When the Prussians Came to Poland - L. DeGozdawa

A New Petition

I was astonished to receive one morning a summons brought by a soldier to a meeting of the people responsible for the town. It was to take place in the rooms of a gentleman (a noble) who had unfortunately remained to protect his interests. His house was about in the same condition as mine—only I had a few rooms, and he only two;—and even there the common soldiers who occupied the house made themselves at home,—sleeping in his bed, if it so pleased them.

When I attended the meeting there were many people I had not seen since we were shut off from the world,—among them the engineer and the nobleman with his two sons, Pan W. I asked them why they did not come to me. They said they did not wish to get me into more trouble. I told them they could not, so they might as well come. The new man, near-the-head of the civil government, the Courlandish [Latvian] Jew was there; my enemy! I was as polite as possible, just as if he had not refused my petition. I had written another one and wondered what would happen. Perhaps they would get tired of reading my petitions and let me go to be rid of the trouble!

When the Bezirkschef began to talk we found we were called together to institute a typhus hospital for the town—the disease was all over. The idea was we were to find house, beds, bedding, nurses, and food; the Germans would make the apothecaries give all drugs and disinfectants.

I immediately said my time was more than full, for I was detailed to care for the prisoners working upon the streets and had three small children. A lady who was a nurse in the Russian hospital, working night and day, said she could not help for she was head nurse where the surgical cases were.

The man was furious at us for answering, and said it was all one; we had either to do it ourselves or pay for the doing of it, and he would hold our host responsible for it. It was horrid to see that ordinary creature intimidate those people. Most of them spoke German indifferently because they had never wished to, and now they were at a disadvantage,—as there was no one there who could take the responsibility. After various hair-raising threats we were ordered home,—not before I was told I would surely be called upon to do my share of the nursing—to which I answered that besides the two reasons given I was leaving Suwalki! How he laughed—and said, "No, never." Also that he was coming to have a look at my papers. Well he said that for it had never occurred to me someone would try to look through our documents, which were cleverly enough hidden.

In the wardrobe, which stood in my bedroom, behind the heavy mirror was a number of drawers. By pulling out the lower one, concealed at the back was a very good secret compartment. There rested the leather case which contained our documents. I looked through them nervously as soon as I got back from the meeting, fearing to be interrupted. I decided to show three only, and my husband's Munich University diploma. I dared not show my wedding certificate—because there it was written I was born in Canada! My father was an American citizen, I had lived all my life in the United States, never having been in Canada for more than short visits. Still if my birthplace were discovered, nothing could save me.

My children's baptismal certificates could be shown. They were Austrian, for the children, were born in Cracow, where my husband was Professor in the University. Before our sons were two years old we had gone to live in Russia to make them Russian subjects. The family estates were in the Kingdom of Poland (Russian) and my husband had been called to serve in the Department of Agriculture—having two governments, Lomza and Suwalki, under his jurisdiction. His especial branch of science was hydro-technique. In the children's certificates was a simple statement of dates, my name, and the word that my husband was a Professor of the Jagiellonian University of Cracow! These I laid aside and concealed the rest—some of them old and interesting. We had kept those documents with us since the war began, and after the first evacuation of Suwalki they had been in my care. One was an old patent for a French title given by Henri de Valois when he came to be King of Poland—many families had received the same, but most of these letters had disappeared in the course of the years.

There was a legend in our family that the great-grandfather drove seven days with a sledge to get his patent of nobility signed in Petrograd, when that was made necessary by the new laws. That document above all others had to be concealed.

After making up my mind which documents to show I wrote a petition to the "Herr Presidial Rat" of Suwalki (the nearest English term to that is the Presidential adviser, but it does not mean that) begging leave to present a petition in person! I was growing impatient, and I felt that the more I worried at them, the nearer my release would be.

In a day or two I was granted my request, and found a curious old man, a "von," rather incompetent, and who was probably regarded as a figurehead only. My enemy was the real chief! I gave him the documents and presented my petition, telling him it was the fourth! This time I begged permission to go to Norway—if that were not possible, then to America, though I did not see my way clear to get there, but I had a lively trust in Providence.

The chief was very polite, looking at my card with interest, but told me I was known to the authorities as a Russian sympathizer, and had shown great distress at the fall of Lemberg. I admitted this,—but how could we feel otherwise when Poland was being trodden into the earth—exterminated! He answered if I could only see the rights of the matter,—how Germany was the only friend and salvation of Poland,—my affairs would move along with celerity. As it was, the petition should be sent to the chief commander of the army, with his recommendation, for he was saddened to see a noble woman brought to such straits.