When the Prussians Came to Poland - L. DeGozdawa


They had told me in Berlin where to stop in Rotterdam, but it was far from my intention to do so—I wanted to be as far as possible from the sight of a German face, or the sound of a German voice. On the train, a gentleman, who was travelling with his three daughters, told me of a quiet hotel near the station. There, in that peaceful spot, with the windows overlooking the canal we had our first rest.

Arriving late at night, it was all I could do to get the children to bed with the help of the chamber maid. Oh! how tired I was, body and soul—my tears would flow—it was impossible to stop them. In the morning how strange it was to wake without that gripping sense of fear—fear of the Death which had been our companion through the months! My ill boy was so much better that he was able to stand on his feet, and a kindly porter carried him down to breakfast.

When the children saw heaps of rolls and honey they were delighted, Wanda asking me "if they might have as much as they wanted or if it was for tomorrow!" Poor little mites, after all they had gone through, what a delight it was to see them once more eating the food they needed and desired. In Suwalki we often had had enough food, for the time, but we had never known if it would be possible to buy more.

Immediately after breakfast, the porter accompanied us to the Russian Consulate, sitting in the fiacre with the children, and amusing them while I was busy. At last I saw Russians who were free! What a tremendous event that visit was for me! The Consul was most kind and sympathetic, immediately sending a telegram through the Foreign Office at The Hague, to Petrograd, with the information that we were all alive and well, and on our way to America. I gave as our address the Russian Consulate in New York. The Consul thought it would be well to wait in Rotterdam for an answer, but I felt the necessity of keeping my word to sail on the 18th.

Those three days in Holland were like bits of Heaven for me; the peace,—the quietness! I felt as if I were dreaming, that in no place in the world was such peace. It seemed curious to see everything standing where it should be, and order everywhere. For seven months I had lived without real privacy—there had never been a moment when someone, if he would, could not march in upon us sleeping or waking. After the crushing and grinding of the Prussian war machine, it took a little time to adjust one's thoughts and ideas.

There was one more visit to the Russian Consulate before sailing. This time I was able to think of the troubles of others, not only of our own, and reported the case of the Russian boy in Berlin, thinking thus to let the boy's parents know what was happening—also, of the hard lot of one of the Russian doctors. This doctor was a surgeon-general, captured near Wilkowiszki, just about the time Suwalki was taken. Made to work incessantly, without comfort of any description, the doctor had done his duty by the prisoners manfully, often raising his voice in protest over some especially glaring piece of brutality. He was terribly worn out and in bad physical condition when the order was issued that all in the town must be inoculated with typhus serum. The doctor, having had typhus, naturally refused. Thereupon, the German surgeon-in-chief of the Russian hospital, the man who had so brutally operated upon my little son's hand, ordered the soldiers to seize and hold him. The Russian begged to be inoculated upon the leg, but it was not permitted, the surgeon-in-chief inoculating him in the breast. After having had such indignity put upon him, his clothes having been torn off by the soldiers holding him during the inoculation, the Russian doctor was tried by court-martial for insubordination, and because he said it was a disgrace to the German army to do such things, sentenced to two years at hard labor.

On the 18th of September, in the evening, we sailed from Rotterdam, leaving Holland, which had literally been a land of milk and honey for us. We had few clothes, for I feared to spend my money before hearing from my husband. I was put to remarkable straits many times, being forced to wear my Red Cross uniform which had been in the weekend bag we were fortunate enough to bring through. On the steamer I found three photographs, my prayer-book, and the baptismal certificates of my children, sent from Bentheim by the German authorities.

Among the people on the voyage was an American Red Cross Unit returning from Germany. The sisters were so hopelessly pro-German there was small satisfaction in their companionship for me. The doctor from Columbus, Ohio, was not, and was a most kind friend all the long way over. He looked into the state of the children's health, finding all surprisingly well, and a need only for quiet for the nerves and proper food for the body. The doctor helped me over many difficult moments. The nearer we got to America the more alone I felt. I imagined all sorts of things; not a living soul knew where we were, whether we lived or not! The position was not an easy one for the mother of three small, helpless children.

Finally, the long journey was at an end! and on the dock some Germans met me, two women and a man. How they knew about me and my story has remained a mystery, but they did—offering effusively to help me—recommending an Hotel, etc.! It struck a chill to my soul, that reception of theirs! That they should follow me, even in the Land of the Free! Perhaps it was a kindness after all, for I did not have time to think,—to contrast what had been and what was!

