When the Prussians Came to Poland - L. DeGozdawa

How the War Came to Us in Poland

Very near the borderline between Russia and Germany lies Suwalki. It was a delightful, old-fashioned spot full of homes, and with many estates in the neighborhood. As one says in Polish, there were there very many of the "intelligence," meaning the noble class. People who were proud of the heirlooms, the old and valuable furniture, the beautiful pictures and books contained in their homes.

Into this old-world peace, came war, and of the homes and people, there is left only destruction and hopeless grey misery. How well I remember, and with what astonishment I think upon all that was before war was declared.

Is it possible that there in Poland peace once was? That one's home was one's own,—that no strange men came to peer into all one's belongings, and take what they could manage to carry away, destroying the rest? That, once upon a time, the people might smile? Say what they would, go out or stay at home as it pleased them to do? That there was no hunger,—that they might go into a shop and buy food for their little children with no possibility of refusal or being told that the goods so invitingly displayed were only for the military? That there should have been light and heat and medicine for the sick, and comfort for the dying? Was there such a time when the people dared to breathe and, with wonderful Slavic gaiety, throw off the troubles, which now seem nothing, and be happy? With eyes and heart full of war visions, it seems to me there never was a time when any one smiled in all that unhappy, martyred land.

For that summer of 1914, we had settled ourselves, after a short sojourn in Suwalki, following a winter in Nice, in a most delightful spot—a brand new villa on the edge of the great Augustowo Lakes in the heart of the wonderful forest. A more beautiful spot than it was would be hard to imagine. We were all tremendously happy, healthy, and free. The children were often all day long in the forest with their governess. There was a pony carriage for their especial use and a horse much addicted to sugar and possessed of very quiet nerves. In the wonderful white June nights, when the sun took a very short rest, the birds must really have been tired, they sang so the night long! We often went out on the waters in the middle of the night to be ready to greet the sun after his short retirement. All was peace and beauty!

This quiet life, full of simple pleasure, lasted through the month of July, and on the second day of August we were expecting a large house party. My husband was not in the country with us, but in Suwalki for a few days, and I wondered why he did not come on the evening of the first of August. We waited dinner, and were sure he would be there, as he is a man who never disappoints. However, I waited in vain and felt the events of the future casting their shadows before them. Despite my later experiences with bitter unhappiness I must say I was terribly unhappy that night. After being most wakeful, I fell, towards morning, into a very sound sleep, only to be awakened about four o'clock by a violent rapping on my window. I sprang up quickly in order to still the noise before the children should be aroused, thinking something was needed by the servant going into the town to the market. There I was confronted by Fate in the form of my husband's man, Jan, white and solemn-faced.

"My lady, there is war," and he handed me a card from my husband.

"War is declared. Come immediately with the children. Let the servants pack up what you wish to bring and come on later in the day."

To read this in the beauty of that summer morning and feel one's world crumble about one! Bidding the man wait, I hurriedly wrapped myself up and stole out of the house to arouse our people. The servants slept in quarters a little removed from the house, and I was forced to rap and call loudly before they could be aroused. Then they came,—first the cook—a noted person afterwards—and the maids. They were sleepy and still engaged in completing their very simple toilets.

"The master has sent for us. We must go immediately to Suwalki. There is war with the Germans."

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


When I told them this, they stared at me, and as one, like a chorus, threw their aprons over their heads and began to howl, just as a dog keens and whimpers in the night when he is frightened,—the most horrible sound one could imagine, and which almost made me lose my scarcely retained self-possession. I was forced to threaten them with all sorts of punishment before they could be made to stop that blood-curdling noise! Then, saying that they were to prepare breakfast, so that we could leave the minute the children were ready, I went over the hill towards the forester's. I can never forget that walk in the early stillness, through those woods and fields, which were so soon to be literally wet with blood! I remember, just as we reached the crest of the hill, turning to ask a question of Jan—just to hear my own voice, the future began to look so very black. I found poor Jan was gallantly striving to keep the tears back. When the poor fellow had pulled himself together enough to speak, he told me that he was called, and must be back and ready to march at twelve o'clock. The mobilization had begun! The poor boy was sure he was going to his death, and said he "would never again be seen by his lady!" but he was, for, as Fate would have it, two months afterwards I closed his eyes in the hospital. Shot to pieces almost, death was a merciful relief!

