When the Prussians Came to Poland - L. DeGozdawa

The Prisoners

From this time I was nearer to the life of the town. Every moment was occupied or I should have gone mad! I knew my husband must have been outside, beyond the trenches, for the Russians were only five and a half miles away. They held Sejny and Kalvarya.

A German soldier came into the kitchen one day. My cook, not understanding what he wanted, begged me to speak with him. He wished to sit awhile and drink tea. I told him he might have tea if he had it himself; we would give him hot water. He wished to talk to someone, and showed me pictures of wife and child. How full of desire for sympathy they always were, but never had any to spare for other people! This soldier told me that in two hours' time he was going to the trenches to pump fire on the Russians; told how he could make the liquid fire spring sixty-five feet! How it burned all it touched to cinders, spreading on all sides. I had to listen, fascinated by the horror of it!

The Russians were making tremendous efforts to re-enter Suwalki, the Germans just as great ones to keep them out, for it was the gateway to East Prussia. That word! I tried not to hate anything, but even to hear East Prussia mentioned aroused something akin to that feeling in me. East Prussia was their slogan, the stick to beat the Poles with, to stamp them into the earth! Every woman outraged, if she were not fortunate enough to take her own life, was caged up "for the soldiers." Furniture was carted daily to East Prussia, the woods were cut down, every agricultural implement taken! All for the same reason; what a maw it is that East Prussia! All Poland was to be emptied and carted away, beaten into the bargain, and made to pay such terrible contributions!

The peasants' grain was taken when the Germans first came, no seed grain nor potatoes left, and now the Commandant notified all who had ground, to cultivate it, and that seed grain could be had for twenty-five marks a measure. The use of a horse two marks a day—no matter to whom the horse belonged! After the ground was sown all horses were to be removed by the military. Any one not buying grain and industriously cultivating the land was to be evicted, the military taking possession. Poor people! Those who could scrape the money together somehow, did; but there were many driven away from their bits of ground, the thing they tied to. And thus were forced to join the fast increasing beggar population. The others patiently bought back their own grain, laboring unceasingly with the fear of being driven away ever before their eyes.

A soup kitchen was opened by our committee, ostensibly. True, the town had to get all food somehow; but the law did not lie in our hands. Also from there the food for the wounded was taken,—men with terrible wounds, or typhus, fed on pea soup! Such peas, which if they were cooked a month, were still like little glass marbles rolling about.

One day I had a visitor. Someone whose face was familiar—a Pole and a nobleman. An acquaintance, one of the civil engineers belonging to my husband's department. He had been caught with three other Poles—they were with the retreating army—having left Suwalki too late. His horses naturally were taken, boxes and everything in the wagon; and all this time he had been kept in a cellar on occasional chunks of bread. No wonder he was changed beyond recognition. He said he was so anxious about us he had to come to enquire, though not good for me. He was "suspected" and harried continually,—the man looked on the verge of insanity. The same man who fed the Russian doctor and sisters was feeding him. I insisted on giving him money and what cigarettes still remained,—he was so pitiful—an example of what the Prussians' idea of "free" Poland is!

Not long after this I had another visitor, Pan W., a man who stood out before the war as a very rich Pole, a nobleman, who because he was deformed thought he might remain without question on his estates, two very large modern ones near Suwalki. His wife and two daughters were in Warsaw, his two young sons, fourteen and fifteen, with him. Pan W. found his deformity did not protect him; for, when the Kultur trager came, they instantly accused him of having telephonic communication with the Russians and bound the unfortunate man in his own cellar together with his young sons. The military occupied the palace, taking everything out of it for East Prussia. All stock, farm implements, automobiles, all had disappeared, when six weeks afterwards Pan W. and his sons were released from the cellar. He was asked by the commanding officer which he preferred, "German or Russian rule?" Pan W. replied, not daring to answer frankly, that "the Russians had never imprisoned him!" For this answer he was given another month in the cellar! Then they were taken out and driven into Suwalki like animals, literally without a shirt to their backs. This treatment for a man, a nobleman universally respected, a man who had lived a luxurious life before the war.

I found some of my husband's shirts, collars, and ties for this poor victim—but had no clothes for him. How glad he was. We drank tea together. I begged him to share our food daily. He could not trust himself to speak of his wife and daughters, but told me of his sons. One had always been very delicate and spent the winters in Switzerland! Now without food except chunks of bread occasionally, and water; after being kept in a dark cellar so many weeks! The two boys were sent to work on a new railroad the Germans were completing. His voice rings in my ears, the pity of it; he told me of his hope that they would be paid something. He refused to take meals he could not pay for at the restaurant where many officers ate.

