A Remembrance of the Past; Building for the Future." ~ Eve Eckert Koehler

Remembering Our Danube Swabian Ancestors

Horst Samson

Punctual course of life

 for my father

 Was read at the 2014 Banater Treffer, Ulm by Samson.
Translated by Nick Tullius
Published at by Jody McKim Pharr
Last Updated: 08 Feb 2020

At night, father puts
The steel helmet on,
Places a prayer book
In his breast pocket
And drives his black NSU
Through a minefield near Narva
In the direction of Leningrad.

In the morning at five
He is back again.

Behind the poem: The story. The story behind the poem. The poem behind the story, the poem before the story. The story before and behind the poem, my poem. 

It does not cease, not the poem and not the story. For weeks I carry both around in my head. I should write, I want to write, I will write about it. But I cannot explain anything, not the poem, not the story, even less how one or the other emerged. Thus far my first confession, your honour, about everything else I have no accurate memory.

I just know, your grace, every night is war. And every war is long lost, before it ever begins. I wrote that in a song. The war is an infinite loop of violence, horror and crime: Like Sisyphus his boulder, soldiers roll their war ahead of themselves. It was the same for father, he never saw himself as a hero. For him, it was clear: He had been sentenced to life by his judge, he was perpetrator and victim in one person. And the tension between the absurdity of the war and the opprobrium of seduction on the one hand and his longing for a straightforward meaningful life on the other. About that, there are no reports, no advice, no memoirs. There is only me! 

I am the witness of Martin Samson, the only one with knowledge in the witness box, knowing that nobody knows, not even I,  how my Poem «Punctual course of life» came about. 

The notorious framework, I can draw it, the border around the events, around the inconspicuous words that are charged up to bursting with meaning, and despite the high drama hidden behind them, fluttered so unruffled on the snow-white paper before me, just as if I had summoned them, to pour the world in letters.  

When these nine lines came over me and I read them before me, I initially believed in a miracle, I was amazed and read, and I marvelled like a child. Not a word seemed to me superfluous, no word I deleted, none I added, it was perfect right off the bat. It had suddenly written itself out of me, after years – and it was a poem, maybe the best that I can ever write, at least about the dark side of the story of my family, the story of my father - about the story - a never ending story, a story that would not seek or find its end even with the death of my father. 

Its beginning is visible and provable in the snow of time, that time of the Second World War, at the erstwhile Eastern front, somewhere in the vastness of Russia. A devious fate had placed my father there as a young man. He had nothing to find there, he had nothing lost there. He was a soldier with the Nordland Panzer Division, an SS man and dispatch driver between battlefield and headquarters. 

His black NSU, a heavy and fast vehicle on which he drove through hell. The joy of it was more than just restrained, I know it from his later tales, as well as from a photo, that he carried in his wallet throughout his life. On it you can see that black NSU and a young soldier in uniform, in the middle of the Siberian snow, in front of a seemingly deserted homestead. The young man on the motorbike is looking straight into the camera. He knows in this moment, that a memorable image is being created, he sits down in the saddle of the motorcycle, looks his life in the eye – then a quiet click, as if someone were to release the safety clutch of a gun. The snapshot is ready, black on white. Father does not laugh, he does not smile, he looks serious, straight and open into the lens as if he were sending a Morse message. That is not the look of someone who likes to be in war, or is proud of his weapons. Over his dark blue eyes hangs a veil of deep sadness. By this time, friends have died in the war, including his prospective brother-in-law. And about a «German mission in a foreign country», he will never loose a single word of enthusiasm during his 83-year life like other men in the village. 

In any case, he talked only rarely and reticently about this damned war, which he more frequently and more determinedly called a crime. 

He prefers to be silent about those thrown away, stolen years in which his youth flew away, his easy cheerfulness


that was often written in his face as a young musician, remained suspended on eyes of the dead and on graves. I often reminisce about the war, I have experienced much, pictures that do not leave one, he awkwardly confesses sometime to his growing-up, questioning son, who as a child wanted again and again to see this beautiful photo with father on his big motorcycle. 

