When the Prussians Came to Poland - L. DeGozdawa

Prussian Justice

Wanda's birthday, the 16th of June, came and went—marked only by a great fight in the trenches. Once more we were all keyed up to the thought of release; even I felt the moment had come. In vain our hopes! But still we thought before long the Russians would surely get in.

I pushed my calendar along to the 26th of June—our wedding day. Surely that would not go by without some news of each other—but it did! Also the 28th of June was the birthday of the twins. All went by. Gustav tried to celebrate the events for us, bringing little gifts for Wanda, and for me an unheard-of luxury—a piece of cheese! On the boys' birthday our kind doctor friend sent them a cake.

The heat came, heavy, oppressive. People died like flies. Dysentery raged. The road past our house, that road which led to East Prussia, led also to the cemetery—little no longer—no longer peaceful. There was one constant stream of peasant funerals, with now and then a more pretentious one with the priest. It was a common sight to see people carrying a rough box, with a bit of green upon it, or all wrapped up in a shawl, singing the song for the dead as they slowly and painfully went on their way. The wail of those voices still rings in my ears—supremely melancholy and hopeless. Hopeless for themselves—for the dead were rather to be envied. War had taken the sting away! Often I saw them resting by the roadside, saying prayers for the dead that the time be not lost, then going on till they reached the cemetery—where they must dig the grave. Hours after those people had passed on their way to the cemetery we would see them returning, the cross-bearer going on before. That cross! Often it was only two pieces of wood bound together—there were not enough crosses in the church to serve the increasing number of funerals—and yet there had to be a cross.

The church was the only thing left to the people—they knelt round about the building in the dust of the street before it—a heart-breaking sight—those poor creatures—never talking much, now grown quite inarticulate. The crucified people! Even the children were still and quiet, and weak. I often wondered what they prayed for,—what the idea back of the telling of their beads was,—and I came to the conclusion they were without thought,—just dumb and numbed with suffering, waiting for death to release them. That same mental attitude was in the air; everyone felt so. Grey despair walked and sat with us; we had to fight not to be overpowered. How many there were who tired of the struggle, laying violent hands on their own lives;—daily we heard of someone who had gone in this way.

My enemy, the Bezirkschef, found many and various ways to increase the misery of the people. One law posted had the effect of making all men and boys keep off the streets, for they were ordered to salute their conquerors, standing motionless and bareheaded. No one dared sit in the park. Also terrible fines were laid upon the unfortunate one not at home before nine o'clock.

The people who had shops had to pay in assessments more than their stock was worth; and for the slightest reason they were turned out ruthlessly. The wines and brandies which the Germans had permitted various people to buy in Prussia were confiscated, "taken for the hospitals"!

Someone must have spent sleepless nights scheming out the various indignities inflicted upon the town. In a newspaper found on a prisoner just taken was the account of what had happened to a young school-teacher. Someone had escaped from all those who had tried—and carried news to the world beyond—telling a little of what was happening in Suwalki. This young girl had fallen a victim to the German soldiers; under horrible conditions she had taken her life. The Commandant sent for the old priest, the soldier messenger as a joke, I presume, telling him his ministry was needed for the dying. Hurried along the street in his robes the priest was astonished to find that it was only to the Commandant he was led. The Commandant told him there was no dying to minister to, only a paper to sign for the living—denying the case of the school-teacher. The priest told him it was true,—terribly true and did occur just as stated in the paper. The Commandant asked him if he were there; whether he saw the soldiers himself.


"Then you will either sign this paper or the church will be closed and you with the other priests sent to prison in Prussia."

The old priest, grown to be a saint of God, working and praying day and night to lessen the burden put upon his people, knowing what the Church meant to them, dared not bring this new misfortune upon them, and signed the iniquitous paper. I spoke to him once about it, trying to comfort him—telling him he could not help it. The suffering of the man was great; he felt he had been called upon to be a martyr and had failed. He had testified to the truth of untruth, forced so to do because of the dire calamity threatened.

The case of one of the Russian doctors was almost identical. This doctor, being a Pole, was detailed under escort to attend the sick in the town. In a hut beside the road leading to East Prussia lived a peasant and his wife. Beyond taking their food, horse and cow, and making the man dig in the trenches nothing had happened. A child was born and the Russian military doctor was sent to attend the case, the woman being in a bad state. She recovered, however, and the child was three weeks old—when the soldiers had their license to celebrate a victory. . . . The hut lay close to the road. When the husband came home—he hanged himself, with the tiny baby dangling beside him. . . . The Russian doctor, who was a Pole, found all three when he came to see how his patient was. Overcome with horror and indignation he reported the case, saying it was a disgrace to the German army, and demanded punishment! Someone did get punished. The doctor! He received what they called "black arrest" and a two years' sentence at hard work in a prison, for criticizing the soldiers of the Kaiser!

After that the Russians were not permitted to visit the sick; instead the townspeople were forced to either pay five marks a visit or go without, which of course they did. Went without! Until another greater epidemic arose, then the people were driven like cattle to be inoculated for cholera.