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 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.

Walter Panknin (1898 – 1977) and His Family – Chapter 5 Part 3

Trying to Find Work in Post-War Germany

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

Being without a job and having no regular income turned out to be a more severe problem. Where would he find work in the Soviet occupation zone as a former police officer and a Wehrmacht battalion commander in Croatia? As such, the Russian authorities viewed Walter Panknin with suspicion and kept a close eye on him.

Papa once experienced joblessness after returning home as a young man with the rank of lieutenant at the end of World War I. How fortunate it was that now he could use the skills he had acquired while training to become a dental technician! He had also built up considerable work experience in Gassen in the 1920s. Good or bad times, there will always be a need for skilled people in the field of dentistry. Finally, a job related to these skills provided hope on Walter’s prospects of a steady income after his return from the POW camp at Bad Kreuznach.

Motti Panknin and the Twins

But there was a major hurdle that the Soviet secret service had placed before my father-in-law. The Russians must have received the list of POWs returning from the infamous Rhine Meadows camps. Undoubtedly, they were especially interested in the higher-ranking officers. They aimed to extract valuable information from those with a Nazi background. They also wanted them to rat on former military friends and colleagues.

Walter Panknin (1898 – 1977) and his Family – Part 27

Light at the End of the Tunnel

The soups were getting thinner. The German cooks were stretching the available food supplies to the very limit of human existence. If only the poor prisoners had received a little bit of fat, they would not have lost so much weight. Papa humbly praised the administration when he received an additional allotment of a quarter litre of fresh water. Indeed, a man needs very little food and drink to survive. He was even making a written promise that reads like a solemn oath. ”If I should ever be able to return home, I will be content with even the most basic meal,” and then adds with a full measure of doubt, “thus we think now. But how will it be, once we are free and live a life marked by waste and abundance?”
If you managed to get a job as a kitchen aid in this climate of hunger, your comrades considered you the luckiest person in the world. For your survival, at least as far as food was concerned, had been secured. While helping with the preparation and distribution of the most primitive meals, you always had a chance to stuff a slice of bread or a cooked potato into your mouth. No wonder kitchen service was one of the most sought-after occupations in the entire camp. But it appeared from reading his notes that Papa had no such luck.

In contrast to Papa’s ordeal, these German POWs were lucky to have been captured by the US Army before April 1945. They were shipped to the United States to work on farms. In most cases they were treated fairly according to the provisions of the Geneva Conventions. Many liked it so much they did not want to return home after the war.

One day, when morale was low and hopes were down, there came an unexpected order from the prison guards, “All POWs from Zone II assemble at the sundial.” For the longest time, the captured German soldiers appeared to have been a wholly forgotten bunch. They were the ones that had their homes in the Soviet-occupied part of East Germany. Finally, the camp authorities told them that they could soon return home to their families. Many, including Papa, refused to believe, being well aware of the many times they had been lied to and misled by false promises. But when the guards asked them to line up to receive all their confiscated personal belongings, they put up their hopes again. After Papa had gotten back all his money down to the last penny, he too was convinced that finally, after all these horrible ordeals, his release from the camp would be close at hand. They even received a new name. They were now officially called the ‘reprocessed.’
It is challenging for me to determine the exact time of Papa’s release from the POW camp. However, it is safe to assume that he belonged to the lucky ones. His notes written on minuscule cigarette paper ended abruptly with no reference provided to the date of his release from the POW camp. According to reliable sources, the Western nations had allowed most prisoners to go home by the end of 1948. So Papa was lucky to return home to his family in Gotha no later than late summer or early fall of 1945.

End of Chapter IV

Walter Panknin (1998 – 1977) and His Family – Part 26

Sources Backing up Papa’s POW Experiences

After reading the horrific tales in Papa’s notes, I thought he was exaggerating the conditions he had to suffer through. So I did some research on US administered POW camps in general, but especially on the one near Bad Kreuznach, where Papa had spent most of his camp time. I avoided German websites that might appear to harbour pro-Nazi sentiments. Instead, I sought out American sources to lend credibility to Papa’s eyewitness account. 

The first quote is from the US-based Journal of History: “Half of the German POWs in the West were imprisoned by US forces, half by the British. The number of prisoners reached such a huge proportion that the British could not accept any more, and the US consequently established the Rheinwiesenlager from April to September of 1945, where they quickly built a series of “cages” in open meadows and enclosed them with razor wire. One such notorious field was located at Bad Kreuznach, where the German prisoners were herded into open spaces with no toilets, tents, or shelters. They had to burrow sleeping spaces into the ground with their bare hands, and in some, there was barely enough room to lie down. In the Bad Kreuznach cage, up to 560,000 men were interned in a congested area and denied adequate food, water, shelter, or sanitary facilities, and they died like flies of disease, exposure, and illness after surviving on less than 700 calories a day. There are 1,000 official graves in Bad Kreuznach, but it is claimed there are mass graves which have remained off-limits to investigation. There were no impartial observers to witness the treatment of POWs held by the US Army. From the date Germany unconditionally surrendered, May 8, 1945, Switzerland was dismissed as the official Protecting Power for German prisoners, and the International Red Cross was informed that, with no Protecting Power to report to, there was no need for them to send delegates to the camps..”

Overcrowded POW Camp

The second quote is from the universal online encyclopedia Wikipedia.com: “To circumvent international regulations that dealt with the handling of POWs, the surrendered forces were termed “Disarmed Enemy Forces” (DEF), and the term “Prisoner of War” (POW) was not applied. Due to the number of prisoners, the Americans transferred internal control of the camps over to the Germans. All administration such as doctors, cooks and workforces were all undertaken by the prisoners. Even the armed guards were former troops from the Wehrmacht’s Feldgendarmerie and Feldjägerkorps. Known as Wehrmachtordnungstruppe (English: Armed Forces Order Troop), they received extra rations for preventing escapes and keeping order in the camps. In June 1946, these military police would be the last German soldiers to officially surrender their arms.”

Thus, by a mere change of the term “Prisoner of War” (POW) to “Disarmed Enemy Forces” (DEF), the International Red Cross was prevented from entering the camps and providing care packages to the starving soldiers. Terrible things happened to the soldiers of both Allied and Axis nations during World War 2 on the battlefields and in the POW camps. But what happened to the German soldiers after the war was over can only be described as an act of revenge and a crime against humanity. My father-in-law was lucky to survive the ordeal relatively unharmed who perhaps received slightly better treatment because of his officer’s rank in the army.