Walter Panknin (1898 – 1977) and His Family – Ch5 Part 10

Early Childhood Education at Home

Biene contributed this post.

When we turned four years old, my father started teaching us on weekends.  He had a large world map, which covered a wall in his study. He introduced us to geography. We had to point to and name all the continents, major countries, capitals, rivers, mountain ranges and oceans.

We had to draw maps and were rewarded with pennies if they were accurate. Papa explained the solar system to us and allowed us to colour his beautiful pen drawings for the ballads he had written. At bedtime, he would read books of the great explorers and inventors of the past or other historical events.  I loved cuddling close to my father on the bench of the big tile stove and listen to the great stories of mankind. 

Hiking – From the left: little Walter, Gertrud (Biene), Walter and Elisabeth Panknin

I learned to read before I even went to school and have always been a voracious reader from then on. I was six years old when I read my first novel. My mom had the book sitting on her night table. It was a gift from my father, who loved historical novels. Whenever I had the opportunity. I secretly read this big book which intrigued me. It introduced me to an exciting world far beyond my years. To this day, it is my favourite novel. The author is Hervey Allen, and the title is “Anthony Adverse.”  It was translated into German. 

Elisabeth Panknin, the twins and their sister Elsbeth

Although religious practices were tolerated under the new regime, they were not being encouraged. My mother had been strictly brought up in the catholic faith by her guardians.  However, my father was protestant.  Shortly after our birth, even before my dad had a chance to meet us, she had us baptized in the protestant faith out of respect for my father. My mother was always a firm believer in the Christian faith and instilled this faith in me. For her, the differences among the various religious denominations were not of great importance. She believed in a personal relationship with God and salvation through Jesus Christ. She would always encourage us to pray and believe in the power of God’s love.

We were introduced to the word of God by an interdenominational Christian group that read bible stories to preschool children. They must have sown seeds falling on fertile ground. To this day, I have never lost my faith in the goodness and truth of God’s word and the miracle of Christ’s promise of salvation.

Walter Panknin (1898 – 1977) and His Family Ch5 Part 8

Failed Attempt to Escape

Biene contributed this post.

My brother and I were three years old when my mom made the first attempt to escape with us to the West. Fences, ditches and surveillance towers did not yet fortify the newly established borders between the divided Germanys. Heavily armed border guards patrolled the unmarked dividing line between the East and the West. My mom planned to cross the densely forested border at a remote village with my sister and us two. Once safely across, my sister would take us by train to relatives in the West while my mother would return home to escape with my Dad via Berlin to the West to rejoin us later. At that time, the East German regime had not yet built the wall, and it was still possible to escape from the eastern part of the city to the West by the subway system, which still joined the two parts of Berlin.

Early Border between East and West – Infants Reaching out across a FencePhoto: DW

The memories of that night are etched in my memory forever. My mom and my sister struggled to push our twin stroller over a rugged forest path at the approach of the night. When the going was getting too rough, my mother allowed us to walk a short distance ahead of them. My brother and I didn’t like being cooped up in the stroller for too long. We started to run and chase each other around a bend of the narrow path when a gigantic figure with a gun stepped out of the dense bush and blocked our way. We all stood motionless for a long moment until my mother and sister came around the path.  My sister started to scream with fright, but my mother stayed calm. She tried to explain that we had lost our way, but she could not fool the guard. He told my mother that he would walk the other way pretending he never met us, on condition that she immediately returned to the village. If she refused to comply, he would have to shoot, as were his strict orders. If he showed mercy, his own life was at stake. He did show some pity by giving my mother directions to a house nearby. There we would find the porch door unlocked and spend the night under a roof.  “There will be shooting tonight,” were his last words. 

East German Border Guard with Dog Photo: DW

Once again, we experienced the unexpected mercy of an enemy soldier. We spent the night huddled in the corner of a spacious porch. My sister broke down, crying hysterically. We had never heard her cry before, and it scared us more than the sounds of shots fired in the distance. Part of my sister’s breakdown was that she experienced the first stages of pregnancy still unknown to her.A few months later, she married her long-time boyfriend, and soon after, our first nephew was born. Thus, my brother and I became uncle and aunt at the tender age of four.

Walter Panknin (1898 – 1977) and His Family Ch5 Part 7

Gotha, Thuringia, Germany

Biene contributed this post.

