When the Prussians Came to Poland - L. DeGozdawa

The Conditions among the Military Prisoners

My children were gradually gaining strength. If they could have had the proper nourishing food the recovery would have been rapid. I lived in the hope of getting away, of going over Sweden to my husband. Every day rising with the thought "perhaps today my petition will be answered!" I was certain before the green was on the trees we should be reunited. Many times I was indifferent about the petition thinking before the answer came, the Russians would be back. The big guns talked to us of our friends in the outer world, every night. From eleven until four in the morning was the usual program. Well it was that summer was coming for constant cannonading made it necessary to keep the windows ajar, lest they be broken.

One day, our kind friend, the doctor, told me my house was to be a German Hospital. My protectors, the "Typhus" signs were to be removed, but I should not be molested by the military because the whole house would be under the jurisdiction of the surgeon-in-charge. Also I was given permission to feed the prisoners without molestation. That I owed to the kind doctor.

The hospital was arranged; orderlies sleeping in the rooms just beyond those occupied by us. The furniture was taken, much of it, away from me, for when the signs were gone, the military were free to enter without knocking. Many of them had good taste, knowing an old and valuable piece of furniture when they saw one! Our pictures disappeared. My portrait made the journey into Prussia, the officer who took it asking me if I thought it would arrive safely. The frame had been taken apart—all was packed with extreme, shall I say, efficiency! Those things had ceased to trouble me, they were laid down long ago, but it began to wear on my spirit,—the delay—!

There was little time to think of myself except the long nights with their bursting grenade and thunderous cannon. Very often I did not undress, thinking surely the Germans would be driven out,—over and over that happened.

One day a company of prisoners were passing. Just in front of our windows one fell to the ground. Armed with my permission I went out to see what could be done. Not much! Green-yellow, wearing the heaviest fur cap and coat of winter, the man was plainly dying of starvation. The Germans in charge even tried to help me when they saw my permission. One was kind enough to offer me his flask. As I poured a few drops of cognac down the poor prisoner's throat I hoped it would not prolong his suffering. In a state of filth unimaginable, covered with vermin, a skeleton, why should he be kept alive? The other prisoners even told me that it would be better to let him be. When the German soldier on guard saw the man had ceased to breathe, he told me there were some men whom I could help—with frightful boils—they would wait while I attended the sores. Three men, suffering, emaciated, were escorted to my kitchen; they should have had hospital care. The poor creatures instantly begged me for food.

"Little Sister, give us something to eat. We have been kept in the forest, near the trenches, working—there was nothing to eat—many of us died like our comrade!"

My cook did not need to be told what to do; she had the samovar already going, and the usual soup for the prisoners was cooking.

The Germans camped outside the house with their prisoners promising to wait until I had quite finished attending the men. My patients were in such a dreadful state it was difficult to know where to begin. I gave them hot water and soap—their first wash since being taken captive! It was part of the Kultur to keep them dirty. One had insects under the skin of his back. I had still a few of our hospital shirts and drawers, and I told the men to put them on while I got things together to dress the terrible boils. They were like little children in their delight with the clean linen; they looked almost like human beings! Their heads were about the worst—hundreds of men packed together—no attempt at cleanliness—no water—no soap—no combs—! how could it be otherwise? I gave them each a half cupful of soup; they protested at the amount, but after taking a few sips they suffered pain.

It was not pleasant work attending them. Before the war I could not have looked at such things, now—. . . After cleansing as much as possible their sores, I placed compresses of alcohol and water covered with oiled silk upon them, binding them up. More than the hideous sores were to my eyes the marks of the blows upon the men; the back of one of them was fairly flayed for some misdemeanor. He had been tied to the triangle. Were they men or fiends to do such things?

One of the men was without hands. He told how they were lost. When a great company of prisoners came on somewhere in East Prussia there was no barracks to accommodate them. The men were forced to wait in the bitter cold of January two days, without shelter, with their hands tied behind them. When the barracks were finally ready many were dead—frozen—those still alive were herded under sheds dignified by the name of barracks, the heat of their bodies melting the snow which formed the floor. Many of the men lost hands and feet. Their food was raw potatoes and green tea. And the patience of those prisoners,—even now I cannot think calmly of those men.

After my patients were bound up I returned them to the German soldiers. How their poor comrades stared, imploring like favors for themselves. They had eaten the soup cooked for my other prisoners, those by the church, who that day went hungry, and when it was time for them to pass the house I hid myself knowing what my failure to send food meant. The next day when I carried food to them how they welcomed me. They thought I had been punished for helping them. When they understood why, for there were many Poles, who explained to the Russians why I had failed to come, they said yes, it was right; one of them counting already five times he had been lucky enough to be fed by me!

All the prisoners were glad to be detailed to that horrible work for a little food! One day they dug up fourteen Germans who had been buried in our garden, the first time the Germans occupied Suwalki. Buried hurriedly, after eight months to remove them absolutely without consideration for those who were compelled to do the work, or the people who were near, and could not move away! But, of course, we did not exist, therefore could not have eyes or senses offended or sickened; we had no right to feel! I arranged a room where the prisoners, who were my patients, might come, having to stand at the window in sight of the German soldier on guard. They all had the dreadful boils, livid and purple. One of those men fairly haunts me. He was worse than usual. He had been so many months a prisoner that when I spoke to him kindly he wept piteously,—a wreck of a man, broken by hunger and ill-usage. I gave him soup and had just started to iodine his back when his guard took him off . . . ! Can anything ever take the memory of his eyes away from me,—and I never saw him afterwards! That supremely miserable man I was not allowed to help.

Once I heard a German Sister telling a Russian to stop something, and went to see what was happening. The Russian was digging in a horrid heap of hospital refuse, having found a crust of bread. He showed it joyfully to his companions, then started to eat it! The German Sister told him he would die—why did he eat such a thing? I asked her if she could not give him something better; that he really was not anxious to eat such a filthy crust of bread. She hesitated; Sisters have not many rights in a German hospital. An orderly heard us talking, and brought a big dish of soup, thick, with lumps of meat! The prisoner ate it ravenously, and three hours afterwards was dead. One by one they rise up before my eyes, those creatures who had been men—soldiers!

At the back of our house was employed daily a party of eight. The German in charge often came to sit in my kitchen, allowing the prisoners to fetch and carry. One of them, Ivan, was especially afflicted with boils, and so intensely grateful for anything done for him, as indeed they all were. He had been a cabinet-maker and one day brought three toys for the children—Cossacks, cleverly carved. Of course all the Germans wanted them for their children also. This was a good thing for Ivan, bringing him a little favorable notice, and more freedom. Upon one occasion he told me of a plot the prisoners had made to kill one of their own number, a Russian soldier, but neither a Russian nor a Pole, who having swung over to the German side, was put in authority over his fellows, telling on them, continually getting them punished, beaten. The spy was of course well fed, and Ivan told me he spied also upon me, with the help of his co-religionists in the town. That frightened me, but I tried to make them stop planning to kill him. The spy was in authority over them at night, at least he reported their every word. How I loathed his leering humility, pitying the man who had sold himself.

There was no preventing the plot from being carried out, short of reporting it to the Germans, which would be a spy's work. After all it was what Ivan had called it,—an execution. The spy had deserted his comrades, causing them untold suffering. How the plan was carried out I do not know, but it succeeded. A success dearly paid for! Every man the spy had reported being "severely punished." When those people who were to enlighten an ignorant world with their Kultur said "severe punishment" it meant those punished were left with their lives, just this side of death—and preferring it a thousand times!