When the Prussians Came to Poland - L. DeGozdawa

The Journey

The 12th of September we started on our journey! Just one year before we had arrived in Vilno, after the first evacuation of Suwalki. Well I did not know then what was waiting for me, to be lived through, moment by moment.

That night I did not go to bed, but sat talking with my true and tried friend, the cook. Even then she tried to make me change my mind, being sure the Germans would do such frightful things to us. We were all ready and waiting, when a soldier came at seven to fetch us. I hardly glanced at our old house, now almost bare of furniture—it meant nothing for me, only suffering! We got into a carriage, belonging to the Red Cross, and started. The last vision was my piano in the garden—the leg broken off, sagging at one side, the seams burst open, white from the rain and the sun.

I was glad no one was there to see us go—it would only make them feel their own lot more.

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


That drive to the station through the grey September mists, cold and uncomfortable, is one not easily forgotten. We found the station surrounded by troops who were to travel by the same train. A few of them crowded about, trying to speak to the children. I was no longer in uniform, and perhaps they thought we were not Polish! The lieutenant was there, presenting the captain who was to have charge of us to Margrabowa. I spoke once more to my cook, telling her to be careful of her money, that no one find it. Also to deliver the money I had left for the Russian hospital; not much, but enough to buy a week's milk. I saw my boxes—three—were with us, and at last knew I was on the road. No one intended to hold us back! The little dog Dash seemed to know something was happening. I told the cook where a bottle of ether stood—and how to use it if there came a time when there was no food for Dash.

The officer in charge told my cook to go—it was time—and I was all alone with my three children, going into a hostile country. As the train steamed out, the children caught sight of Pan W., gallantly waving his hat to speed us on our way—I wish I knew if he lived through the winter.

Over the despoiled country we went; no forests and no houses—everywhere prisoners were working. The captain who had us in charge was so tired he could hardly speak. Six weeks he had been on the move, with his men. I had noticed the men,—grey, young-old—with lined and wearied faces.

Finally reaching Margrabowa, East Prussia, we were taken from the military train to the station, for the papers had to be examined. In the station, we were huddled up in a corner; there was not even a chair to sit upon, though I held Stas in my arms—the other little children clung to me, for they were frightened. We waited and waited, gazed at curiously by a lot of quite common people gathered there—mostly women and girls in their "Sunday clothes"—waiting for the sanitary trains to bring the wounded.

The children got restless, their little legs ached. I whispered to them to sit on the floor. After a while, almost dropping with fatigue myself, the children began to cry, to beg to go. I forgot, and said, "Hush dearies! the train is soon coming—be patient!" Some women back of us screamed "Englanderin" at me. I faced them saying, "No—Americanerin." "Alles gleich" (All the same). They began to throw things at us, to spit upon us. I gathered my children in front of me, covering them with my skirts—praying for the officer to come. He did come, after a century, it seemed to me, pushing our tormentors aside. "Take us quickly, Herr Offizier. I prefer your soldiers to your women!" When we got into the train I had to scrub off my coat and skirt. A long day in the train, the children were miserable, a little hungry and thirsty. Stas was very weak. In the evening we reached Insterburg, there to change cars. We got a comfortable coupe, but were soon made to give it up, for a man fancied it. I was forced to yield, though holding a first class ticket. After an endless night we arrived in Berlin at six o'clock in the morning. At the station there were no porters and no cabs. The place where I had to stop was nearby, fortunately, but I almost dropped before reaching it. To one unaccustomed, it is difficult to carry a child, however light the child may be.

The "Hotel" was a most awful hole, where the police kept constant watch. A young Russian interned there, the son of a wealthy Petrograd family, was forced to do porter's duty—and glad to do so, rather than be in a camp. We were shown into a room, musty—"shut up to keep the dust out," and after feeding the children—there was milk and eggs and butter—I was forced to leave them to report myself to the police.

Thereupon I started upon a weary round—Police Headquarters and Commandanture. I was told to communicate with my Embassy, and naturally went to the American! There to be told they could do nothing for me; I was a Russian! It was hard, that moment, because I had built upon having someone help me a little, at least. However, there was nothing to do, only go to the Spanish Consulate, as they directed me. There I was received with the utmost kindness—they told me not to worry, my passport would be issued!

