Walter Panknin (1898 – 1977) and His Family – Part 11

A Gruesome History Lesson

No Photos Here – Let The Words Suffice

In response to the wartime atrocities committed by the Nazis, the partisans stilled their thirst for revenge first on members of the Waffen-SS. According to a report, on Pentecost Sunday, 450 soldiers were shot near Reichenberg, their arms tied together with telegraph wire in groups of six, all shot in the back. At the capture of Krusevac, 2,000 soldiers of the “Prinz Eugen” division were murdered. In Reichenegg, the partisans forced POWs into a bunker and dynamited it. When the stench became too intense, survivors had to cover the bunker with dirt. At Susegrad, partisans undressed 90 soldiers and chased them into the Sava River. Whenever possible the inmates buried the dead and marked the graves with stones or wooden crosses. In 1948, after the last POWs had left the provisional camps, locals dispersed the rocks, gathered the crosses and burned them.
Most of these former regular Wehrmacht troops perished in postwar Yugoslavia in three stages. As already mentioned above, during the first stage more than 7,000 captured German troops died in Communist-organized “atonement marches” stretching 1200 km from the southern border of Austria to the northern border of Greece. During the second phase, in late summer 1945, many German soldiers in captivity were summarily executed or thrown alive into large karst pits along the Dalmatian coast of Croatia. In the third stage, 1945-1955, an additional 50,000 perished as forced labourers due to malnutrition and exhaustion.
The total number of German losses in Yugoslav captivity after the end of the war including ethnic “Danube German” civilians and soldiers, and “Reich” Germans, may therefore be conservatively estimated at 120,000 killed, starved, worked to death, or missing. One may wonder why I would go to such length to describe the gruesome details of past events in an area of seemingly minor importance to us. There are two reasons. Firstly, I noticed so many similarities in the brutal treatment of the German civilian populations in East Prussia and Pomerania, where my parents and grandparents had their roots, and Yugoslavia, where Biene’s Papa spent most of the war years. I found it appalling that so little can be found in today’s historical literature about these events.

Additional information on the treatment of other ethnic groups in Yugoslavia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bleiburg_repatriations

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

Papa’s Miraculous Escape

In the first week of January 1945, Papa took the train to Zagreb, the capital and largest city of Croatia, from where he began the long train ride to Vienna. The resistance forces under the leadership of Josef Tito were cutting off all the supply lines from the north, which included the rail connections to Germany. So when Papa arrived in the capital of Austria, he heard that he had been on the very last passenger train that succeeded in leaving Yugoslavia. If we consider all the horrific atrocities that Tito’s guerilla army revengefully committed against German ethnic groups living in Yugoslavia in general and against German officers and ordinary soldiers in particular, it is fair to say that the birth of the twins had saved Papa from certain death.

On May 6, 1945, General Kesselring told Colonel-General Löhr, the commander of the southeast army, that Germany would capitulate on May 9. Löhr then contacted Tito to work out the capitulation details. The Yugoslavs ignored anything agreed upon as soon as the Germans had surrendered and had laid their arms down. They forced the POWs to march in so-called Sühnemärsche (atonement marches). The Geneva Convention states that POWs can march no more than 20km (12.5 miles) a day. One of the POW groups walked 75 km in 20 hours. Whoever straggled or was begging for water or food was shot. Ten thousand perished during those marches.

Picturesque Modern Day Croatia

Camp life was no better. Hardly any food was available. The prisoners had to gather herbs and cook them. The result was diarrhea and dysentery. “Death worked with a scythe” in Belgrade Camp # 1. The dysentery barracks housed eight hundred; it was called the death barracks. The death count was at least ten corpses each day. The camp masters worked the inmates to death in lumber camps and mines. They also forced them to clear minefields without the proper equipment. At times, at the end of a shift, hundreds of POWs were chased onto the cleared field to ensure that no mines remained. Those who died were buried in unmarked graves. The camp authorities did not attempt to record their names.

Walter Panknin (1898 – 1977) and His Family – Part 9

The Good Life in Zavidovici

Papa, who had recently advanced to the rank of a captain, enjoyed an excellent rapport with his staff. He carried out his business in a strict but fair manner, which earned him the respect of his officers and the people of the Bosnian district around Zavidovici. They were grateful for the security that his troops provided. Tito’s bands and the German army alike were terrorizing towns and villages elsewhere in their attempts to gain control over the enemy. For Captain Panknin, there was just one fly in the ointment. He also had to deal with troublesome disciplinary matters arising from a company of volunteer soldiers under his command soon after Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941. The company mainly consisted of exiled Russians, former Belorussians or their children. As Papa described them in a letter to a friend after the war, they were drunkards, thieves, and good-for-nothings. In his opinion, the military police should have arrested them and put them in an army jail for all kinds of significant infractions. Breaking military rules and criminal activity within and outside the barracks were examples that Papa mentioned in his report. But documenting all the individual cases and summoning witnesses to support the evidence would have taken too much valuable time. The little episode corroborated what I learned from my brothers’ reports in Book I.  It may come as a surprise to most readers that many young men from European countries were willing to fight for Germany against the Bolshevik threat to take over all of Europe.

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Picturesque Landscape near Zavidovici, Croatia

On October 30th, 1944, a telegram arrived from the Gotha police headquarters informing Captain Panknin of a very joyful event back home. The message read as follows: TWINS ARRIVED ON 29/10 44 BOY AND GIRL MOTHER AND CHILDREN ARE WELL. Great was Papa’s joy. What a blessing to have twins when it had appeared that he would not have any children of his own after fourteen years of marriage! His staff was equally delighted and created for their boss the most beautiful congratulatory card I have ever seen.

