Walter Panknin (1898 – 1977) and His Family Ch6 Part 10

The New School

Biene wrote this post.

The school looked new and bright. Our teacher was a young, tall man with a severe expression. He didn’t smile at us once. About thirty students quietly stared at us when we entered the classroom. I recognized a girl and a boy I had seen last night at the Old House. When our teacher introduced us as refugee children from Thuringia, a tall girl with big brown eyes smiled at me. Gisela was her name, and she eventually became one of my best friends. She still lives close to Velbert, Germany. We have only seen each other twice after moving to Canada, but we have been corresponding for almost 50 years. I soon discovered that she was born in the “East” and from Eisenach, close to Gotha in Thuringia. Eisenach is renown for its imposing Wartburg castle.

Historical Photo of the Castle Wartburg (late 1960s)

When school was dismissed, a girl from one grade higher than us approached me and introduced herself as Margit. I had briefly seen her through the window at the Old House this morning. Margit smiled at me warmly and invited me to walk back with her. She became my closest friend when we lived at the Old House. Margit was mature beyond her age. She was a motherly type and a born leader. We liked her cheerful and outgoing personality. Fights amongst us kids never lasted long because she was a peacemaker, and we trusted in her judgement. 

About 15-20 kids about our age lived in the Old House, and we spent most of our time playing in the big yard around the old building. The Old House used to be a beer garden restaurant with a bowling alley in its younger days. The hedged-in yard with old trees had been the garden area of the venue where people would eat and drink on warm and sunny days.

Walter Panknin (1898 – 1977) and His Family Ch5 Part 21

First Impressions of the Golden West

Biene wrote this post

My sister’s friends,  who hosted us while my parents were in the refugee camp in Berlin to ask for asylum, were very kind.  Their two young sons became our friends, and especially my brother loved their toys.  The Meccano set was his favourite.  He would amaze us with his elaborate constructions.

For a while, we were distracted by our exciting new experiences.  But as time dragged on without any contact with our parents, I started getting very homesick. I missed my parents, who had vanished so unexpectedly.  I also missed my loving sister and my two little nephews. I missed school and our friends.  (Except for a short visit to see what a West German school looked like, we were not allowed  to attend class with our host children.) I missed our beautiful, spacious home in Gotha with the large windows letting the light shine in.  I missed the comfort and warmth of sitting with our dad on the bench of our tile stove, listening to his stories.  I missed exploring the world on the big map covering the wall in his study. I missed playing with our friends on our quiet street flanked by old linden trees leading to our beloved castle park. I missed our family bike or tram excursions into the vast forests…   I forgot my mom’s cooking since I was a picky eater.   I even missed my teacher Mrs. Goose, whom my father did not like.

Cramped Apartments

 Before going to sleep, I dreamed about what I would tell my best friend Anneliese about the Golden West. I would say to her that our home in Gotha was a much better place.  In Dortmund, people lived in small cramped apartments on busy streets where it was not safe to play or even walk alone. On weekends instead of going to the park or hiking in the forests, people would visit the graveyards that looked like parks.  But you could not freely run or roam about or play and explore.  You had to walk respectfully and quietly like adults and sit on stone benches near the graves to pray or meditate silently.

Castle Friedenstein, Gotha

I would tell my friend that the Golden West was not golden.   It was a figment of the mind like the story of Santa Claus or the Easter bunny.  As for the big allure of freedom, it was overrated.   Although  I could have chocolate and even bubble gum,  I felt more restricted here than home. My sister’s friends did not let their boys and us go anywhere without supervision except the nearby fenced-in playground.  They would drop us off and pick us up; In Gotha, we were allowed to play for hours in our neighbourhood.  Once my brother and I decided to visit the castle Friedenstein on our own.  A  friendly castle guard noticing our curious glances at the open castle portal, invited us in and gave us a tour telling us some of the historical highlights. Thus, we learned that the great Emperor Napoleon had slept in the pompous, canopied bed that looked like a sailing ship.  Since our dad was a history buff,  he had told us about Napoleon, who fascinated him. Suddenly I longed for all the familiar things of home.  Every night I prayed that we would return to Gotha soon. But day after day, my brother and I were told to wait a bit longer for our parents to get us.

Walter Panknin (1898 – 1977) and His Family Ch5 Part 20

Escaping to the ‘Golden West’

Biene wrote this post.

