Settling into Our New Home My Mom the Beloved Host

On my last post I took a short break from my life story to insert a story about my relationship with trees.   Now I will continue where I left off with my biography.

We had finally moved to our new home, a small but brand new apartment situated at the outskirts of town.  From our back windows we could see a mostly deserted rural road.  It was flanked by  fields and meadows,  In the distance  it led to forested hills. My father loved this view especially when there were spectacular sunsets.

My brother and I had a long walk to school along a busy major highway.  But we could also take the public transit bus if we were pressed for time.

As you remember, being late was a major offense in our school and we made sure we always were on time.

One morning, i had overslept, because our mother was ill and did not wake us up in time. When I  was running down the three flights of stairs I remembered that I had forgotten  my bus money.  I tried to run up again as fast as I could.  Almost there, I slipped and banged my forehead against the stone step.  I was bleeding profusely from a wide gap.

My mother frantically called my brother back from the kitchen window and told him to walk with me to an emergency doctor in town since she was not feeling well and could not take me.

My reluctant brother and I walked furtively to town ashamed  to be seen by people who could assume we were playing hooky.  Skipping school without a major reason was considered almost a crime,

The doctor was the father of one of my classmates.  He was very kind and made me feel at ease with his friendly talk.  He did not x-ray my head because he thought it could cause more harm in the long run.  He stitched up my wound and sent me back home.   My brother went to school and I think the principal accepted his excuse for being late.   I was more stressed walking through town on a school day  than by my injury,

As I mentioned before my mother was very hospitable and enjoyed company.  Most of my friends would come to our place to do homework and so did my brother’s friends.

My girlfriends were excited because this way they would have the opportunity to meet some boys.  Since I did not have the best relationship with my brother at that time i was not interested in his friends either and could not understand my girlfriends’ attraction to them.  I will tell some anecdotes about that time in a later post.

My mother was very popular.  She would always provide us with delicious refreshments.  Especially the growing boys always had a ravenous appetite.

IMG_8145One hot day my mom did not have any baking to offer,  So she opened a jar of canned apricots.  She passed them out in little glass bowls,   One of the boys kept on staring at the bowl without starting to eat.  Finally he handed it back to my mom and said with an apologetic tone in his voice,  “Frau Panknin,  I really don’t like raw eggs.”   Needless to say,  we all went into hysterics laughing so hard.  His single apricot in the pale juice did look like yolk.



My   young-at-heart  mom also had a sympathetic ear for all our friends and they would value her advice or feel comforted by her genuine kindness and understanding.  I still have contact with a few friends of that time and they still talk fondly of my mother.

Today is Mother’s Day and I will cut my post short to go out into the sunshine to celebrate Life.   I wish all the mothers a loving and joyful day.  I think mothers will always live in our hearts forever. Forget-me-nots (Vergissmeinnichts)S

I love you forever Mom!



Eine “Ohrfeige” (slap in the face) by a Teacher; Meeting Father Rhine and Other Memories of My First Year in Velbert 1954-55

As I already mentioned in a previous post I was happy to have regular school again and was looking forward to every day of classes.

Two days after my mom had enrolled us at the Elementary School Am Baum  (at The Tree)  I woke up with a sore throat.  I was prone to suffer from severe allergies,  especially in the spring during  pollen season.  My mother suggested that I stay home and she sent my brother off  at the usual time.  I did not want to miss school and pleaded with my mother to let me go until she relented.

I ran as fast as I could not to be late but when I arrived classes had just started.   Out of breath I reached the class room door where my teacher received me.  As I already indicated earlier he seldom smiled and was very strict.   He looked especially serious this morning,  “Why are you late?”. he asked in a stern voice,  Still out of breath I stammered, “I wasn’t feeling well.”

“Don’t lie to me!”, he shouted and without warning slapped me across the face.

Never in my life before had I been physically punished by my parents or other adults   For a moment I felt like frozen in time.   I was so stunned and shocked  I did not know what was happening to me.  Eventually, like a sleepwalker  I made it to my desk and sat there dazed until dismissal time.  I felt humiliated by this unjust punishment and  very sad.  Until then I had idolized and adored teachers.  In my mind they embodied the highest human qualities like  wisdom, knowledge, fairness, justice and kindness.  This undeserved slap in my face shattered that illusion.

Only when I got home did I cry.  It wasn’t the physical pain of the slap in my  face that hurt but the emotional pain of undeserved punishment and  the betrayal of trust by an abusive person in authority.