Gotha is a picturesque city located in Thuringia, one of the most beautiful regions of Germany. It is called the Green Heart of Germany because of its vast pine and mixed forests stretching over rolling hills. My dad did not have the outgoing, cheerful personality of my mom. Although he could be humorous and enjoy company, he was more introverted and loved reading, studying, and writing. History was his passion. But he also was an outdoor enthusiast and loved to hike, bike, ski, swim, go camping and boat in his canoe-like paddle boat. My mom and dad explored all the major rivers of Germany by embarking on extensive boating and camping trips in the summer.

Mutti Panknin and Daughter Elsbeth – Paddling on the Danube

Until late in his life, my dad led hiking clubs. He loved exploring and marking new trails. He also loved collecting mushrooms and became an expert in researching new species and cataloging them. He also liked to compose poetry, especially ballads, illustrating with beautiful ink drawings. The only thing he lacked was practical skills. According to my mom, he could not even “cook water.” While my mom was loved, my dad was respected.

 Our family lived on the main floor of a spacious villa not far from the castle and its fantastic park. It is the most famous landscape park in Germany and contains many rare and exotic trees. This wonderful park became our playground. Every weekend through the changing seasons, my father would take us on long walks to this charming place.

Castle Park in Gotha, Germany

Before we even went to school, he had taught us to identify and name trees, flowers, plants and animals, more than I can recognize now. My brother and I would collect colourful leaves, tasty hazelnuts, shiny chestnuts, acorns, pine cones, rose hips, and other seeds and berries. These treasures would delight us more than toys. We loved to watch the birds, chipmunks, insects, butterflies, frogs, toads, snakes, salamanders and other small animals living in this enchanting realm. Two big ponds were another exciting attraction to explore. Some of my earliest memories are holding my dad’s hand and walking in this peaceful and magical place.

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 – Chapter 5 Part 2

Papa is Coming Home

Any part written in the first person singular has been contributed by my wife Gertrud (Biene) née Panknin

Great was Elisabeth’s joy when her husband suddenly and unexpectedly arrived at their home at Gotha. Papa could finally embrace his beloved wife, hug his stepdaughter Elsbeth, and hold the baby twins Walter and Gertrud in his arms. He had not seen them for over half a year.

Mutti Panknin with One of her twins

Unfortunately, several flies in the proverbial ointment all too quickly disturbed the family bliss. The house owner had covered up his illegal black market dealings by having a high-ranking police force officer renting the ground-floor apartment in his house. As many essential items were getting scarce during the war, he used Captain Panknin’s status to deflect suspicion from his shady activities. Now that the war was over, the landlord found him no longer useful and tried to get rid of his tenants. Perhaps he knew some well-to-do people able to pay a much higher rent. With so many destroyed cities, Germany experienced one of the worst housing crises in history.

Oma Panknin with her Twin Grandchildren

Being without a job and having no regular income turned out to be a more significant problem. Papa got by for a while, trading in the plum brandy for things they were lacking. Indeed, his foresight and the effort of collecting and bringing home the liquid gold are remarkable.

Walter Panknin (1898 – 1977) and His Family – Chapter 5 Part 1

Mutti Panknin and her Three Children

Any part written in the first person singular has been contributed by my wife Gertrud (Biene) née Panknin

The American forces under General George Patton had advanced with lightning speed into Thuringia in April 1945. There, along with thousands of other German officers and soldiers, Walter Panknin became a POW. If the German high command had placed him at the Western front a month earlier, he would have enjoyed spending his captivity in the United States. Life, food and treatment would have been generally good for a German POW. 

The Twins Walter and Gertrud Panknin

In the late summer or early fall, the notorious Rhine Meadows POW camps were shutting down. The western Allied Forces began shipping the POWs to their designated regions of occupied Germany. If you were a soldier with a permanent address in the Soviet-occupied zone, then there they would ship you. By now, the Americans had handed over Papa’s home province Thuringia to the Soviet administration. They had withdrawn their troops to the American Zone in Bavaria and Hesse. Before they left, food was already scarce. However, life was tolerable even in the bombed-out cities if you were among the lucky people who still had a roof over your head.

Mutti Panknin and Her Children Walter, Elsbeth and Gertrud

Papa’s wife Elisabeth recalled a heart-warming event in the spring of 1945, which she passed onto to her daughter Gertrud. An Afro-American G.I . regularly came by the house in Gotha. There she had been living with her family since the early 1930s. At first, Mutti was terrified and believed he was threatening her when he was wildly pointing as if wielding a gun at something at her doorstep. He kept shouting, “Milk for the babies!” Finally, she realized what the kind-hearted soldier intended to tell her when she saw the bottle of milk at her doorstep. Mama Panknin kept this miraculous story in her heart for the rest of her life.