We reached the house of the forester, Majewski, and here also had great difficulty in making them hear us. Finally the forester, his wife, and children tumbled out, with eyes full of sleep, and of course dressing themselves on the way! When I told the forester what the master had written, he said:

"Oh, the master is over-anxious! There is no war! Let my lady permit me to go to Suwalki to see what the trouble is, and let my lady rest quietly here! If there were war, my three strong sons and good horses would be called out!"

After telling him to do as he was bid, instead of advancing ideas of his own, I left him under orders to bring his horses and wagon, and to get some of the adjoining peasants and their wagons also. Almost running on my way back I was greeted from a distance by an uproar! My children were crying from the discomfort of being awakened so early, and had raised their voices in protest at the general state of disorder.

These three were Wanda, six years, and Stanislaw and Wladislaw, twin boys, five years! I think they were also protesting that no one was paying the slightest attention to them, and that was a state of affairs to which they were not used!

I found the dining-room in a most curious state. The things which were absolutely necessary to serve breakfast were being already packed, necessitating the unpacking. My governess, Panna Jadwiga, was the only help I had, trying valiantly to help me quell the miniature riot! When we had given the children something to eat, and were quite ready, I found there was a strike! The servants refused to remain behind without me, wishing to let everything go and get to the town. They might as well have done so for of all the silver, rugs, and furniture, there is no vestige remaining! However, not yet understanding what war means, I stopped and struggled with them until things were fairly well packed. I was obliged to drive them for they were quite mad with fear of what would befall them—stumbling over each other as if blind, and constantly looking over their shoulders to see if a German were not ready to seize them! At eleven I gave up and said the children could not be kept about any longer, and I was so sorry for my husband waiting all this time; feeling also the need of hearing his voice. So, stowing the children away in their own carriage, which they were using for the last time, their governess, to say nothing of Dash, the white Spitz dog, and myself, who had also to be the coachman, we started, leaving the peasants still weeping and wrangling, to follow or stop as they would.

I found even the quiet nerves of the horse had been affected!—perhaps because no one had thought to give him sugar, and he was a pampered animal. Whatever the cause, he shied continuously the whole way through the forest. I was so nervous every sound made me jump. Very soon we came across many sad groups. Women escorting their men to the mobilization centers. . . . Misery had already come to dwell in Poland! The men had at least some excitement, but oh—be sorry for the women—the poor left-at-home women, with the drudgery and the grey anxiety,—and the waiting—waiting—always waiting.

We met many loads of people already hurrying to the town. In fact, our dog Dash had a brisk exchange of hostilities with a pig tied on behind one load of household goods, surmounted by the family. I know Dash returned in a filthy state, expressing a lively satisfaction with the encounter.

After leaving the woods, we were overtaken by a terrific storm right in the middle of the open fields surrounding Suwalki. Panna Jadwiga took all three children in her arms, and we covered them as best we could. The umbrella was on hand, but in such a storm of little avail. The summer air had changed into a wintry one, the sleet blinding both me and the poor horse. In the few minutes it lasted the road was transformed into a torrent, and if the road were remarkable at the best of times, what was it after such a deluge? Horse and driver clung bravely together, and finally were able to open their eyes. A few minutes after, in the midst of sunshine, but oozing water from every stitch of clothing, from hair and hat, we drove through the town. At any other time such a dramatic entry would have aroused much comment,—but when war has been declared, it takes more than a few wet people to make other people stare.

After arriving at our home, our man Jacob took the horse, and it was the last time we saw him. The faithful creature—I have always regretted not giving him one parting lump of sugar.

My husband was in a very nervous state, not knowing why he had been disobeyed. The master's word is law in Poland. But, knowing the peasants, he understood the impossibility of doing anything else, and leaving the children sitting up in bed drinking hot milk, we started for the hotel to see if we could not get something to eat, neither of us having tasted food that day. We found every place crowded. No one wanted to stay home,—the Demon of Unrest had entered every breast. Such was our first day of the war!