Most people did not own phones when I grew up and so my mother talked to the teacher in person the next day, but the damage was done.

To my relief  the school year came to an end about  two weeks later.   Our new teacher in grade 5 quickly restored my faith and trust  in teachers again.

Although he was very strict as well,  he never lost his temper or control.  I loved his exciting lessons, his fairness and his warm smile and sense of humor.

This teacher decided to take us on a field trip to meet Vater Rhein or Father Rhine as the longest and mightiest  German river is fondly called.

map rhineOn a beautiful sunny spring day we went by train to Cologne.  Cologne is the fourth largest city of Germany situated at the Rhine river.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAWe visited the awe inspiring cathedral which towers majestically at the river shore.  We went down to the banks and immersed our hands into the water to greet Father Rhine.  He was starting to get polluted.  Twenty years later when visiting the Rhine river again my friends prevented me from putting my hands in the water because of the dangerous levels of pollution.  Now Father Rhine is clean and safe again.

rhine-castle-4Towards the end of our excursion we walked through the Altstadt or the picturesque historic part of the city.  We did window shopping and were allowed to buy some small souvenirs in the romantic boutiques.

Altstsdt käln

Heißes Pflaster I remember the fun we had reading the ornate and artistically designed  shop and pub signs hanging on beautifully crafted cast iron brackets. We laughed at the often  funny and clever names.  A butcher shop was called  The Jolly Fat Sow,  A wine pub was named  The Bottomless Barrel.  In the Busy Bee Bakery we bought some honey sweetened pastries.

shop sign

Back at school we had to write about our excursion.  Our teacher told us that the best  report would be published  in our class journal.   We all had to read out what we had written and then we voted which one  we liked best.    I was the proud and happy winner because I described  in detail all the humorous signs and other fun  impressions of our exciting trip.

Memories of Our Life in the Old House of Rocky Docky in Velbert (1954)

When I woke up from a deep sleep the next morning, I could see through the big window that a clean blanket of snow had covered the drabness of the yard outside the Old House of Rocky Docky.  My father had heard the popular  song on the radio and aptly applied it to our new abode.  It would always cheer us up to hear our “theme song”,  and we would sing it with gusto to make the old house rock.

The bright  morning sun made the snow crystals sparkle and dance,  In spite of the first signs of spring earlier, winter was not over yet.



My parents were already dressed to go out. My mother told us that they had been allocated some funds by the manager of the refugee shelter to buy household items, utensils and other necessary equipment for everyday living.

Our mother told us that before she would go shopping, she would enroll us in the nearby school called Elementary School at the Tree.   Since we had missed classes for more than a month in the transition camp in Massen,  we were looking forward to a regular school life again.


Evangelische Grundschule Am Baum


Am Baum Decal


The school looked new and bright.  Our teacher was a young, tall man with a serious expression.  He didn’t smile at us once. There were about thirty students quietly staring 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 I moved to Canada but we have been corresponding with each other for almost 50 years.

i soon found out  that she was also born in the “East” and came from Eisenach, a town close to Gotha in Thuringia.   Eisenach is renown for its imposing Wartburg castle.


Wartburg castle. World heritage site in Eisenach, Germany.



Minstrel Contest. Sängerkrieg at the Wartburg.

In this castle the famous medieval minstrel contest (Sängerkrieg)  took place and there are many legends about this unique historic event.

The  Wartburg is also closely associated with Martin Luther.  He took sanctuary there to translate the New Testament of the  Bible for the first time into the vernacular German language in 1543.



Martin Luther Statue in Dresden


In 1999 the Wartburg was declared a World Heritage Site.

After this digression to the Wartburg back to my memories of the first days in Velbert.

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 for the time 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 peace maker and we trusted in her judgement.  There were about 15-20  kids about our age at the Old House and we spent most of our time playing in the big yard around the old  building.   In its younger days, the Old House used to be a beer garden restaurant with a  bowling alley.  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.


ibeer garden

Although the yard was neglected,  it was an ideal play area for kids.   We had plenty of safe space to engage in ball games, skip rope, play badminton, hopscotch, marbles, tag and even hide and seek in the bushes and behind the old trees. There were even some grassy areas where we could put blankets to suntan, read or do gymnastics.

We played outside in all kinds of weather until night time.  The rooms in the Old House were too small for children to play.

While our parents struggled to cope under such primitive and restrictive conditions in the decrepit emergency shelter, we had lots of freedom, space and companionship with other kids our age.   We were happy.



jump rope

A Year in the Refugee Camp in Aurich Germany (1953-54)



Happy to be finally reunited with our beloved parents we had to say good bye 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 a long period of time.

