When the Prussians Came to Poland - L. DeGozdawa

I See My Home Once More!

On the 22nd day of October I was allowed to go to Suwalki, having a lot of instruments which had been bought and paid for in Warsaw while our hospital was still in existence. There was need for these in Suwalki, and I was longing to get into hospital work once more. I had been helping only at odd times, mostly in the sanitary trains. There being need for haste I did not travel with the slow-going empty Red Cross trains. The children were in excellent hands and it was quite possible for me to leave for a week or more.

In Vitebsk, the station was full of men entraining for the front, now the army was well into Prussia. Almost as soon as our train started something interesting happened. A Russian lady in my coupe, seeing I wore a Red Cross uniform, began to tell me something about a wounded Cossack—so much I understood even with my little knowledge of Russian. When I told her I was an American we began to speak in the language neither of us liked—German—but it was our only mutual tongue! She told me a young Cossack, discharged from the hospital, was standing in the corridor—weeping—surely something in that to shock one! We went together to him—finally getting his story. What I did not understand she translated for me. He was young, boyish—had been wounded and his right arm had been amputated, but what seemed to cause him the most pain was that he could never ride again. He had been dismissed from the hospital in Vitebsk and had been told to go to Dvinsk. At the station, the quartermaster was to pay him—but he had gone to the station at twelve noon the day before, and at this time it was almost five in the afternoon! The quartermaster had not come, and our Cossack, weak though he was, had told no one his difficulties, and had waited all night in the station. Finally, the station-master told him to wait no longer, but to go on to Dvinsk, where he would draw his pay, and, when he understood the circumstances, gave him a rouble; but the train left immediately and the poor fellow had had no time to get anything to eat. He seemed to feel bitter over what was really no one's fault. He should have told his troubles before they grew so great, but he was so very hungry and weak. We took him into our coupe and he demolished our combined lunches. I had a thermos bottle of hot tea. When he had eaten and was not quite so unhappy he said it "was always so with the Cossacks—as long as they were fit—at the front of the battle—but a wounded Cossack was no good to anyone." I had a flask of cognac and asked if he wanted some. After he had drained off the tiny screw top full which I had a right to give him as medicine, he wiped his mustache, twisting it gallantly, saying, "Now I am a man, and will weep no more."

Those tears, Slavonic tears, are not a sign of weakness, but of overwhelming temperament. Let no one judge the European from the American or English standpoint; different countries, different customs, not that they all cry—but if so, it does not follow that man is less of a man for doing so. There, for instance, the men kiss each other, carefully kissing the air in the direction of the ear, as a rule. How curious it is to see such a thing here. But they think we are cold and unfeeling.

My journey to Vilno was quiet enough and there I had to wait some hours for a train to Suwalki; long enough to see our apartment and a lot of people who were our fellow refugees. As yet they had not been encouraged to return. The train left at six in the evening, and what a curious mixture it carried. All sorts and conditions of men, soldiers, civilians, Jews going after trade, etc. All went well enough until we reached Olita, the spot where the man had given tea and fresh bread for the people in my charge; here they also had known trouble and the town seemed very desolate. It was an uncomfortable place to be dumped out at one o'clock in the morning. We had travelled so slowly; and here there was not a sign of a train.

There were a lot of Cossacks waiting to be sent on with their horses. Their Captain was very kind when my companion, a doctor's wife, explained I was carrying instruments to the hospital in Suwalki. He routed out the station-master saying there had to be a train—the Cossacks were tired of waiting—and we were to be given a place. A train was made up, and, as if by magic, a lot of wretched-looking Jews put in an appearance; the station-master was forced to sell tickets. For two stations he asked us to be in a caboose sort of an affair until they got hold of a proper carriage—at Olita there were none—those poor Jews came also. One started to make a fire—it was cold; the fuel being free, he was not sparing of it, and the car almost caught fire from the red-hot stove. Of course, the poor Jew was thrown out bodily, and the stove after him at the next station. There we got into a comfortable carriage with only the officers; but it was unheated and cold. Instead of reaching Suwalki soon, we waited hours, and then crawled along awhile and waited again. So on through the day and evening, and still ordinarily an hour away from Suwalki. But already we had seen evidence of war,—crosses standing out against the sky—marking where the slain lay. The whole night we waited, until stiff with the cold, but at half-past six we really got in. The destroyed railroad had just been hastily rebuilt. Even at our snail's pace we sometimes rocked like a ship in a high sea.

Curious it was, that return! The old station was changed, but still packed with people. Many were leaving Suwalki; those who had been there during the German occupation. One thing was noticeable—those who had been dark, were grown white. Vehicles there were of course none! Insisting on starting afoot, dark as it was we plunged out into the gloom on a road so rough we appreciated the difficulties the train had met with.

