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.
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.
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.
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.
My brother had an inquisitive mind and constantly tried to figure out how things worked or how people made them. I would often discover that my toys or dolls were broken or taken apart. They had fallen victim to my brother’s curiosity. It would upset me tremendously. Although my parents expressed some sympathy, they never punished my brother or tried to change his behaviour. They not only condoned his often destructive explorations but almost encouraged them. They were proud of his clever findings and discoveries. In the name of science, they expected me to sacrifice my toys.
I do not have many memories of our early school days. But I remember that our teacher was called Frau Gans (Mrs. Goose). Her name very much amused my dad. In German, you say “dumme Gans” to a “dumb female.” Our teacher definitely was not “a stupid goose.”
Both my brother and I were artistic and liked to draw and paint. I produced my first “masterpiece” in grade one. We were supposed to paint a picture of a wall. Mrs. Goose was very impressed with my work because I painted such a realistic-looking brick wall and a happy worker beside it. My dad was a bit puzzled by this unusual theme. “Why paint an ugly wall?” he asked. Ten years later, the communist regime built the Berlin Wall to separate the two parts of Berlin. Maybe this early art exercise in wall paintings was the first step to glorifying wall building. Or was it a premonition?
After their failed attempt to flee to the West, my freedom-loving parents had to survive in a totalitarian state. The communist regime had curtailed many of their freedoms. For example, my parents could not visit their friends and relatives on the other side of Germany and the rest of the world. Before the war, my Dad had transferred to the police force in Gotha. Now, under communist rule, he could no longer keep his position as a police officer. Miraculously, one of my Dad’s old friends, a dentist, remembered that my father had worked as a dental technician in the past. He offered him a job to work in his dental laboratory. Food supplies were very short for several years after the war, especially in the East. I remember my Dad taking us to small villages in the surrounding area. He would try to trade in his high-quality police boots, belts, leather gloves and other valuable clothing for precious food like flour, butter, eggs and cheese. I will never forget the tasty delight of a freshly baked heart-shaped waffle a kind farmer’s wife handed me on a chilly fall day. It was still warm and tasted heavenly!! I never had one before.
Our diet mainly consisted of porridge, root vegetables, bread, molasses and some butter or other fat. There were strict government food rations. Since I was underweight and slightly anemic, a concerned doctor prescribed extra rations for me. But I was also a picky eater. It upset my Dad tremendously when I refused to eat or left something on the plate. He had experienced extreme hunger as a POW. My mother ended up feeding us children separately to keep him calm.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.