Walter Panknin (1898 – 1977) and His Family Ch6 Part 1

Memories of the Aurich Refugee Camp 1953/54

Biene wrote this post.

Happy to be reunited with our beloved parents, we had to say goodbye to our new friends in Dortmund. Our parents told us that we would not go back home to Gotha for a long, long time until the two separated Germanys would be reunited again. First, we would have to live in a refugee camp for some time until we would hopefully find a new home in the Rhineland region where my mother was born.  After the destruction caused by the war and the rapid immigration of refugees from the East, housing was in short supply.   There was a construction frenzy all over West Germany to keep up with the urgent demand for housing.  People had to live in temporary shelters often for an extended period.

We were assigned to live in a refugee camp in Lower Saxony.  Abandoned military barracks were converted into a refugy camp in Sandhorst, a small community close to Aurich, a quaint small town. This camp could house thousands of refugees. The buildings looked bright and clean.  Lots of green spaces surrounded them.  Meadows and lush pastures stretched to the endless horizon on this flat landscape. We were assigned to a room with six bunk beds.  Three other families shared the room with us. A door led to another room about the same size as our dormitory.  Occupants of that adjacent room shared our entry to the hallway.  Thus there was much traffic through our room, and there was little privacy. We were told that we should avoid close contact with the people in the neighbouring room because they had a very contagious disease. I noticed that my mother looked quite shocked when she heard that. However, my brother and I were very excited about the prospect of sleeping on the upper bunk beds.

After we stored our small suitcases under our beds, the camp attendant led us to a big hall lined with multiple long racks of clothing of all sizes.  American charities and other organizations donated them, and people from all over the world. We were invited to pick some clothing we needed and liked.  That was exciting for me because I had never had the opportunity to choose a dress on my own.  I had always worn hand-me-downs sent from my mom’s distant relatives. I picked a dress, which the attending lady told us was donated by a family from South Africa. I loved the dress and imagined a girl like me having worn it in a faraway place. The kind lady invited us to pose in our newly chosen clothes for a photo out on the lawn in the mild spring air. We all looked happy in this rare family picture, the first in the “Golden West.”

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 18

Hiking and Other Outdoor Activities

Biene wrote this post

My parents protected and shielded us from their increasing hardships and sorrows. We had many friends and were allowed to play in our quiet neighbourhood without restrictions. After the war, only a few people could afford cars. There was hardly any traffic. Most people travelled by bike, streetcar, train or horse buggy. Special forest trams would take us out into the beautiful surroundings for hiking or other outdoor activities. On weekends my mom prepared a simple picnic lunch, and we would either go by tram or on the back seat of my parents’ bikes out into the forests.

A few relaxing moments for the family and friends

It’s incredible how far we could hike at an early age. My dad would goad us on by promising a pop-like beverage if we made it to the next village or any other destination he wanted to reach. Picking berries or mushrooms would supplement our diet. However, at that time, I was not too fond of mushrooms.

Biene and Walter enjoying the great outdoors

Located close to our home was a public outdoor swimming pool in a beautiful forest setting. My father was a passionate swimmer, and he taught us to swim before we even entered school. I inherited my dad’s passion and went to the pool every day during the open season, no matter how cold the water was. Even before I was six years old, I was allowed to go there on my own without adult supervision,

In the winter, we would get lots of snow. Every day we would spend hours tobogganing with friends down a steep street in our neighbourhood. At suppertime, we would trudge home tired but with glowing cheeks looking forward to our big warm tile stove and my dad’s nightly stories about the great explorers and inventors of the world.

Walter Panknin (1898 – 1977) and His Family Ch 5 Part 17

The Golden West

Biene contributed this post.

To share some of their newly acquired wealth, West German people would send precious items to relatives and friends. We received large gift packages from my mother’s relatives at Christmas time. There were delicious sweets, chocolates, beautiful toys, well-made, stylish clothes and shoes for us. Fragrant “real” coffee beans for my mom and aromatic cigars for my father were some of the desired luxury items you could not get in the East. My brother and I were fortunate that we always had comfortable and well-made shoes because of my mother’s relatives who owned big footwear companies in the West.