Forced continually to notify the police where I was, it was difficult to do what was necessary. For instance, I had to go to the steamship office—constantly wondering what was happening to my children in the care of the woman who owned the "Hotel!" Pitifully glad they were to see Mammy when I returned to them. That night the police captain from the district came to see if I were at home, and look through our things. Easy enough—the trunks had not come.

The next morning the same weary round. But I was told about noon my passport would be given as soon as someone identified me—as an American citizen, before my marriage to a Russian Pole. My heart was in my boots, but a man from the American Consulate knew me. He said he had heard me sing The Star Spangled Banner at the American Thanksgiving dinner in Berlin about nine years back—the year before my marriage! It seemed too good to be true! I remembered that dinner, when I had sung to please the American doctor, a good friend, who had been disappointed in his soloist. My teacher, who was there with wife and daughters, persuading me, telling me I had a pretty dress, and could sing! That was to save us!—The Star Spangled Banner means more than a national hymn to me.

I got my passport, the Consul of Holland viseing it. He adjured me not to try to take anything through, not the tiniest paper. It would mean a fortress for me. Also asking me how I had been treated, telling me the consulate was a bit of Holland, therefore I dared to speak. I told him I was afraid—that the very walls had ears in Berlin. Once more I had to report at the Commandanture, where I was treated with extreme severity—questioned sharply—seeing others going through the same—English and Russians treated like dogs. Finally I was told at eight o'clock the next morning my train left for Holland. That night, with all settled, I came back to my babies, at almost nine o'clock, tired enough to drop!

The children wished to talk and play after their supper, and I was glad to have a respite. Stas was better after the change of air. When I started to put the two to bed, Wladek wished to play—he did not know how tired his mammy was, and ran about the room, in and out, between those German beds with their feather mountains! The police captain opened the door, and I asked him to help me. He did—caught Wladek, talked to him, played a bit so that all the children got interested, and he undressed him, folding up the child's clothes in a neat little pile, while I just sat still and let him do it! He said: "I am very sorry for you, Madame. I have eight children of my own!"

After the children were asleep, I still had to pack, and rip up Wanda's Teddy bear, which contained some very necessary papers and letters. One was from the soldiers I had fed, telling different things, almost childish in its simplicity. A document or two I was thinking to get through,—I destroyed them all, burning them up—once more sewing up Teddy's wound.

That night I did not lie down, haunted by the fear of missing the train. At last it was morning, and train time. We had food for the journey, even ham! Five marks a pound, butter four. A little of each, and bread, and marmalade. The Russian boy came to carry our things, and we spoke a moment together. He told me of the bread riot the day before, where the police had been called out. He could only write a few words to his parents, and always feared what might be done to him.

My bill rather staggered me, thirty marks a day! At last we were on the way. Good-bye to Berlin! I left there a lot of photographs which I never expect to see again, afraid to take them to the boundary. Another long day in the train—most of the time with the curtains down! Just before Bentheim, I saw a party of English and Belgian prisoners working by the roadside. The train stopped, but they did not even look up—emaciated, ragged, without enough life left in them to feel interest in anything about them. I longed to help them, but must not even look as if I would—it was too dangerous for us.

At Bentheim, thanks to my Red Cross certificate, I was taken first. They expected me, of course! We were undressed—every inch of skin examined by a woman who threw our clothes out to the officers on duty. It is humiliating to have one's hair combed for fear something might be written on the scalp. The children got very cross and insulted.

We looked like rag-bags after that examination—ragged, with the linings torn out of hats, boots, coats. I begged hard to keep the papers shown in Suwalki. They finally consented to send them to the steamer along with my prayer-book. My card plate and seal were also objects of suspicion—but after much discussion, were also sent. The trunks had not arrived, and I was told they likely would not! Asked what they contained, I told them "furs, clothes, and linen"—"Furs and linen are confiscated in occupied territory." My clothes might be recovered after the war was over!

The poor children were so exhausted by the waiting in the station that when we finally got into the train, I hardly recognized that the last point of resistance was overcome—that in a few minutes we would be out of German territory! When we were actually in Holland, I was seized with such a violent fit of trembling, it seemed as if I would drop to pieces; but as usual, and my salvation, the children needed me, and were hungry.

We were free! To breathe free air once more—no longer told what to do and what not. To no longer see prisoners—helpless to help them. To have food—white bread for the children. What it all meant to me! Seven whole months of captivity had made me appreciate freedom. I was still without word from my husband, but now I could send a telegram to Petrograd, letting him know we were alive, though on our way to America—for I had given my word.