When the Prussians Came to Poland - L. DeGozdawa

The Occupation

The next day, Friday, the Great Man was quartered on us, the staff officers finding someplace else to sleep, coming only to meals. Much food also made its appearance, so my couchfuls were still fairly undisturbed. I had hoped to be let alone, that it would not be necessary to serve; but I was not allowed that luxury. It was necessary to serve coffee, and look pleased with doing so. After the meal, I showed the workings of the samovar to the detestable Max and left. The Great Man paid little attention to me except to greet me courteously. I could have done with less courtesy if he had given different orders to the army. All the misery, the awful orders, came from him, the Schrecklichkeit we were face to face with. By his orders, the prisoners were cruelly deprived of food, and the levies were laid upon the people. I do not think soldiers meant anything to him as men, they were simply creatures of his will, to serve his ends. It is said that all great men are egoists,—this one certainly was. We were so absolutely in this man's power, and he was ruthless!

When a man's personality weighs down those about him with a hopeless depression, in Poland they say, "he sits on my head." It is a wonderfully expressive phrase. The Great Man "sat on my head" very heavily. He drank copiously (in fact, I have never seen such a capacity for Schnapps), ate tremendously, and the only topic of conversation was what he had done or was about to do.

My house was only to be used a day or so. There were other quarters being arranged.

Saturday a strange piece of news came to my ears. The officer with the English mother, after having been two days in battle at Augustowo—hand to hand engagements—and most desperate fighting—was at mess with the other officers in a peasant's hut. Called to the telephone he had scarcely picked up the receiver when a shell from the Russians, one of the few they sent that day, burst near the hut. A piece came through the roof, instantly killing the man who had been so sure God was an interchangeable word with Kaiser! When the news was told me it seemed like a rebuke. That man appeared to be so mighty, backed by an invincible force, but when God said enough, how quickly was he still!

The days went by without rest for me. I was a machine—night after night with my patients—how pitiful they looked—little grey shadows of my darling boys. They never stopped talking—only the voices grew weaker—each night meant a battle with death. I used to stand over them and say, "Dearies, you must not leave your Mamusia—you must get well- -your father must have his boys!"

From half -past three until five it was impossible to count the pulse. I could only pour a few drops of black coffee into the little mouths so hideously disfigured by typhus sores. Near this dreadful disease lay my little daughter,—nervous, hardly speaking at all. She was not the same child. We spoke together of "Tatus" when I had time. She had escaped so far, but, breathing the same air with them, how could she escape the typhus, despite all my care in disinfecting.

The Great Man went and I was heartily grateful, for his atmosphere of inexorable power to crush us was almost too much to bear. It was as if a black cloud had been cleared from our horizon; though we still felt the effect of the orders given to the army, still we did not have to look at him or serve him with coffee. During the few days he was under my roof, many delicate dishes had appeared upon my table, but no one had asked me if I had the necessary food  to give my children. The Great Man was served from a "Feld Kuche" with the more substantial dishes, and I had to provide an entree or two. One day the food in the "Feld Kuche "went sour, and I had to manage the whole meal.

No wonder I was glad that the "Colossus" went—whenever I looked at him I seemed to hear bones being cracked and ground into powder. No tiny detail, nothing which could make the towns-people suffer was too insignificant to be turned into an order and signed by the Great Man. In fact, he brought so much "Kultur" [German civilization: suggests racism, militarism, etc.] into Poland that the Poles were almost exterminated by it. We were not the only ones who felt the weight of his fist. The German soldiers were treated with extreme severity, though given the greatest license to harm and fill the unfortunate townspeople with fear. It did no good to complain of any outrage—for outrage was ordered and encouraged and rewarded. The soldiers were forbidden to show sympathy. One curious thing—the soldiers had all sorts of articles stamped with the Great Man's picture—I asked one of the orderlies if he felt it was quite the thing to use a handkerchief so decorated! The man told me "perhaps not," but that he thoroughly agreed with his suspenders! Bright red, these were, bearing a tiny picture of the Great Man, and, of course "Gott strafe England"  embroidered upon them in flowing German script. That legend seemed to grow upon everything the soldiers used.

On the last day that the Great Man was with us, another Great Personage was also there—a fat, beery scion of royalty, neither clever nor interesting. The change in this young man's appearance was a distinct shock. As a girl I had often seen him in Berlin with his father or with some of his brothers or others of the family and at that time his extreme popularity (he was very much the people's favorite) seemed easily explained by his good looks and his charming manners. I know these made, from a distance, a greatly favorable impression upon me. And now—such a change! Was it due to "Kultur"?

