When the Prussians Came to Poland - L. DeGozdawa


Notices were posted by the commandant regarding the harvests—"That any one touching or using any grain, potatoes, or vegetables from his own gardens or fields, would be punished to the full extent of the law—military law!" It was further stated that all crops would be gathered under military supervision.

I think tears of blood fell from the eyes of the people when they were told of this. It seemed just the last straw. After the long hot summer, hungry, but working with the feeling that at least something would be in store for the winter—to have it all taken away! Especially, were they amazed to find how cleverly they had been compelled to buy back their own grain, paying twenty-five marks a measure,—to plant the crops which were now taken away. I remember one old peasant who came to me, puzzling over this fact—"Are there no gentlemen in Prussia, to deceive poor people so?" he asked. Then, with true peasant philosophy, shrugging his shoulders, "If they do take my little crop, it will do them more harm than they do me. God does not forget." They did take the crops, to the last bean and potato.

Few could rise to the philosophy of that one old man. All had gone a step farther on the road to obliteration,—and many hanged themselves, putting an end to their sufferings.

Not long afterwards there was another proclamation—this time about dogs, also signed by the commander of the army. Ten marks to pay for the keeping of a dog! Most had by this time disappeared. I had chloroformed many; it was so wretched to see the creatures going about hungry, and to feed dogs when so many starving human beings were about, was impossible. The dogs remaining were the especial pets, companions in misery, like our little Dash. The two little puppies, Dash's babies, had been taken by officers. The children cried their eyes out about losing them but Dash we clung to! I paid the tax to keep our true friend, but few others in the town could. The animals taken were not tenderly put to death. I was told about it with horrid details by a soldier, who was indignant over the whole thing; but he was a Pole, and could not enter into such amusements.

One more notice posted was about people to work in East Prussia; all able-bodied individuals had to report. As they did not do so, the soldiers were sent to take them from the houses. With great difficulty, I begged my cook off, even going so far as to request permission to keep her, from the police.

It was a cruel sight to see those sorry bands of people—not only peasants—driven through the town to the station on the way to East Prussia. Families which up to that time had clung together, were now mercilessly torn asunder. A man, escaping by offering to point out some spot where houses had stood before the war, drove back from East Prussia, and from him I heard what was happening to our people. The women and girls were housed, the men sleeping on the ground at a distance. What happened I cannot tell—but that man, speaking slowly, mournfully, told me how the night was often torn with the screams of the women. Their huts also lay close to the road which led into East Prussia—far, far in—and the men were not allowed to go to the defense of their own women, to protect them from the troops marching, always marching, into Poland.

After the fall of Warsaw, we knew the Germans were trying to trap the Russians near Suwalki. Great numbers of troops once more were about us. We heard of the Russian retreat. At least, they were not caught by the German "Nippers"! One day we heard Sejny was taken, and after that, every day we were told of new gains. The military merely passed through Suwalki now; food grew alarmingly scarce, and the town was so quiet. After the continuous battles all those months, we felt the stillness even more oppressive and hopeless.

Gustav came to tell me the day after the fall of Kovno, that all the men stationed in Suwalki were to be moved on. We had lost our military significance! My enemy, the Bezirkschef, had been detailed to crush the people in some Courlandish county taken by the Germans. Poor people! they had my sympathy, but we were glad to get rid of him! Nothing else could be quite so bad!

I was sorry to lose Gustav, who wept bitterly at parting from us—wondering who would help me over the bad spots.

Many officers came to say good-bye to us, among them the surgeon-in-chief of the Russian hospital! Loss of military significance had some benefits! He wished to be nice—to speak to the children, but they would have none of it. He even looked at Wladek's finger, pronouncing it good, and only a tiny "fault in his beauty!" He advised me to settle down without further thought of escape. I often wonder if that man has been permitted to live, going further on his merciless way.

As soon as the troops left, we began to feel the pinch of necessity. Everything was taken—there was often nothing to buy, except rum. That there was in plenty! One Jewess actually came to me to beg help in getting a permit to open a tavern. I told her "No, but I would ask for permission to close it!" It did not help much. She got her license, as did many others also. Drunkenness was part of the daily life of the town. With no food, and only the soup in small portions served the town by our committee, the pennies could buy a temporary relief and forgetfulness. Thus was the crowning injustice put upon the people; they were debauched.

A few days of bad food, and all of my children fell ill with dysentery. Of course they could not eat black bread after typhus. The doctor who had been always our kind friend came to see us. He was soon to go, also. He used the cholera serum on the children, and for a few days the poor little things were very ill. Wanda and Wladek recovered in a degree, but Stas grew worse. I was once more fighting death for my boy. Oh the misery of those days! It comes over me in a flood only to think of it. Night and day—night and day—always the same. The child grew transparent from the constant loss of blood, just a little moaning atom!

Something broke down in me those days. I had come to the point where I knew if we were not released it meant giving up my children; and now I wished to give them up rather than see them suffer. Perhaps that was just why I had failed. I had clung to them so desperately, calling on them not to leave me. They had been left to me, but now I was willing to leave the decision to the Higher Power, not forcing things my way. Looking Death in the eyes, one loses the fear of Him.

Our kind friend, after giving Stas the third hypodermic injection of cholera serum, pronounced the verdict of life for him—if we could get away! As he stood looking at my boy, he said, "You have got to be let go. It is inhuman to keep you longer. Try once more for permission to go to Berlin. You have your Ambassador there." I told him there was as yet no reply to my last petition. It had been promised soon.

Stas lived and on my birthday, the 28th of August, the kind doctor was sent on, away from Suwalki! He came to say good-bye, the two children hanging on him; they loved him. To me, he wears a halo! How much he had done to lighten the burdens, not only for me, but for the whole town! While he was there, saying good-bye to us, a soldier came with the final refusal of my petition. It was a hard blow, but I just would not accept its finality. If God saved my boy's life the second time, when I was ready to give him up, it surely meant that we were to be released! Then and there I once more went to the Civil Government. The "Presidial Rat" was surprised at my persistency; he felt there was no use in it; but he finally consented to send another petition, this time asking permission to travel to Berlin, there to enquire if it were possible to go to America. In the office was a wonderfully kind man, a lieutenant, who told me this time he would help me. Surely we would be freed. A day which seemed to be all darkness was turning bright. I went back to my boy with a little hope for the future. He was so weak as hardly to breathe. I had a bottle of red wine, and fed him a drop at a time. Perhaps before he needed food we should be on our way!