We were assigned to live in a refugee camp in Lower Saxony.  Abandoned military barracks were converted into a refuge 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.  They were surrounded by lots of green spaces.  There were meadows and lush pastures stretching to the endless horizon on this flat landscape.


aurich meadow



We were assigned to a room with six bunk beds.  Three other families shared the room with us. From our dormitory a door led to another room about the same size.  Occupants of that adjacent room shared our door to the hallway.  Thus there was a lot of traffic through our room and there was little privacy.

We were told that we should  avoid close contact with the people in the neighboring room because they had a very contagious disease. I noticed that my mother looked quite shocked when she heard that. My brother and I, however, were very excited  with 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 in all sizes.  They were donated by American charities and other organizations 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 chose 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 far away 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 on this rare family picture, the first one  in the “Golden West”.








First Impressions of the Golden West in the year 1953.

I want to continue talking about my memories of the first years in the Golden West.

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



For a while we were distracted by our exciting new esperiences.  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 missed my loving sister and my two little nephews.

Elsbeth family

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 classed 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 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 missed my mom’s cooking since I was a picky eater.   I even missed my teacher Mrs. Goose, who for some reason was not liked by my father.


thur wald

Before going to sleep i dreamed about what I would tell my best friend Anneliese about the Golden West.

I was going to tell her that our home in Gotha was a much better place.  That  here in Dortmund people lived in small crammed 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 silently pray or meditate.

grave angel

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 at home.

My sister’s friends did not let their boys and us go anywhere without supervision except to 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 neighborhood.  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.

Gotha Schloss


Famous Gotha Lovers (Liebespaar)


Thus, we learned that even 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.

bed Gotha

Suddenly I longed for all the familiar things of home, which I seemed to be losing.  Every night I prayed that we would return  to Gotha  soon.

But day after day my brother and I were told that we had to wait a bit longer for our parents to get us.

One afternoon, my brother and our new friends  were at the nearby playground with a group of other children.  I was gently swinging back and forth dreaming of playing with Anneliese when a boy I had never met started pushing me.  At first I didn’t mind.  Then in spite of my protests, he pushed me higher and higher.  My screams to stop seemed to entice him to push even harder and higher. I was terrified of the dizzying height and the unrelenting forceful behavior of the big boy who seemed to delight in my distress.


All of a sudden I lost control and fell flat onto the ground face first.  The fall knocked the wind out of me and I struggled for a long time to gasp for air.

Suddenly it was very quiet on the play ground.  All the kids had run away except my brother and our friends.  They stood around me looking worried.

Luckily, I was not seriously hurt.  However, my faith in the kindness of people in the Golden West was shaken.  I had never met such a mean bully at home.

train dort

Miraculously, the next morning our hosts told us that our parents were on their way to get us.


First years in the Golden West

My last post ended with the train chugging through the night carrying my mom, my twin brother and me to the Golden West.

My mother had been granted permission to travel to West Germany to visit her dying guardian aunt.  She was allowed to take us with her under the condition that our father stayed back as guarantor for our return.  He would be severely punished if we didn’t come back.

Although i was dead tired, I fought sleep and attempted to keep my eyes open. I kept my face pressed against the cold, damp train window  staring into the dark night waiting for the first glimpse of gold when we entered the west.

In spit of my valiant effort to stay awake, I must have dozed off for a while in my mother’s arm. Suddenly the rhythmic clanking sounds of the train rolling over the tracks stopped and the train came to a screeching halt.  My brother and I woke up with a startle.

Two uniformed conductors entered the dimly lit compartment. My mother handed them some papers, which they studied for a while. Contrary to her nature my mom did not say a word nor did she smile, but sat stock still tightening her grip around us.

Without saying a word either, the conductors returned the papers and  left the compartment. Shortly after, the train whistle blew, smoke from the engine drifted by the window and the train started rolling through the night again.

Suddenly my mom’s face lit up and she began hugging and kissing us exuberantly.  “We are in the West now. we are in the West, we are free, we are free,”  she repeated over and over again.

My brother still half asleep showed no reaction to her expressions of  joy. but dropped his head into her lap and continued sleeping.

I was completely bewildered.  Why didn’t I see any gold?  There was not even a star in the sky. Only total darkness. The Golden West we had entered looked exactly like the East we came from.

Suddenly it dawned on me that the Golden West was just a figure of speech, a metaphor for something  extremely precious and magnificent like gold.  Somehow it seemed connected to Freedom.