The gruff but kind Captain also received the order for Augustowo; night and day there were the sounds of battle; the immediate needs and misery were too great to pay much attention. The last day those officers were in the house I went one more step on the via dolorosa. It was Sunday morning; the prisoners had been removed from the Roman Catholic Church. There were services going on, so the townspeople had for the first time appeared upon the streets. A foolish, talkative little woman, who had remained with her husband and little daughter, came to see me on her way from early mass. I was dreading to leave the children long enough to serve coffee to the officers, so I asked this woman to sit with the children while I had to leave the room. When opening the door she said to me:

"They say the Russians are in Marijampol—and the Russian chief of police never left—he is here "

I told her sharply to be still. She answered the Germans did not understand Polish. When I went into the next room, right near the door the medical student "doctor" was sitting. He always hung about. I really paid no attention to what the woman had said, but after having served coffee I had barely returned to the children when my cook burst in calling out jubilantly the same piece of news. She was also told to hush (the doctor still sat near the door reading), but as if two of them were not enough, the nurse girl, Stephania, also came in telling instantly the same story with more details; and the three, in spite of all I could do, would discuss it.

At dinner-time, two o'clock, the officers had finished eating and drinking,—they were about to drink black coffee—when an orderly called the Captain. In a few moments he returned, looking very grave, and told me there was somebody to see me from the secret police; he advised perfect frankness. I almost died of fright, seeing fortresses and dungeons of all sorts looming up before my eyes!

A horrid, degenerate-looking man—this secret agent—who instantly told me the police knew I was a Russian sympathizer, and that I had a center of information in my house, that I fed the prisoners, and rebuked the German soldiers for carrying out the orders issued to the army; that I incited the public to resistance, and was to be removed as a menace to the army, to Germany; that he was sent to fetch me. I told him that what he said was mostly untrue, and the rest misrepresented; that the people in the town naturally looked up to and trusted me; I could not help their coming,—there was little time I gave to anybody. I had given bread to the captured Russian soldiers, but when the Russians were here, the captive Germans had also received help from me.

The secret agent said, well, I had "something to my credit," immediately giving in detail the conversation of those women; but I told him that was the gossip of the town. "So much the worse"—it did no good to tell him I did not allow them to talk—the order had gone out. I was to be removed! No use to tell him of the children either; that they were at the point of death. He simply said that this did not interest the Government; only the fact that I was hostile, and arousing the sympathy of the people at this moment. I heard the Captain clanking heavily about in the next room, and, in my distress, called to him. Big, burly, with a look of contempt at the "Agent" in his civilian clothes, the Captain came in.

When I had told him the secret police wished to take me to a fortress, and the reasons, how my children were to die, as they surely would without my care, he flew into a terrible rage, and ordered the man out, saying he gave his word for me, that as a man and an officer he would permit no such thing. With that, he took hold of the Agent marching him into the room where my boys lay.

"There,—look! And go tell the secret police what you have seen."

The man disappeared with alacrity; no more was heard of him! The Captain stood leaning on my boy's bed, shaking his head.

"It is such nonsense makes us so hated,—just as in Belgium! But—I told you not to show your sympathy."

I reached out my hand.

"Captain, there may be typhus germs on my hand, but there are also the thanks and blessing of a mother whose life you have saved!"

Somehow things took a different color after that terrible experience. I knew then that there were still worse things than I had to endure. The Captain told me he would get the Ober-Kommando to occupy my house—as someone must—and his regiment was leaving the next morning.

The Russians had made an advance and excitement prevailed. Hope sprang up once more.

That night Wladek took a terrible turn. Two fingers were paining him, typhus sores,—and no doctor! I used everything to allay the fever, but the crisis was near.

The Captain with his men left before dawn. When they went, the medical student came to say good-bye—in Polish! I told him I hoped he was satisfied with his noble work! Four officers from the Ober-Kommando took up quarters with us. I told them there was no more food. I had only macaroni, zwieback, and a few jars of strawberry and raspberry preserves—no potatoes, and about a half-pound of coffee and tea.

