Before the ‘golden years’ arrived, the division of labour was fair for both husband and wife. In the following posts, I will talk about the injustice of the heavy burden for Frau Panknin as a mother, housekeeper, cook, and wife. I will also show how much, on the other hand, Papa enjoyed his sunset years as a father, hiker, traveller, hobbyist, and history enthusiast.
Grocery shopping has drastically changed since the early 1960s. Nowadays, well-to-do families living in their homes or modern high-rise apartment buildings take the elevator down to the ground floor, step into their car and drive to a nearby shopping centre. After they are done shopping, they may have time to dine in a family restaurant and take the kids to a bowling alley or the movies for some weekend entertainment.
Sixty years ago, in the little town of Velbert, Elisabeth Panknin went shopping at least twice a week. She takes two large cloth bags and descends the 120 steps down to the ground floor of the three-story building. The tiny neighbourhood corner store only carries bare essentials, like bread, milk and butter. Frau Panknin takes the bus to a larger city. She only buys as much as she can carry. Public transportation poses a problem when the bags are filled to the hilt, and there is no seat for a sixty-year-old woman in an overcrowded bus reeking from the nauseating fumes of cigarette smoke. It is also time-consuming. If you miss the bus, you may have to wait up to an hour to catch the next one. Mutter Panknin finally stands at the entrance of the apartment building. Huffing and puffing, she climbs up the staircase with the two heavy bags of groceries. Then, you will not believe this. She immediately starts cooking the evening meal for her husband and the twins Gertrud and Walter.
In late 1960, shortly before Christmas, a letter from the highest state court arrived at the Panknin residence with the long-awaited good news. Their request for Papa’s pension and the refugee status associated with all the rights and privileges had been granted. However, having battled for seven years with the various government agencies, they had paid a high price. Frau Panknin had been travelling by bus and train to talk to the officials in person. At the same time, Papa Panknin did the massive paperwork to make requests and provide written proof to the authorities. One day, Elisabeth Panknin collapsed from juggling the nerve-wracking travels and her housekeeping chores at home. Papa had to write the Christmas letters to all their relatives and friends, as his wife was too weak to do so. Fortunately, Mutti recovered just in time to prepare the Christmas dinner for the family. After over ten years, they could finally sit down on Christmas Eve and enjoy feasting on a sumptuous goose dinner with all the trimmings.
The celebration of their victorious battle with the West German bureaucracy marked the end of their financial woes. It also turned out to be the end of their workload’s fair and equitable sharing. Up to this point, the couple had performed their domestic and professional duties along traditional lines. Papa, as a police officer, worked under highly stressful conditions under the Nazi regime, while his wife, in charge of their beautiful home, lovingly took care of the children. In those days, it was rare in most societies to have the predefined roles of husband and wife reversed. Today, it is very common, especially in Western societies, for a wife with higher qualifications to go out to work and leave the nurturing of the children to the father. Unfortunately, the basic things of life, such as shelter, food, and transportation, have become so expensive that both need to provide an income to make ends meet. They have to entrust their children to others all too often at an exorbitant price. Coming back to my father-in-law, I believe that he was so deeply rooted in the culture of a bygone era that he, without any qualms, left the entire burden of the household to his wife while he was experiencing to the fullest extent the joys of early retirement.
Born and raised in Kalthof, West Prussia, steeped in the traditional work ethics of his time, Walter Panknin perceived his employment as a police officer as a contract between the state and the individual. The state offers the individual a permanent position with an income commensurate with his rank and the prospect of a pension providing security and a comfortable living for retirement. In return, the individual faithfully and honourably delivers a service to his country.
In 1915, barely seventeen years old, Papa volunteered and served as a soldier in the Great War. When the German army was reduced to 100,000 men in 1919, he embarked on a career in the police force in North Rhine-Westphalia. His leadership qualities were soon recognized, and he moved quickly up the ranks, becoming a leader of a police detachment in a small town near Dortmund during the turbulent time of the Weimar Republic. One day, while riding his bike to work, he took a spill and fell to the ground. Unfortunately, as he landed on the cobblestone street, his service pistol went off and sent a bullet through his abdomen. At the hospital, the surgeon discovered that the shot had destroyed his left kidney. So Papa had to spend the rest of his life with only one kidney.
The night before the Nazis seized power in 1933, rowdy Brownshirts (SA stormtroopers) terrorized the townspeople with their unruly behaviour in the streets. Walter Panknin, responsible for law and order, sent out the police force and had the troublemakers arrested. The very next day, a call came from the Nazi headquarters, demanding his immediate resignation. His career as a police officer would have ended if some influential friends had not put in a good word for him. That was his first brush with the new dictatorial regime.
Biene described in vivid detail her mother’s exhausting trips by public transportation and on foot to the government offices in the bigger cities. With unwavering determination, she bypassed the lower-ranked officials. She gained access to the ministers of justice and social services, an incredible feat that only people familiar with the German bureaucracy can understand. In those days, there was no phone service for the general public, no emails, and no Internet search engines that we in the twenty-first century take for granted. With her tenacity and unshakeable resolve, she managed to open doors, scout for invaluable information and find assistance in the fight to recognize their refugee status and Papa Panknin’s pension claim.
To fully understand their situation, we need to go back to 1957. The Panknin family, like so many refugees from the Soviet-controlled eastern part of Germany (GDR – German Democratic Republic), lived in extreme poverty. My father-in-law, former captain of the police force and later commander of an army unit in former Yugoslavia, provided with his meagre income the cost of food and shelter for the family of four. He worked as a dental technician in a lab in a nearby city. What his wife had accomplished by blazing a trail and opening doors to influential politicians, Walter Panknin complemented her efforts by resorting to his powerful writing skills. Reading his elaborate correspondence with the movers and shakers of the government ministries of the West German province of Rhineland-Westphalia, I gained great insight into their struggle for justice. What really impressed me was how the couple worked together as a team. I also learned that despite the glitz and glamour of the economic boom (Wirtschaftswunder), there was something rotten in Germany.
Frau Panknin’s Success and Biene’s New Friend Angelika
Biene wrote this post.
Often my mother was at the point of exhaustion and desperation to give up. The bureaucracy was so overwhelming that all her efforts seemed futile. But my mother’s tenacity and indefatigable spirit finally paid off after seven years. She went to the highest government department to plead for justice as a last desperate effort. Miraculously, she was received by a representative of the German Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, who had a sympathetic ear and got the “ball” rolling in no time. My father was finally entitled to a sizeable pension and a big back pay for the lost years. My mother had won the struggle for financial security at the expense of her health and vitality. The years of worries and deprivations had taken their toll. But my brother and I were too young and self-absorbed to notice. For us, she remained a pillar of strength and comfort. Her love for us was inexhaustible.
After this memory fragment of my mother, let’s return to my life. Shortly after our second year of high school had started, “Mecki,” our homeroom teacher, introduced a new student. He assigned her to sit beside me since I had lost my desk partner the previous year. She had failed the grade. I glanced furtively at my new companion, who looked straight ahead at Mecki. Angelika had a cute snub-nose and big blue eyes with long dark eyelashes. Her short hair curled softly around her round red cheeks. She had a nicely curved mouth and dimples. When she eventually dared to smile at me, she looked beautiful.
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.
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.