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There must have been an artist among the officers. No commercial card could have matched the quality of the picture depicting two storks delivering the babies, the touching message for their dear commandant, and a lovely poem to boot signed by the entire staff. Of course, this extraordinary event called for celebration. But the best part for Papa was that he was granted a rare leave in the New Year from war-torn Yugoslavia to travel home to see his wife and children.

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Walter Panknin (1898 – 1977) and his Family – Part 8

Joyful Times in Croatia

Papa loved the people and their culture. Although they were poor and had to work hard to make a living, they knew how to celebrate. After they brought in their harvest in the fall, or when they gathered at a wedding banquet or welcomed a newborn child into their community, they made good use of these festive occasions. Many of the songs Papa was so fond of listening to come from the Balkan Roma, the people once called Gypsies.

Folk Dance Group of Dalmatia, Croatia – Photo Credit: Wikipedia

If one grew up on a steady diet of Western pop music, Balkan melodies take a little bit of getting used to. While many of the tunes use familiar rhythms, including the driving rhumba beat, some Balkan tunes add spice using asymmetrical meters. The music tells only half the story. The dancers, prompted by the intoxicating rhythm and the ever-increasing tempo, suddenly emerge from the cheerful crowd. The steps in the Balkan dances can be delightfully simple or maddeningly complex. Most are line dances; they rarely occur in couples. What does the music sound like that Papa loved so much? It depends on where you go. In Croatia and Serbia, there is the tamburica tradition of plucked-string instruments. But the musicians are also using accordion, violin and woodwinds. Add to this the wailing melodies delivered by wedding bands that play songs popular across the entire region. Now we will understand Papa’s fascination with the Balkan people, their music, dances, and customs.

Collection of Slivovitz Bottles – Photo Credit: Wikipedia

When it came to alcoholic beverages, nothing would appeal to Papa’s taste buds more than the famous Slivovitz. Orchardists have been producing the sweet, velvety plum brandy for hundreds of years, primarily in Croatia, Serbia, Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria. Late-summer plums are the most commonly used: deep purple, ovoid and freestone, such as damson and Italian prune types. The fruit is pierced, covered with sugar and alcohol and stored in a cool, dark place for months. The most exquisite and complex slivovitzes age in casks, like wine or bourbon.

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

Punishment that Turned out to be a Blessing

In early 1941 Germany, together with her Italian, Hungarian, and Rumanian allies, had invaded and occupied the multiethnic Balkan country of Yugoslavia. During that time, in punitive response to his refusal to join the SS, Papa received a disciplinary transfer to the Bosnian town of Zavidovici as commander of a battalion. Fierce fighting raged between the Axis armies and the various partisan groups. Under the leadership of Josef Tito, some 70,000 resistance fighters were conducting guerilla warfare against the invaders. By contrast, the provinces of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina were experiencing a period of relative peace and calm until January 1945.

Yugoslavia before the country split up

Here at the banks of the River Bosna, Papa was in charge of general security around Zavidovici. The town nestled between dense forests reaching high into the mountains was blessed with large tracts of fertile land along the riverbanks. The area provided plenty of food for the local people and the security forces. The soldiers lived in nearby barracks.

Zavidovici and the River Bosna

Local dairies delivered milk, butter, and various fine Balkan cheeses. Farmers sold eggs, meat, corn and wheat, while tobacco plantations ensured a good supply of high-quality cigarettes. Most of these products had become very scarce back home in Germany. So ironically, in the land where the war was being fought mercilessly against Tito’s communist partisans, Papa enjoyed the good life in a relatively safe region loyal to Germany.

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

Running Afoul with the Nazi Regime

While these were happy times for the Panknin family, storm clouds gathered over Germany’s political landscape when the Nazis took control of the government in 1933. Two incidents had an immediate disturbing impact on Papa and his family. During election times, at rallies, and on numerous other occasions, the stormtroopers of the SA, whose methods of violent intimidation played a key role in Hitler’s rise to power, carried out physical attacks on political opponents, Jews, communists and trade unionists. 

Police Officer Walter Panknin 1927

On the night when Hitler seized power, roughneck elements of this vast paramilitary organization overpowered practically every local government in the country.  In the small town Kamen near Dortmund, where Papa had been in charge of maintaining law and order for almost ten years, his police staff captured and arrested an unruly mob of some twenty SA men. On the next day, the newspapers, already under the control of the Nazi regime, requested the immediate dismissal of First Lieutenant Walter Panknin. Although he managed to keep his position, his refusal to go with the flow of the political current caused him much grief in the months and years to come. He based all his actions on following the law and his conscience. Rather than blindly following the ideology of a political party, he took a common-sense approach within the jurisdiction entrusted to him by his country. 

Hike in the Spessart Forests 1934

Even more severely affecting his professional advancement in the police force and ultimately safety for him and the family was the second incident. In their drive for complete control over the lives of German citizens, the Nazi authorities stripped the court system of its independent status, which had so far guaranteed a fair trial to all citizens no matter what crime they had committed. Equally sinister was the forced subordination of the arm of the law, the police force, into the new political system. All officers of the security forces were automatically and without exception registered as members of the NSDAP (National Socialist Party). They also asked Papa to leave the church, which he steadfastly refused despite threats of punitive actions and reprisals. Worse, all leaders of the various police departments were under pressure to join the infamous SS organization. When Papa declined, he knew that he would become suspect as someone not following the party line. He was fully aware that his refusal to join would appear to make him an opponent to the Nazi regime further down the road. Walter Panknin had to put up with constant harassment and ridicule by the party-liners. But fortunately, he had some influential colleagues who knew him as a friend and capable officer. They must have put in a word on his behalf. Papa spoke very little about his troubles in the privacy of their apartment. With great determination, he managed to maintain the feeling of peace and security, at least within the walls of their home. 

Daughter Elsbeth Panknin in their Home in Gotha 1936