastline away from this eerie state-dominated world. When we had finally found such a place, which would be overcrowded by sun seekers from Northern Europe today, we pitched our tent not more than 10 m from the crystal clear waters of the Adriatic Sea. We stayed there, until our food ran out, perhaps 2 or 3 days.

Peter Leaning against a tree on a Dusty Road
Peter Leaning against a tree on a Dusty Road

One event will stand out forever in my mind. On our way home we were held up for several days in a small Austrian town, where the old scooter had broken down with engine problems and needed a major repair job. It was the morning of August 13th. On our walk from the campground to the repair shop, we noticed that the usually tranquil, almost sleepy ambience had drastically changed overnight. An ominous gloom hung over this little Alpine resort. In front of shops, restaurants and cafés, on the market square, everywhere groups of people huddled together, some talking in subdued tones, others shouting angrily. Nobody paid any attention to us. It was eerie. Seeing so many people out on the street and not knowing what they were discussing instilled in us the uncanny feeling of imminent doom. Here and there we snatched up phrases from some of the more vociferous voices: There will be war. World War III. We are not going to fight another war. Austria is neutral. She will not be sucked into another conflict. What on earth had happened, we wondered, that made the people in this remote mountain town so excited?

The Building of the Berlin Wall August 13, 1961
The Building of the Berlin Wall August 13, 1961

As we found out later, troops in East Germany, in flagrant violation of East-West agreements, had sealed the border between East and West Berlin, shutting off the last remaining escape route. The soldiers had put up barbed wire fences during the night, and Berliners woke to find they were living in a divided city. The fences were just the first step in a sequence of desperate measures to stem the flow of thousands of refugees. Train services between the two sectors had been cut off, and road traffic across the border came to a sudden halt. In the weeks that followed, work crews replaced the temporary fence by building the infamous Berlin Wall. If Klaus and I had heard the news over the radio or read the headlines in the papers, the impact of this momentous event in modern history would not have been as powerful on us as our witnessing of the passionate reaction of common people to such blatant attack on human liberty.

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