When the Prussians Came to Poland - L. DeGozdawa

The Captain Returns

The time wore on. The Germans made order, commanding all gardens to be cleaned. Prisoners were made to dig up and plant with grass seed the park in the center of the town. As it was directly in front of our windows I could watch much that happened. As always the planting of the park began when a great battle was on. At such times some extra demonstration of power was invariably made to impress the townspeople with the hopelessness of resistance. We breathed more freely when the big guns sounded near. A ripple of excitement breaking the grey sea of misery surrounding us. I have seen the prisoners stop and listen—one could almost read their thoughts by their attitude—hoping and wondering if their own men would not carry the enemy's trenches.

Just between our house and the park lay the road which led to East Prussia. Each time a battle took an unfortunate turn we would see the few remaining stores carried off. Bags of grain, even the stores of provisions in the military shops, furniture, pianos, and people went at such times. Suwalki was absolutely empty, but they always seemed to find something overlooked. The people were left without a pot or a pan to cook food in, if they could get it. The samovars were gone; so there was no longer the comfort of hot water to make tea.

Hope awakened each time the battle drew near, but we paid dearly for it. All sorts of punishments were laid upon the townspeople because they dared to show a little more interest. Then, when we would really rejoice thinking at last the moment had arrived—reinforcements for the Germans would come singing through the town. Pandemonium once more reigned and brutalities were committed. We feared the troops when they sang! Once more the wounded would come pouring in, pitiful remnants of men, and worst of all fresh prisoners! That was the most difficult to bear. Once a Cossack was caught and hung—shot full of holes, and left to hang. This happened more than once, but this instance I saw!

With all their cleverness the Germans were sometimes fooled; for they did not always find out who their prisoners were. Upon one occasion there was a tremendous battle, and four prisoners got away. Three were strong enough to try for the Russian trenches; they had German uniforms. One came to me and I kept him hidden for almost two weeks and many people knew it. I finally got some clothes for him, deciding that at the first opportunity he should be put into the kitchen to work, as a relation of one of my servants. Just the very day I felt it unsafe to wait longer, and put him into the kitchen, where so many people went in and out, the bluff Captain came back. It was a shock.

The Captain had been ill of a fever and spent most of his time in a hospital; later he had gone once more to Augustowo, and now was in Suwalki on sick leave. As he greeted me, he asked if I would take care of him. Naturally I had to. So once more I had the military in my rooms, and the odious orderlies, Max and Fritz. I wondered why God let Max live and took so many of the soldiers who were kind. The Russian soldier (a Pole, twenty years old, a volunteer) was sent to carry some hot water to the Captain, for I felt it was better to be bold, and the Captain said never a word. He was really ill, absolutely unable to digest anything, and drank too much. I made him some gruel, thereby getting a supply of Quaker oats for the children. Noticing something strange about the look of the gruel left on the plate I resolved to find out the next time what it was, and caught the Captain in the act of pouring a half bottle of cognac into his gruel. I told him so long as he was my patient he could not touch alcohol, for I was responsible to the doctor. The Captain was ill, but two days afterwards announced his departure for the trenches. He told me how the drink habit had grown upon him, because the war made him so nervous, the everlasting danger, and the waiting in the trenches. While in my house he received a new decoration, making a brave display upon his uniform.

A kind-hearted man was the Captain; verily I believe the brutalities he was forced to countenance made drink his only refuge from his own thoughts. Sometime afterwards I was not surprised to learn from his orderly, Fritz, that the Captain had died in delirium tremens; and Fritz, having lost his master, was on his way to the trenches. Max was in the commissary department,—a good one, he, to press the last drop of blood from the people. After keeping the Russian soldier as long as I dared, he went to ask for work on the railroad. If he got paid, is another story. At least he got some sort of food and was treated with more consideration than a military prisoner would have been. But, it was a terrible risk I ran!