Finally, at home, we hastily ate some hot cabbage soup. After supper, my mother made us change into good warm clothes instead of getting us ready for bedtime. Without explanation, she made us kiss our dad goodbye and then, grabbing a big suitcase from a closet in the hallway, whisked us out of the front door. When we stepped out on the snow-covered sidewalk faintly illuminated by occasional street lights, my mother whispered to us that we would have to go on a long walk, but there would be a surprise. We walked silently like in a dream world enveloped by the thickly falling snow. Tired and dazed, we walked for a long time until we finally reached the railway station.

Biene’s Birthplace

Once we were settled in an empty train compartment, my mother told us that she had received permission to visit her sick guardian aunt in the West. My dad had to stay back as a guarantor for our return. If we did not come back, he would be severely punished.
My brother immediately fell asleep in my mother’s arm when the train started rolling. I, however, had my face pressed against the cold dark window. I did not want to miss the “Golden West” first glimpse once we crossed the border.

Walter Panknin (1898 – 1977) and His Family Ch5 – Part 13

School Memories

Biene contributed this post.

As I already mentioned, my dad prepared us well for school. Before every lesson in his roomy study, he would say in English, “I am your teacher.” He wanted to acquaint us with a foreign language early on in life. He refused to teach us Russian, which would have been more helpful in a communist state controlled by the Soviet Union. Math was always fun. My brother and I had competitions in mental math, which I would usually win. Until my last years in high school, I consistently outperformed my brother. But then he surpassed me, and I could never catch up. Calculus was my downfall.


We had to memorize poems, ballads and, of course, lots of folk songs, which we would sing on long hikes in the beautiful forests of Thuringia. Most of the songs are still fresh in my mind. They bring back happy memories of picking berries, swimming in rivers and lakes, and picnics under beautiful trees. My dad would tell us legends and fairy tales often connected to the region’s folklore on these outings. Since the German language has fairly consistent phonetic rules, I learned reading almost on my own before entering school.

Walter and Biene

The famous German “Zuckertüte” or sugar cone bag originated in Thuringia near Gotha. This giant, brightly decorated cone-shaped paper bag was filled with chocolates, candies and other delicacies or little gifts to “sweeten” the first day of school. I wished we had a picture of ours. But at that time, my parents did not have the means to buy films.
We only had a few hours of school every morning for the first few years, including Saturdays. Students were expected to do homework and practice their new skills after school. Since my brother and I were fast learners, we had lots of free time to play when we returned home for lunch.

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 Ch 5 Part 4

Harrassing Interogations

Mutti and Little Walter Junior

The Soviet authorities must have known Papa’s background well before they even summoned him to appear for the lengthy interrogations. They mostly took place in the late evening hours. Believing him to be a solid antifascist, they decided to apply the soft treatment on him. Papa was fortunate not to undergo any physical pain or even torture. But the psychological burden weighed heavily on his heart and mind. He never knew what to expect and when he had to show up for the round of these nerve-wracking sessions.

Worst of all, his source of income as a dental technician hung in the balance. For without clearance from the Soviet secret service, he would not be able to work. During one of those evening sessions, the Russian officers took on a very conciliatory approach. They told him that his antifascist background would make him appear in a favourable light. All that Papa would have to do was provide them with names of former Nazi officers in the German army. Indeed, Mr. Panknin would know which ones had displayed through their actions and voiced opinions a pro-Nazi disposition. Ratting on people, however, Walter Panknin was not willing to do.

He courageously replied, “I met so many police force officers and of the German army. But I cannot remember any of these with pro-Nazi leanings.”

“In that case, we will have to keep you here for the night. Perhaps that will help refresh your memory to come up with a list of names in the morning,” was their response via the interpreter.

“But sirs (Meine Herren),” Papa protested, “I haven’t eaten supper yet”.

Upon hearing this somewhat naive statement, the Russian security officers broke out into roaring fits of laughter. For the longest time, Papa could not figure out the cause of their merriment. Somehow Captain Panknin’s remark about not having eaten yet broke the ice. The committee decided to let him go home and stop the interrogations of this honourable gentleman. No doubt, they continued to keep a close watch on my father-in-law. Shortly after, Papa began his employment as a dental technician.

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