He had asked the commandant to give him some money, a slight return for the enormous amount of stuff taken from his estate, amounting to much over a hundred thousand roubles. He had not even a paper to show those things had been taken. After great efforts a paper was given him payable by the Russian Government, for automobiles, farm machinery, etc., and twenty marks from the Germans {!) with a paper to sign freeing the Germans from further payment or responsibility, being told if he did not sign he would not get the twenty marks—but it would make no difference to the result! Poor man! It was a difficult position, but the sounds of battle were near that day, giving him courage.

Much the same thing had happened to a priest from an outlying village, one of the first in the path of the enemy. When they came on, the officer in command told the priest to feed his men and horses; that they would pay their way because the village was a poor one. The officer knew the peasants had brought their grains and fodder to the priest for safety (those Germans knew everything). The priest treated the officers most courteously, let them feed the horses with delight, thinking of the money for his poor parishioners; but, when the soldiers dug up the silver altar vessels and a jeweled cross, he protested. The commanding officer did not stop his men, but instead, gave the priest a paper to sign,—payment in full—four marks! Refusing to sign, the priest was driven in front of the soldiers to Suwalki, tried for resisting and insulting the military, and thrown into prison. Into a room with many others, men and women, mostly Jews! There were too many to lie down. In filth and horror they lived three weeks, two of the women giving birth to children. Finally, the prison was put in order, the priest getting a cell with two other men, one of whom went mad and took his life. After that the priest was released, and allowed to go to the church house to live. I saw him once, and shall not readily forget his martyred face. He had grown to be like a saint of old. More than one priest grew a halo, they were so persecuted.

One day a German priest came walking into our rooms—florid, too well-fed—he was a contrast to the Polish priests. Having seen the children about—they had even been in the garden by this time—he decided to come to make acquaintance with their mother, whom he said he had also seen upon the street feeding the prisoners, giving me to understand in his opinion my energies were misdirected. He also asked me why I wore the Russian Red Cross uniform. I told him for three reasons. First that I was a member of the Red Cross; second, it protected me from the German soldiers who made a practice of insulting every woman; third, I had been ordered to wear it, as the Germans found me in uniform. He said he would get permission for me to wear "civil" clothing. I thanked him saying it was better, that I was more comfortable in my sister's dress, and I felt it was a comfort to the prisoners. This German priest (how sorry I am not to give his name—it so exactly expresses the man! But even he eventually helped me—so I dare not be ungrateful!) made himself at home in our house. The children loathed him and were dreadfully naughty whenever he showed his face.

I knew he felt incensed at the unfriendly attitude of my little, still weak babies. My cook, too, had a severe strain put upon her religion, for, crossing herself violently, she would say she wished the father would not favor us with so much of his company,—and she never left me alone. After a while, this priest even stopped to meals—I could do nothing—he even followed me about when I was bathing the children and putting them to bed. In fact, he frightened me more than any other of the Germans. Speaking Polish he asked me about everybody and everything. One day telling me because he was refused something by our priest (something which was of course not there to give), he intended moving away from the church house, and having it filled with common soldiers. In order to do this he took for his services the Russian church which had to have the filth dug out of it by the Russian prisoners.

Was it any wonder the town was full of sickness? Hunger and filth went hand in hand. When the prisoners were working in the church after a long, hard morning, driven by blows, kicked on the slightest provocation, as a part of the system, they were led out to sit in front of the church for a noon pause. I say advisedly "noon pause." Dinnertime it was not—for they were given no food! Dropping with fatigue, unhappy, dumb with misery! The townspeople were not allowed near them. Why, only the peculiar mental processes of the Prussian torturer knew! I could see them from the windows in the right wing of my house and to them carried food. I was using my money at a tremendous rate, assured that God would send more when the need came.

The look of those men is burned, seared in, upon my mind. That sound of their voices when they saw us coming, for there was no one else but me to help my cook carry the pot of soup; then she left to take care of the children, while I doled out whatever there was to those reaching, trembling hands. I, too, had grown to take the attitude of the people, nothing could melt their captors. It felt like trying to stay death and damnation,—inexorable. All I could do was to feed as many as possible. But now, here in America, the question often occurs to me, what will happen when the inevitable day of reckoning comes to those who gave such orders, who caused such fiendish suffering to come upon those poor, honest, simple-hearted men? Just peasant boys—taken into the army of their own country. Shall they not stretch out trembling hands for mercy—not finding it—lost—

"Be not deceived; God is not mocked; for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap!"

Why take thought over the outcome?