Walter Panknin (1898 – 1977) and His Family Ch5 Part 6

Mutti Panknin’s Loss of her Fiancé

Biene contributed this post.

Born in the Rhineland region of Germany, my mom incorporated all the positive qualities attributed to a typical Rhineland personality.  She was always cheerful and full of vitality. She loved life and, above all, people. Her keen sense of justice and fairness added strength to a tenacious fighting spirit. Her memory was astounding. She could recall events and people of the past in minute detail. She was very resourceful and overcame many insurmountable obstacles.  She always fought for freedom in all its forms.

Biene’s Maternal Grandparents circa 1900

People would gravitate towards her; even strangers would love her almost at first sight. Sometimes my brother and I were a bit embarrassed by the attention strangers gave her when we travelled with her. Her hospitality was famous and all our friends loved to visit our home. She took a genuine interest in other people.  She had good advice, and people accepted it with gratitude. She was also beautiful. After leaving the convent school, she found employment as a receptionist for a photo studio and frequently sat as a model for her employer.

Biene’s Mother and Half-sister Elsbeth 1924

My half-sister was born when my mom was 23 years old. My mother never talked about that time, and the identity of my sister’s father has remained a mystery to this day.  My nephews are still searching to find out who their grandfather was. Until I was 20 years old, I did not even know that my father had adopted my sister.  My parent’s generation kept a lot of secrets. There are some indications that my sister’s father was not acceptable to my mother’s strict catholic guardians. Very likely, he was a Jew. I remember a rare moment when my mother told me that she was once given a beautiful necklace by a Jewish man who loved her very much but died in a motorcycle accident. At that time, I did not know that my sister had a different father. Looking back now, I believe that my mother wanted to force the marriage by her pregnancy. Tragically, her lover died in a fateful accident before my sister was born. This scenario is speculation. I do not know how my mother coped as a single parent and how she eventually met my father.  I only can presume that my father must have loved her very much to overcome the social barriers of that time to marry an unwed mother and thus jeopardize his status as a police officer.

Walter Panknin (1898 – 1977) and his Family – Part 4

My Wife’s Grandparents Ernst and Elisabeth Reifferscheid 1900

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 found in James: True religion is to care for orphans and widows in their afflictions.

The Reifferscheid Family 1908 – Biene’s Mother on the Left

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. 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 her most precious childhood years. 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 babies and don’t even hesitate to present them to their classmates and friends in school.

Biene’s Mother Elisabeth and Brother Carl 1919

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.

Walter Panknin (1898 – 1977) and his Family – Part 3

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.

Walter Panknin’s 30th Birthday

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.

Elisabeth Reifferscheid 1926

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.

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