There were many things to seize our attention; ruined houses, broken-down fences. Everything where it did not belong. Troops on the march, who made instant way for us, advising eagerly how to avoid pitfalls. Gathering around us interestedly, officers and men, with no fear of drunken amiabilities.

It was getting less dark when we reached the neighborhood of our former home, but, lacking the courage to go there without a little rest and preparation, I went first with the doctor's wife to her home. Her husband was camping in what had been their very charming house. The cook had the real "war" expression stamped on her face, much the same look must have those who have gone through an earthquake. A heroine she was, however, for when the officers left, without saying "good-bye," they set the house on fire, one dumping the contents of the lamp into the middle of his bed, and setting a match to it; but she, hiding in a wardrobe for fear of being taken along, saw this charming way of repaying hospitality, and extinguished the blaze. Her hands were terribly scarred, but her attitude of mind to be envied. The house was almost uninhabitable; but we did get some coffee.

At half-past eight I started for our house. Jacob, the man servant, knew I was coming only a half-hour before I reached there, so I saw things as they were. Alas! My beautiful home was ruined. Knee-deep it was with things strewn about the floor,—every drawer, every closet emptied out! Papers, books, the very clothes my husband had brought to Vitebsk had lain in the accumulated dirt.

I walked through the drawing-rooms, trying my best not to breathe until I could get my head out of a window, but when I came to the library I gave up. It was so hideously befouled;—the books were torn to pieces,—that I gazed in astonishment. That men could have done such a degenerate thing! We had had such a valuable collection of old books, manuscripts, seals, engravings, an extensive English library, some beautiful specimens of Polish peasants' art in carving and weaving,—and all had been thrown down in that hideous filth! My husband had told me there was no use talking of what the house looked like—that I had better go! I understood! He thought it would make me a better Pole to see how they were used by the army which came to set them free; and teach our boys accordingly. After those two awful rooms, which had been the apple of my eye, Jacob asked me to come to see the dining-room and pantries. Heavens! Could a worse picture of wanton desolation exist? China, glass, linen, trodden upon; used and thrown down. But, the pantries exceeded all else in fiendish, degenerate ingenuity,—for the rows upon rows of jam pots, marmalade, preserves, and honey glasses had been emptied of their contents, filled with filth and returned to the shelves.

It was like an inferno that house; not as if men had occupied it—a pig sty is no comparison! Jacob told me there were a lot of officers and about forty soldiers. They had also quartered soldiers in the hospital on the first floor.

Poor old house! It seemed human and asking for relief. I wondered what more they could have done had the occupation been longer.

After going through with my inspection to the bitter end, I ordered Jacob with the help of his wife and daughter to clean it up, make it ready for occupancy.

After all the horrible things, Jacob had one pleasure in store for me. He had taken my flag down from the boudoir walls, and laid it under a heavy wardrobe. This at least had not been insulted!

Leaving Jacob to his unpleasant work, I went to the Chief of Police who was bringing order out of chaos in the town, telling him what was missing. As far as I could judge it was my husband's furs, travelling rugs, our food supplies, wines, all linen, most of the silver, much jewelry. I had taken with me only what I had in my case. All those things were gone. The rest could much of it be cleaned.

Having done my duty, I started out to see the town. Everywhere the same story as in my own home. Could men have done this thing,—I could hardly believe my own eyes when I saw the Russian church! Impossible to write—a pit of filth unspeakable,—the altar desecrated—the icons!—It flashed across my mind the verdict in the New Testament: "Be not deceived. God is not mocked, for what a man soweth that shall he also reap." How often I have had that verse in mind since that day. Sooner or later the army which desecrated God's house, and the homes of the people will pay the reckoning!

The Cossacks, wild with fury over what the Germans had done, started on a journey of vengeance into East Prussia. All the men I ever spoke to had the same desire,—vengeance for desecration! But not in the same way. A Slav would never use German methods; they would burn, destroy; more innocent people would suffer for the sins of others! The first time the Russians were in East Prussia they had not wrought destruction.

I went to the hospital, where, after giving up the instruments I had brought, I found one of the priests—a friend. In the Catholic Church there had been no destruction. Packed with townspeople who were afraid to go home, the priest had kept services going, continually. This priest suggested that I go into the country to pick up children left alone in the fields—the Germans having taken all able-bodied peasants, men and women.

In a light wagon the doctor's wife and I left Suwalki on the road which led to our villa. We were to be met by a Red Cross automobile at a point near a village.