The obscure end to a life that had taken Aubrey Pankey from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to the world’s concert stages was tapped out on a manual typewriter in the Potsdam headquarters of the Bezirksbehörde der Deutschen Volkspolizei.
Potsdam District Traffic Police
— “Traffic Accidents with Deadly Outcomes”
From 25 Mar 71 through 27 Jun 71
Death No. 60 – 9 May 71 – Sunday – 5:50 a.m.
Teltow – Ernst-Thälmann-Strasse – automobile driver
Fatigue [“over-tiredness”] – Alcohol – Speed
Auto driven against tree
A red pen was used to underline the word “Alkohol” and a penciled notation recorded the blood alcohol level, 0.04. Legal to drive, but with reactions slowed by both alcohol and fatigue. What brought East Berliner Aubrey Pankey to the end of his road?
East German Press Reports
“Aubrey Pankey fatally crashed”
was the headline in the Tuesday issue of the Potsdam daily Markisches Volkstimme. This local story was buried deep inside the paper and was only a paragraph from ADN, the East German press agency. In Berlin, the arts community focused on the death of Helene Weigel, celebrated actress and upholder of her late husband Bertolt Brecht’s work. Reuters transmitted the ADN Pankey story to the world. The New York Times simply merged the ADN/Reuters story with file material from his World War II sojourn in New York City.
Twilight in Teltow on Aubrey Pankey’s last morning began at 4:43 a.m. Depending on his starting point, he may have been driving into the sunrise (5:24 a.m.) for up to half an hour before the crash. Two potential sources have refused to comment, so what follows is a “Chinese Menu” of alternative starting points.
— ‘Wunschkonzert’ in Brandenburg – best possibility
According to the Tuesday, May 11th Markische Volkstimme, “organ of the District Committee of Potsdam of the Socialist Unity Party”, a gala evening concert was held in Brandenburg. The mediocre daily did not report whether it took place on Friday, May 7th or Saturday, May 8th. However, the lack of coverage of it in Monday’s edition and a competing big event on May 7th in nearby Babelsberg’s Thalia cinema infer that the three-hour request concert brightened Saturday night in the steel mill town of Brandenburg.
“Socialist collectives, work brigades and citizens of the Havel city” were treated to musical favorites ranging from ‘Tales of Hoffmann’ to ‘My Fair Lady’. There were no names of performers or choral directors, but the “Grand Finale” was reported to be a tribute to Paul Robeson, now in his 70’s. It was the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’. Aubrey Pankey would have been an ideal participant.
It is likely that choral and voice music instructor Pankey would have been invited to an after-party. German events of this type are noted for lasting till the first glimmer of daylight. His blood alcohol content would fit with this possibility.
On the roads of that era, a drive from the city of Brandenburg to the accident site should have taken about 45 minutes. Less for Aubrey Pankey, who had as journalist Victor Grossman said “a powerful car.”
— Wrap Party for ‘Osceola”
Aubrey Pankey played a small speaking part in the DEFA Western ‘Osceola’ which was first released in the German Democratic Republic on 26 June 1971, a month-and-a-half after his death. Production of the film would have been completed by May, with key personnel back in the film colony of Potsdam-Babelsberg by then. The weekend before was filled with the traditional May Day events; the weekend of May 8th/9th was a logical place on the calendar for cast and crew to celebrate completion in a ‘wrap party’ that would have gone into the ‘whee’ hours.
On the roads of that era, bypassing West Berlin, the drive from Babelsberg to the accident site would have taken about 15 to 20 minutes.
After these possibilities drawn from his professional life, Aubrey Pankey’s little-documented personal life offers more potential scenarios. Biographical sketches of musician and teacher Fania Fénelon state – with scant evidence – that she had a long-term romantic relationship with Aubrey Pankey, moving with him to the GDR in 1956 and moving back to France in 1972. BUT, he and his wife had moved from Paris to Berlin in 1956. Pankey taught in Berlin and Fénelon taught in Leipzig, BUT another recollection has Fénelon teaching in the same Berlin music school as Pankey and accompanying him in performances.
For more about Fania Fénelon’s challenged recollections:
Eischeid, Susan; The Truth About Fania Fénelon and the Women’s Orchestra of Auschwitz-Birkenau; Palgrave Macmillan; eBook; 2016; ISBN 978-3-319-31038-1.
Traffic deaths in the German Democratic Republic
The low rate of automobile ownership in the East German state resulted in fewer vehicle on vehicle crashes, but road conditions and alcohol were discussed in official circles and news articles.
On 12 April 1970, the Traffic Police reported to Potsdam Peoples Police headquarters that “Traffic accidents through the influence of alcohol are increasing, although controls have been stepped up and more drivers pulled over this year than last year.” 51 accidents in Teltow alone in 1971 were attributed to alcohol; 39 were due to speeding.
The effects of speeding versus a traffic safety campaign were reflected in the Potsdam district figures for May 1971 versus May 1970. Fewer accidents occurred, but there were more fatalities. Single-vehicle crashes into trees were common in the Potsdam district. Of the 90 deaths logged from 25 March through 27 June 1971 ten were specified; only one of these accidents claimed two lives. What was not addressed was the question of whether a single vehicle crash into a fixed object might be a suicide.
On 5 May 1973 a 20-year old rolled his car off of Ernst-Thälmann-Strasse in Teltow at a high speed. He was killed.
Abt. Verkehrspolizei – Potsdam; files in Brandenburg State Archives show extensive concern and analysis of traffic deaths.
Twecher, Fabian; “Der Todesstreifen vor der Haustür”; Illustrierte DDR-Rundschau; Nr. 28 May 2009 discusses GDR traffic deaths vs. BRD.
Traffic fatalities statistics: