A Poem to Old Letters

While translating the book of my German family history, I came across a poem written by my German ancestor Wilhelm Müller (1881-1945), a pastor in Germany during World War I and World War II. The poem, entitled “Die alten Briefe”, or “The Old Letters”, spoke to me significantly, as it is old letters that I translate every day for clients searching for their own ancestors. Whether it be a letter from a German immigrant in 1863 discussing the troubles of the American Civil War, a letter from an 85-year-old man in 1920s Germany wondering how long he has left to live, or a 1940 letter from a mother admonishing her son overseas for not replying to her neighbor, each and every letter has its own story to tell. These people, usually no longer with us, come to life through their words written down so long ago, giving the letters a soul and life of their very own. In his poem below, my ancestor puts this idea to paper: (my  English translation):


Wilhelm Müller, as a WWI chaplain on the French front, 1915

The Old Letters

I rummage through old letters

that have slept for decades long

about to toss them to the flames

I realized that was wrong

as I began to read

of all that once had been

I knew, I couldn’t do it

couldn’t burn these words of men.

How those yellowed papers

so warmly spoke to me

A soul shining through the page

I couldn’t let it be.

Letters from a mother,

seeped with her selfless heart

her endless care for children

apparent from the start.

I read her loving words

so loyal, kind and true

Such good they did to me,

my sense of safety grew.

And touching notes from children –

forming letters wide-eyed

Seeing their little faces

shining with joy and pride

and, the writing over

on paper oh so fine

I see their bitter tears as well

when missing a stroke or line.

Adoring letters of friendship

from old romantic days

swearing to a lover

to keep one’s heart ablaze.

How soon this passion fades away

as time does take its course

This token of remembrance

recalls the relationship’s source.

I cannot part with these letters,

which speak to my very soul.

These letters are the hearts of men

To the flames, they shall not go.


Die Alten Briefe

Ich kramte in alten Briefen,

die seit Jahrzehnten schliefen,

den Flammen woll’ ich sie weih’n.

Doch dann begann ich zu lesen

von allem, was einst gewesen,

Da wußt’ ich: es kann nicht sein!


Wie’s doch aus den alten Papieren

so warm und so traut zu mir spricht!

Sie haben ja eine Seele;

nein – ich zerstöre sie nicht.


Da sind die Briefe der Mutter,

von selbstloser Liebe durchtränkt,

von nie ermüdender Sorge,

die nur ihrer Kinder gedenkt.

Und las ich die lieben Worte,

voll Andacht, wie tut mir’s so gut!

Ich fühl mich noch einmal nach Jahren

geborgen in treuer Hut.


Und rührende Kinderbriefchen –

die Buchstaben sorgsam gemalt!

Ich seh, wenn die kleinen Gesichter

in freudigem Stolze gestrahlt,

wenn Ihnen das Schriftstück gelungen

auf Briefpapier herrlich geziert,

ich seh’ noch die bitteren Tränen,

wenn Ihnen ein Unglück passiert.


Und schwärmende Freundschaftsbriefe

aus alter romantischer Zeit,

in der man begeistert geschworen

auf Treue und Unfehlbarkeit.

Wie schwanden die Ideale

dann vor dem erwachenden Blick!

Ein kleines Erinnerungszeichen

ruft alles Entzücken zurück.


Ich trenne mich nicht von dem Briefen,

aus denen so viel zu mir spricht.

Sie haben ja eine Seele! –

Nein, ich verbrenne sie nicht.

12 Responses

  1. Excellent poem and brilliant conversion into beautiful English.
    In fact the poem has – gained in translation!

  2. Thanks for taking part in the Challenge, Katherine! I enjoyed the imagery of the poem. I have German great grandparents on my Mom’s side of the family and I wish I had letters from or to them. (or any of my ancestors, for that matter). Thanks again!

  3. Thank you so much for sharing that beautiful poem. It has made me realise how very precious is my box of letters that my parents loving hoarded over 50 years of correspondence between Germany and Australia. I am more determined than ever to tackle the task of deciphering handwriting and translating into English. Would you please, for the benefit of those of us who have some German language skills, share your ancestor’s poem in its original language?

    1. Thank you Caroline! I just updated the post to include the German poem. Good luck with your genealogy work. If you need any help, feel free to contact me!

      1. Thank you for sharing the original poem – it is heartwarming. Yes, if I get stuck on translating my boxful of letters I will certainly contact you. Best wishes.

  4. Thank you so much for sharing this poem! I have quite a few letters written by ancestors — including letters written by my 18 year old father to his mother when he was in boot camp just as WW II ended, a letter my grandmother wrote to her sisters after their mother died, love letters between my grandparents before they married, love letters my great grandfather wrote to my great grandmother when they were courting, a letter from a priest to my mother explaining how he gave last rites to my mother’s sister just before she passed, and letters my great grandmother’s young German cousin wrote to her introducing himself and his family to cousins he would never meet. Each one is beautiful and precious to me and I am indeed fortunate they weren’t “tossed to the flames”. And I’m also fortunate to have come across your blog as I’ve been looking for someone to help with the translation of two of the German letters. I’m headed to RootsTech next week but will be back in touch after that to see if you might be able to help out. Thanks again!

    1. Wow you have a lot of very interesting letters! That’s wonderful that they have all been preserved.
      I would be happy to help you with your German letters, and will actually be at Roots Tech next week as well. If you would like to meet up to introduce ourselves, send me an e-mail and we can set up a time. It’s always nice to meet fellow German genealogists. http://germanologyunlocked.com/contact

  5. I read this post eariler this week, so when I went to an estate sale today and found 4 4-inch binders full of letter from the 1920’s to 1940’s written , I assume, by the grandmother of one of the family members of this estate. It seems ashame that no one in the family wanted these, so I bought them and will scan them and put them up on her profile in FamilySearch and WikiTree over the winter. I have found other cool things at estate sales including a signature quilt and family bibles and it just reinforces my wanting to perserve these things by placing them online or sending them off to a repository where the ancestor lived.

    I am also glad these four binders are in English!

    Katie, thanks for posting the wonderful poem.

    1. Oh I love this story, Susan! That’s so great that you did that – and I’m sure the relatives will be incredibly thankful. What a great genealogy act of kindness!

Comments are closed.