And sometimes, when the dark blue unbearably begging eyes of the boy light up, father pulls this photo from his wallet.


Because that is where he keeps it, 24 hours a day this photo is near him, within easy reach. He will never put it in the brown boxes with the other photos, not his last day. It remains in the wallet - as if it were a piece of him, as if it were a letter, a message for posterity, an encrypted message for his two sons. 

At some point the picture is already seriously wrinkled and yellow, and the youngest son fears that it could be irretrievably lost. Father seems to see it the same way, because without saying a word to anybody, one day he gets on his black NSU - it is now a quarter of a century later - and rides the 20 km distance to the city of Großsanktnikolaus, where at a photo studio he orders a copy made.  

His new motorcycle, for which he and mother had saved for years, had exchanged the Lei (Romanian currency) on the black market for deutschmarks which some remote relatives had taken to the Federal Republic of Germany, had been sent to him from the Saarland to the Banat by a childhood friend, at the end of the 1960s. When it arrives in a box and is unpacked by father in front of the feverish family, father, mother, grandmother and brother are quite startled, and father is speechless. Instead the wanted new motorcycle, suddenly there is an old black NSU in the house, similar to the motorcycle that father had driven at Stalingrad, only with less horsepower. It was an oldie, black as the night, and from other times. The only one whose heart jumped with undimmed pleasure was I, the youngest in the house, because its shape was almost exactly that of the motorcycle from my favourite photo. 

The devil can do a thousand things, but he can't write poems. But I can. And one day I managed to prove it. I wrote a nine-line long poem about this terrible endless war and called it «Punctual course of life». The title alone reflects a generation in its existential understanding. But the poem is more than the sum of all its interpretations, says Hilde Domin.

I read this sentence as a young poet and immediately signed on to it. «Punctual course of life» is the piece of evidence for that.

At night - I got that from father - he was often afflicted by images of horror, memories of shredded comrades, shredded civilians, the misery of the Russian campaign, that he survived and whose end he had not found on that May 9, 1945 when he was captured by the Russians in Berlin. But that he could not yet know at the time. As a Russian prisoner of war, then during the deportation to the Baragan steppe in the 1950s, where I came into the world, there was plenty of time for a mature man to think about right and wrong, crime and punishment. From all I know, he did it often. 

The poem «Punctual course of life» was published whenever I sent it in somewhere. It appeared in magazines, in anthologies, even in my volume of poetry «reibfläche» [«friction»] (1982, Kriterion Publishing House, Bucharest) heavily tattert by the censor, and most recently in the «Jahrbuch der Lyrik 2009» [«Yearbook of poetry 2009»] edited by Christoph Buchwald and Uljana Wolf. It has an almost magical effect on me, it does not let me go and it connects me even today like an imaginary umbilical cord with my father and his story, with my story. And sometimes I stand in front of his tombstone in Heidelberg and instead of the Lord's Prayer I think for him my poem «Punctual course of life» - word by word, line by line, space by space. 

I had created this short poem in 1981 for father, sometimes I also think it found me while it fluttered restlessly through the universe. To protect my father, I dedicated it to a «neighbour Hans on his 60th», whom I never had, who never existed. When I gave father my poetry book «friction» as a present in 1982, during my visit to the village of Albrechtsflor, where my parents lived, he said: «I read your poems, very nice! Do you know when I was born? » «On March 10, 1923", I said, quick like a shot out of the gun. «That is good! » he said, and he smiled. I knew that he understood and I smiled back, grabbed him around the shoulder and pressed his narrow body intimately to me. I loved him. And how. The poem is ... my witness.



Last Updated: 03 Feb 2020 ©2003 Donauschwaben Villages Helping Hands, a Nonprofit Corporation.
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