The "Dear American Doctor," as the children called the Red Cross surgeon, had advised me to go to a certain Hotel for "ladies," and we did so, just as fast as possible. We were a curiosity at that Hotel! Where no man might come; mostly inhabited by ladies who would have been quite safe wherever they were. We were given a room on what I suppose is their "bomb-proof" floor, for there were many pianos played with varying skill, much singing, and a strong smell of cooking. But, I felt what a criminal thing it was to have three children. They looked at us so severely, and if one of the children made a sound someone knocked on the door. I wished then we were not in such a protected atmosphere. I would willingly have faced a German or two in preference. There had been a purpose in my direction to that Hotel, however, for there I found a friend. If the "ladies' Hotel" had been like others, I should have had a pitcher of ice water brought to my room. As it was, I had to fetch it for myself, taking all three children with me, not daring to leave them alone for fear they would fall out of the window. And there I met a friend! who immediately got someone to help me with my children, that I might be free to go about.

We went all together to see if a cablegram had come for us. None was there, and none came until the 15th of October. How long, endlessly long, that time seemed! I could not adjust myself to life in America. It was such a change! The big buildings, after living in devastated Poland, terrified me—it seemed as if an aeroplane must peep over the top of one and drop a bomb on us. The people in their hurrying rush tired me! After a while, when I began to meet people, and find my friends and relatives once more, their indifference was almost more than I could bear. I felt like crying out,—asking them if they realized what was happening over in war-ridden Europe,—begging them to send help to those with whom I had lived and suffered.

Someone asked me once how much to believe of the newspaper reports—how much to subtract from the sum of all they said! I answered, "Multiply by twenty, then you will have a faint idea of what is happening in Poland!" In Poland, the conqueror is without any restraint and lacks totally mercy or pity. There they fear no one, for none are there to report except those who look through the Prussian glasses. In Belgium, people see and know what is going on—they are not cut off from the world. But who knows of the executions, the imprisonments inflicted upon the Poles? Yet I know it is the daily meat and drink of the Kultur trager to punish, punish, punish! To grind the people into the earth—to stamp all semblance of humanity from their faces, so that they tremble at the sound of a Prussian boot. I often think of how the pet dogs were put to death in Suwalki—I have dreamed of it at night—what would hold them back from doing the same to the people? How many women have hung themselves rather than endure their shame. As if all this were not enough, the crowning injustice has been put upon the people; they are sold rum to finish them, lest one should escape! That was the only thing which was cheap when I left there. And the peasants were already sodden and stupefied with the stuff sold them; the privilege of selling, eagerly sought by the Jews, was looked upon as a sure source of revenue by the Germans.

Powerless to help, it is maddening for me to think of all that happens in Poland, for, under the present circumstances, no help is possible, nothing can reach them. Of what use is one tiny crumb of bread when all the crops are taken, the people turned into slaves? The women, those of them who have escaped a worse fate, are compelled to labor for the Prussians—made to wash for them, cook for them—even ladies do not escape! How hard is their lot, their children gone, swept away by disease and hunger. Yet many live on! through the endless grey days, without light, without fuel, in hopeless misery. If a thought of release stirs them, breaking the grey monotony, if some rumor comes to them that the Germans are "getting it," their lot is infinitely more dreadful. For their momentary vision of release, how great the price!

In this great, free America, under the protection of the "Star Spangled Banner," which saved our lives in the country of the enemy, I constantly think of those people in Poland—that gallant country, the martyr of the ages! Has she no right for "the pursuit of happiness"? I believe her day is coming! Those who have lived through the terror of Death and devastation shall see their country rise from the ashes of her burned homes. There will be only a great emptiness, with no forests, no homes except the roofless empty ruins, dotted about the country. I doubt if even Warsaw will escape, when the day comes, as it inevitably must, that the Kultur trager hurries towards his own borders, there to entrench, lest the destruction they have brought upon others be meted out to them.

As for the Poles, they have the wonderful Slavonic nature; those who live will quickly respond to the best medicine in the world—Hope! Let them only have a chance! In my vision of the future I see them, patiently building, working, even dancing once more the mazur! For they have a wonderful quality as a people.

This is the only thought which helps me to live through these days of war, knowing the near and dear ones of my husband are going through horrors similar to those my children and I suffered, only worse. For his mother and sisters, there in a spot far distant from Suwalki, cannot call upon the "Star Spangled Banner" for protection.

As for us, here in America so blessed of God, we are waiting the end of the war. Protected and kept through so many dangers and trials, I know we shall be reunited.

The war must end sometime!

We have grown to be very patient, making few demands on life. Few? Ah no! We ask the only things worth having or living for! Peace and health, and to be reunited with those we love!

To be with those we love, to serve those about us, that is all there is in life! Possessions do not matter, we can live without them, but every human being needs Peace—Peace of soul and country.