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Turning my Wendish Great Grandfather's Letter Into a Poem

Monday 12 June 2017 at 8:26 pm.

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for June 8, 2017, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            My Wendish great grandfather, Johann Gottlieb Zschech, wrote a letter to a friend in Saxony describing his emigration trip from Germany to Texas, and it was published in a Wendish newspaper in Bautzen, Serbske Nowiny. It was published in 1870 in five installments. At the suggestion of a friend, I am retelling his trip in poetry form, and am now more than half way through the five continuations. My plans are to publish the completed poem as a small book. Below, I would like to share my first section with you. It is still a working manuscript.


Published in Serbske Nowiny, my Johann wrote a letter from his new homeland

To his old Heimatland, filled with both loathsome images and lengthy minutiae.

He left Bremen for Bremerhaven in October, on a long émigré train,

Filled with thrilled emigrants like my great grand PaPa

Whose survival would enable our DNA propagation

In a nation still far away, their hearts full of expectation and fear.

Right now, the mystery was the darkness in the train,

With only slight candle stubs to offer faint light.

“Are we pigs that we must travel in the dark?”

One bold emigrant asked the aloof conductor, who

Shuffled on down the aisle indifferent in the dense darkness, --

The only one capable of finding his way in the blinding blackness

Of the hearse-like coach,

When even the stars chose not to shine, let alone twinkle.

Finally, the harbor appeared like an apparition above a black pit.

Many lights on both sides, but nothing else. The train stopped.

There were planks for loading the ship, a vessel, dark and foreboding.

Each parent had to hold on tightly to a child lest he be lost forever

In the blacker than black darkness of the embarkation,

When thrilling became chilling, and one questioned whether

He was still willing to sail the sea to where? To what?

Maybe this was not a good scheme! Maybe this dream was not God’s will.

How could things get worse? On board, they did!

All embarked safely with a collective sigh of relief,

In spite of how tilted, how schief, the vessel felt.

Descending two ladders to steerage, the Zwischendeck,

Where they hoped to be shown their berths,

They found themselves, each man for himself, scrambling for a spot 

To deposit his bedding, a sack of shedding straw from the deck,

Amid Russian roaches and the Dreck on the floor.

Soon, all sacks of hay were taken, and some got none.

Those, like Johann, who were last to board,

Were forced to find a spot farther to the forward part of the hull, --

At least that got them away from the drums of putrid herring and

Barrels of tar and pine resin rising above piles of reeking rubbish.

            Since this is a working manuscript, I would appreciate any comments or suggestions my readers might have. My mother’s adoration for her grandfather caused him to be a hero in my eyes, a fact that makes my poem an act of love.


 Ray Spitzenberger serves as pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Wallis, after retiring from Wharton County Junior College, where he taught English and speech and served as chairman of Communications and Fine Arts for many years.

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