Biene and her Twin-brother Walter at School

Books and other printed materials were forbidden because they could contain “propaganda” against the political system. Letters and parcels often were confiscated if they looked “suspicious.” My mom tried to keep a good relationship with the mailman so her letters and packages would not get “lost.”
In my imagination, the Golden West was a fairytale land where all the houses had golden roofs like the castles and palaces I had seen in the movie theatre. My father’s friend owned the “White Wall” movie theatre close to our home. My dad took us on many a Sunday to watch Russian fairytale cartoons and other movies. Since I had no concept of the “Golden West,” I thought it was a beautiful place in fairyland where you lived “happily ever after.”

Walter Panknin (1898 – 1977) and His Family Ch5 Part 16

A Happy Childhood in a Time of Fear and Oppression

While my parents increasingly suffered under the oppressive political system, my brother and I experienced a happy childhood. We were oblivious to the hardships my parents had to endure. My mother had to struggle every day to provide food and other necessities.

The Three Panknin Children

Even essential food items such as butter, flour, sugar, meat and cheese were scarce, and there were long lineups at the grocery stores every day for the limited supplies. Luxury items such as coffee, cocoa, chocolate, citrus fruit and cigarettes were hardly ever available. Ironically, the most coveted things for many people were cigarettes and coffee.

Food was scarce, but basically, everything from clothing to building materials was in short supply or unavailable. Regular planned outages rationed even electric power. While West Germany had a rapid economic boom after the war, East Germany had an economic decline. People in the East were angry and upset that they had to struggle for survival under a totalitarian system while their brothers and sisters in the West were enjoying freedom and prosperity. If people complained or criticized the system, they could be “denounced” to the authorities and severely punished. People could no longer trust each other. For many demoralized people in the East, West Germany became the “Promised Land,” They started calling it the Golden West. Significant numbers of desperate people escaped to the West, risking their lives and giving up all their material possessions in the pursuit of freedom and happiness. There wasn’t much that West German people could do to help their friends and relatives across the border.

Walter Panknin (1898 – 1977) and His Family Ch5 Part 15

Scarlet Fever and Diphtheria

Biene contributed this post.

 Shortly before we started school, my brother and I fell ill with scarlet fever, a severe disease at that time, often leading to death. We were hospitalized. It was a very traumatic time for us. Missing my mother was almost more agonizing for me than the pain and the fever of this savage disease. My brother was far worse off than I was and was put in an isolation chamber partitioned from the ward by glass walls. I often saw doctors and nurses bend over him with serious expressions on their faces.

Our Home in Gotha

My mother knew how distressed we were. During the day and even at night, she would race on her bike to the hospital. She would find ways to sneak into our ward and comfort us, disregarding strict visitor regulations until she was asked to leave. My bed was close to a window. I would often stare out onto the street in the hope to spot my mother in the distance on her bike.

Antibiotics were very scarce in East Germany. Even in the West, there was only a limited supply because of the recent war. My brother was at the point of death when a desperate doctor asked my mother if she had relatives in West Germany. He suggested to phone them and ask for antibiotics to be sent to the hospital. He helped my mother contact her aunt via his private phone and make arrangements with a doctor in the West. Making these calls was a risky undertaking because contact with the West was considered a severe offence. Miraculously the mission was successful.

When the antibiotics finally arrived, I was already on the road to recovery. However, for my brother, they came just in the nick of time. He was saved from death but suffered from a weakened heart for the rest of his life. Shortly after we recovered, my newlywed sister and husband came down with a severe case of diphtheria, from which they took a long time to recover. They were in quarantine for many weeks, and my parents had to look after their infant son during that time.

Looking back now, I wonder how my parents coped with all these extreme hardships. As my mother often told us, my brother and I were the reason why they never despaired or gave up. We were their pride and joy. Trying to raise us for a better future gave them strength and hope. Especially my mother was prepared to sacrifice anything for our well-being and prospects for a happy future. Without personal freedom, these prospects were compromised. My parents felt increasingly oppressed by the totalitarian state.

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