The children were so near death that day that I went from one to the other, changing compresses, wetting the lips with weak tea (made of melted snow water—the wells were not possible), imploring them not to leave me. One of the new officers told me there was a celebrated doctor in Suwalki that day. Did I not wish to see him? How I blessed the man for his thought. In a short time the doctor came. Of course he only looked at the children when he said:

"Typhus,—and one near the crisis, "that very soon the finger would have to be operated upon, also that the military could not be quartered in the house. I would at least be alone. The nurse, Stephania, had never come back after the secret police got after her, so that day I called Jacob's daughter, Manya, into service in the sick room.

When the officers had gone I found all our stores of wood had been burned; coal had long since been out of question. It was cold in that great empty place, filled no longer with the memory of happy days. The night got over somehow, but in the morning it was evident that Wladek's finger must be operated upon. His hand was black, his arm swollen. I sent a note to the Commandant asking for a doctor, adding that a few hours' delay would mean death! The cook brought a reply saying that a doctor would be sent. I prepared a table with everything ready to operate, and waited . . . until nine o'clock in the evening. I meant to operate myself if the doctor did not come. When the doctor did come I was face to face with the living example of "Schrecklichkeit!" He said:

"Good-evening. My fee is thirty marks! Gold!"

I told him it was difficult to give him so much, the contribution of the town had fallen so heavily upon me. He simply said that, without the gold, he would not operate, so my boy's finger had to wait while the money was fetched. After the fee had been pocketed, I gave him an apron, and he went in to look at the children, saying immediately he thought both would die. He asked me what I had done, said it was right, and walked back to the operating table. I carried Wladek out,—with no difficulty for he was like a shadow. Hardly was I seated when with a flourish of the surgical scissors,—I shall never forget it—the surgeon grabbed hold of Wladek's finger, and, without even disinfecting it, or using the ether, which stood on the table, snipped it off like a bit of old cloth. The blood and matter spurted all over me. Wladek screamed, and then was still. The doctor got up, saying that I would know how to disinfect and bandage the wound. I begged him to stop and help me. Replying only, "I have no time," he walked out, leaving me alone with my unconscious boy. It was very difficult to manage the cruelly used finger, and to hold the child at the same time. I could not feel his heartbeat. Stas, in the other room, was crying,—and neither the cook nor Manya came.

The hand was finally bandaged and a compress laid on to keep it moist. After making every effort, I finally managed to rouse him, so that the poor little fellow began to moan. On carrying him back to bed, I found his brother lying fainting on the floor! The wonderful sympathy between the twins had caused Stas, even in delirium of fever, to wish to go to his brother's aid, and I had two unconscious, stiff boys. The room was freezing cold!

After they were once more in bed covered with everything to be found, I threw myself down in the big chair to watch them. Catching a glimpse of the mirror, I wondered who that wild, white, strange-looking woman was—after a time recognizing myself! Then, by a mighty effort of the will I drew back from the black pit of despair, saying over and over again, "I will call upon God,—and the Lord shall save me!" until I could once more get up and go about preparing things for the night. That night when it was to be decided life or death for Wladek! How still it was—I was glad when the boys simultaneously began to rave. I at least knew then they were alive! The big guns sounded far off. I was quite alone. The cook was not in the kitchen—Manya did not come when I rang, nor did Jacob.

A long time afterward my cook came. She had difficulty in controlling herself, but finally made me understand. The doctor had taken Manya—not yet seventeen! God help her!

Jacob came in looking like a hurt animal. He had been struck in the mouth by the doctor. The blood dripped on his hands together with his tears. Manya was his pride, his little girl. She knew how to read—he began to tell me little stories of her childhood, "before my lady was in Poland!"

I gave him a double dose of veronal, washing his wounded nose and mouth, and promising we should get Manya back tomorrow.

"Tomorrow!" with a cry like an animal. Quieting down once more, he crawled into a corner by the stove, instantly sleeping,—worn out. An example of the freedom and happiness the Kultur trager had brought to us in Poland!

That night Wladek fell asleep. I feared to breathe—suddenly he grew icy cold. I put hot cloths on him, gave him spoonfuls of black coffee. Tried to count the pulse—so faint-wildly calling on God to save him! The dear eyes opened. He tried to say "Mamusia," and slept! Saved! The twenty-first day since he last knew his mother. I laid my head on his bed, weeping until there were no more tears left, and also slept—to be wakened by a cry from Stas who was stiff, talking, moving head and hands as if automatically. A curious feeling came over me. I did not wish to move; as in a dream—everything was so far off; the room grew very warm—like summer.