Too tired to ponder this mystery any longer, I snuggled into my mother’s warm arm.  I let myself be lulled to sleep by her happy sing song and the rhythmic clanking and rattling sounds of the train carrying us closer to freedom.

We arrived at Dortmund at sunrise.  At the station we were warmly greeted by my sister’s friends who had escaped to the west a few years earlier.  The young couple with their two sons, who were about our age, took us to their small apartment not much bigger than our front room at home in Gotha.

After freshening up and having some breakfast my mother told us that we would stay with this kind family for an unspecified time. She would have to see her aunt and then travel immediately to West Berlin,   But she and our dad would reunite with us as soon as possible.

My brother and I were too dazed and confused by all the recent events that we did not ask many questions. The two friendly boys engaged us into play and shared some chocolate with us, which helped us recover from the strenuous train ride and made us feel welcome. Without making a fuss we kissed our mother good bye.

I do not know all the exact details of my parents’ defection to the West.  I only know that my mother went by night train to West Berlin where she met up with my father and both asked for political asylum at the Marienfelde refugee camp.

While my mother had traveled with us to Dortmund, my father had traveled to East Berlin where he had relatives. He did not take a suit case.  To remain inconspicuous he carried only his leather briefcase with his small portable typewriter and important documents. In East Belin he went on the subway train and quietly left the train at a West Berlin station.   At that time the wall did not yet exist and people could escape  this way.  That’s why the wall eventually was erected.


My parents then spent a few weeks at the Marienfelde refugee camp, which processed the flood of asylum seekers from the East.  After receiving their refugee status they were then allocated to a refugee camp in northern Germany.  Our first year as refugees in this camp will be the topic of my next post.





Early Childhood in The Green Heart of Germany


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. There are many romantic towns and villages which attracted great poets, composers and other famous artists and philosophers throughout history.

Gotha House

We lived on the main floor of a spacious villa not far from the castle and its amazing park.   It is the biggest 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.

Before we even went to school,  he had taught us to identify and name trees, flowers, plants and animals, more than I can name and identify now.  My brother and I  would collect colorful leaves, tasty pine and 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.

One day,  my dad came home to report that he had jumped into the main pond in full gear to save a little boy from drowning.

Some of my earliest  memories are holding my dad’s hand and walking in this peaceful and magical place.

After his first few visits home to meet us, my Dad was taken prisoner by the Americans and spent a year in several prison camps.

My mom and my sister had to cope on their own surviving the hard times after the war with two small infants to care for. Food and other resources like fuel, and power were in short supply.

For the entire year of 1945 Gotha was occupied by American troops until the Russians took over the military command in the spring of the following year.

One day when my mom was preparing a meager meal of watery porridge in the kitchen, she noticed a black soldier walking around the back door of our house placing something under the landing of the staircase.

When my terrified mother had summoned up the courage to step outside to question him, he greeted her with a warm smile and pointed under the deck saying in a broad drawl,  “Milk for babies.”

Every day, until the Americans left, my mother and sister would find precious care packages under the landing deposited by this warmhearted  man.  Miraculously  help had come from a most unlikely source, from the enemy!!!

I wish I could still thank this generous soldier who showed us love instead of hatred and helped us survive.

When my dad was finally released from the Americans his ordeals were not over.  As former officer of the German army my dad was no longer allowed under the new Soviet regime to work for the police force in Gotha.

For many weeks after he came home, he was interrogated at odd hours at night about his Nazi past.  My dad had always resisted the Hitler regime and had never joined the infamous SS, even though all higher ranking officers were put under great pressure to do so.  Eventually these torturous investigations were abandoned because no evidence against him was found.

First Attempt to Escape to the West

My brother and I were three years old when my mom made the first attempt to escape with us to the West.

At that time the newly established borders between the divided Germany  were not yet fortified by  fences, ditches and surveillance towers.  There were heavily armed border guards who patrolled the unmarked dividing line between the East and the West.

My mom’s plan was 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 wall had not yet been built 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 were struggling to push our twin stroller over a rugged forest path at the approach of night.  When the going was getting too rough my mother allowed us to walk a short distance ahead of them.  Tired of being cooped up in the stroller for too long my brother and I 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.

Biene and Walter

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 lost our way but the guard was not fooled.

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 though by giving my mother directions to a house where the porch door was unlocked so we could spend the night under cover.   “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 the reason for my sister’s breakdown was that still unknown to her she experienced the first stages of pregnancy.

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 he tender age of four.

1948 Wedding Elsbeth Paul