When the Prussians Came to Poland - L. DeGozdawa

The First Days

The first few days after war was declared were full of interesting events. The most notable was the wonderful change of popular feeling. Before the war there were many misunderstandings, to put it mildly! The two peoples, Russians and Poles, divided by every sentiment, tradition, and by religion (the Poles are Roman Catholic, the Russians Greek Catholic), are so nearly related that, like members of a family, when a quarrel arises between them they become the bitterest of enemies! All these differences were put aside, and a real brotherhood sprang into existence. How astonishing and how delightful it was to see them united, all expressing the same sentiment! To me it came as a great surprise—being born in America, and a Slav by marriage. Such a revolution to take place in one day—surely only the Slavic people could accomplish it! All were glad, and felt good would come to Poland.

The third day we were much occupied organizing the Polish Red Cross for those two governments, Suwalki and Lomza. My husband was President, and his position was not an enviable one. The difficulties of getting Polish people to work together are almost insurmountable, owing perhaps to their unfortunate national history. However, we finally got our committee together, and made steps towards getting a hospital open. I remember one thing especially. Towards evening the disturbing rumor circulated that there was to be no war! The maddest excitement prevailed. Not only the upper classes, but the peasants stood about discussing it—fearing they should be disappointed. I also know the suggestion was seriously discussed of sending an expression of devotion and fealty to Petrograd! It was understood that the delay had been caused by uncertainty as to the intentions of England. If his Imperial Majesty, the Czar, received no message from that corner of his domain, expressing the hope that even if England did not go to war, Russia would, the reason was that the rumor proved unfounded. War had come.

The first sound of marching troops came Sunday, one week after the first news. About four o'clock in the morning we were awakened by the marching of men—great masses of men on the move. Of course the whole town was alive in no time. The soldiers were tired and hungry from their long journey afoot,—most of them had come from Minsk and were hungry. Food and comforts were simply showered upon them by the towns-people, rich and poor. It was a relief to have something to do. We invited the officers as they came along to breakfast, and had a cauldron of soup and heaps of bread in the courtyard for the soldiers. So great was the fervor of helping that every few steps along the roadside someone stood handing things out. I remember one soldier wanted a drink of water, and two small boys in their zeal to get there first got into a fight, in which their families also joined. That day there was still laughter along with the tears. We entertained the sappers that night because they only went on the next day to East Prussia. The captain was a Pole, a friend of my husband's. After this first break for the front, men were simply poured into East Prussia. The wagons made one great roar—night and day.

[Illustration] from Prussians Came to Poland by L. DeGozdawa


In the town were also various changes. With few exceptions all the Russian families decided to go to Russia. Trains were set aside for this purpose, and at the stations many sad and many very amusing things occurred. It was sad for these people to leave their homes and all their belongings, to see their husbands and sons marching off to war, not even to have the comfort of stopping there a little nearer to them. Many ladies started out with two or three soldiers carrying their pet possessions—even some pieces of furniture, samovars—dogs of course were many. All had to be left at the station, and happy the woman who found a seat for herself in those awful trains packed with people as sardines are packed in a tin. One officer's wife told me afterwards that for a day and a half she did not sit down, and finally, from fatigue, slept standing! Ah, yes! War is neither a comfortable nor a pleasant experience.

I think it was about a week after the first news when the Ukase of the Czar was published—that all spirits were to be destroyed, and the use of alcohol forbidden. What excitement prevailed over this announcement in a country where at dinner one must reckon at least one bottle of vodka for each guest! Such strong stuff was it that the only time I ever tried it I thought my last moment had come! The day before the official destruction was to take place we went to get alcohol for the hospital—both the pure, and the colored for burning in lamps, etc. There were tremendous crowds about, all struggling to get a last bottle to drink, already drunken—without shame, and horrid! I thought then what a wonderful thing the Czar had done for humanity. How brave it was deliberately to destroy a tremendous source of income in order to help his people! We were forced to have police protection to bring the bottles home. Such bottles! Each one holding twelve quarts!

The next day we saw the destruction of the "Monopol." The chief of police ordered all spirits carried to the top of a hill in the outskirts of Suwalki—then with much ceremony the bottles were smashed, letting the fiery stuff flow in streams! What cries there were from the people—the peasants threw themselves down on the ground, lapped the vodka with their tongues, and when they could swallow no more they rolled over and over in it! After a while my husband thought it better to leave; even in an automobile there was little safety among such mad creatures. We were very glad when "King Alcohol" had been vanquished, and we shuddered to think what would have been if such an orgy had taken place without police to quell it!

That same evening, a friend of ours was called to the colors. He was glad to go,—the more so that his wife was a German! He gave me letters for his wife should he not return. I remember his eyes, full of premonitions, yet glowing with a desire to meet the time-old enemy of the Poles! He never returned; if taken a prisoner, it is all over long ago. We sent the letters to his wife who was with friends in the depths of Russia.

How the different people we knew and were near to come before my eyes. All, all gone. All those homes swept away,—out of existence, but "God lives!" It cannot be all in vain, the bloodshed and sorrow!