When the Prussians Came to Poland - L. DeGozdawa

The Children Recover

My boys grew slowly better, through the period where they continually slept, on to the point where they cried with hunger. Sometimes I was able to buy a little food—if there was any in the town my cook was sure to find it. I doled the toasted bread and preserves out with a miserly hand. Our sugar was gone, coffee also, but I still had tea.

We were deserted. No one came near us, except the good doctor. He came, and so I kept in touch with the world. Also there was the never ceasing panorama before my windows. The automobiles were stationed there. Many a time they were already for flight, the Russians making an advance, only to be pushed back. We, in the town, never gave up hope.

Great numbers of prisoners were kept in Suwalki, starving to death! The wounded were crowded together without comfort or cleanliness, and the townspeople "allowed" to feed them. They who had nothing themselves!

I was afraid to help openly for a time, but my cook carried pails of soup (macaroni) to the hospital, where the wounded lay upon the floor, without straw in the intense cold. One day she told me something was happening. The prisoners' hospital was being cleaned, beds put in, and even clean linen for the men. Just after she told me this the doctor came, our kind friend. I asked him why the sudden change, and heard to my delight that attaches from the neutral countries were to make a visit. In some way it had leaked out how the prisoners were being treated, and an investigation was to be made. I immediately wrote a petition that I should be allowed to see the American attaché, thinking in this way to get word to my husband, letting him know we were still alive. The interview was promised me on the condition that I would speak only of the question of communication with my husband and not a word about what I had seen in Suwalki.

Such a cleaning there was those three days we were expecting the important visitors. The prisoners were fed. Those in the hospital got cocoa, very satisfying to an empty stomach!

I was unquiet over Wanda, seeing her wilt before my eyes like a little flower, but the prospect of getting some word to my husband, made me feel brighter than usual.

The attaches came, saw what ideal conditions prevailed in Suwalki (for at least three days!) and went! I was not permitted to see the American attaché, and was only told it was not considered expedient that I should.

That night Wanda developed the typhus, and for the second time during my captivity I cried until there were no more tears left. Again, the old miserable story to go through with, the watching by night and by day. Wanda had quite a different form of the fever. After a few hours of the singsong delirious talking, she grew silent, and never spoke nor opened her eyes, unless I made her, for fourteen days. The only way I knew she lived, by looking at her, was by the faint red patches on her cheeks. The crisis past, she recovered more rapidly than her brothers.

Also there was milk to be had! I was able to get two quarts a day, but it cost one rouble. A Jew somehow had got two cows. The precious fluid was taken away from my cook by soldiers so many times, even though she made them understand it was for typhus patients, that I had to get a special permit to carry milk unmolested through the streets. Once my cook found a chicken! It also was taken from her. She cried and called down such vengeance upon the thieves, the soldiers of the army of occupation, that I told her she would be shot if they understood what she said. Not long after a Jew brought me five chickens. Five roubles apiece! If I could keep them they meant eggs for the children. So I had them shut up in what had been our beautiful library. They roosted on the pretty old shelves, clawed over the books, and I did not care or have any feeling about it. Those things were finished, passed out of my life.

After that we were able to buy more food. Potatoes were to be had at a ruinous price, and also wood. There came a day when Wladek got up out of bed. Grown so tall, with legs like a pencil, he bore no resemblance to my bonny boy. And hungry! The toast was finished, but Wladek could eat mashed potatoes. How he begged for all sorts of things.

A few days after his twin brother also rose from the dead, and because nothing could come singly, something happened! It was Holy Week. A tremendous battle was on, the big guns almost cracked the windows, we could also hear the machine guns. In the midst of the din I was rejoicing over my sons, that they had taken a step; when several people walked into the room—Russians, the first I had seen to speak to. A doctor and three sisters, with four German soldiers. How pleasant it was to see someone not a German! The doctor, a splendid man, but with his misery stamped upon his face, told me he had been sent to open a "typhus hospital" in my house! The disease was all over the town, and now it was to be centered under my roof. I asked him what I should do. The Germans had told him I was to provide beds, etc! The German soldiers grew impatient that we only talked and did nothing, and began to threaten. I gave them cigarettes, which I had had for the Russian soldiers, and asked them to leave us alone for a while.

The doctor suggested as my children were better to offer the lower floor as a military hospital, saying I did not wish the civilians so near, they would bring more diseases. He advised me to beg that the Russian hospital be there, giving as reason that I belonged to the Red Cross and would like to work in the hospital, but could not go far. So we decided.

The doctor told me a little of his life. They would have also starved, only a man who had a restaurant begged to feed the doctor and three nurses. At least they had some sort of a dinner every day; but what indignities they suffered upon the street! Our conversation was not a long one, for the soldiers finished their cigarettes and came pounding across the floor. One laid his hand on the doctor's shoulders, and turned him rudely about. "Come then. See what you dirty Russians have done," was the soldier's mode of address, leading the way to the unused part of our house.

The next morning a party of prisoners were sent to clean. Six starving human beings! I told my cook to make soup with a few of our precious potatoes and much macaroni—useless for the children, so heavy and rubbery it was! Taking a lot of cigarettes I went to interview the soldiers on guard. The Russians came about me when they saw "a Sister," but were driven—not gently—back to work.

I asked the soldier, giving him at the same time a handful of cigarettes, if I were permitted to give the prisoners something to eat? He agreed readily enough, saying he saw no reason why the men should be kept without food, but he could only allow them five minutes to eat, as they were so slow. How could they be anything else so long without food!

I told the prisoners they should have hot soup; the look in their eyes when they heard this! While the soup was cooking I wrote my petition that the military hospital be in my house, giving as grounds my fear that the civilian population would bring not only typhus with them; begging to be allowed to help! How long that soup took to cook! I had a picture before my eyes of those men waiting.

The children already tried to amuse themselves, sitting propped up with cushions, in the deep windows, watching the streams of soldiers, wagons, guns, and wounded. The battle was terrific. A hope sprang up that the Russians would be in for Easter.

Begging the children to stop alone just one moment while the cook carried the pot of soup to the Russian soldiers, I went down with her, to talk to the German on guard.

The cook had a trite reception "Hinaus!" (Get out!) The man was polite enough to me, and called the Russians. I had fetched four dishes and ladled out a portion for each, begging them to eat slowly. One of them spoke softly to me in English; he had been in America! I told him they were to eat slowly and sit on the floor to rest themselves, giving them cigarettes and a box of matches, and turned my attention to the German. At first he only wished to speak of the dirtiness of the prisoners; when I asked "if they were given facilities to be clean." He said, "No, but if they wished to be clean they could be." A difficult matter without soap or water, comb or brush! Clothes and linen worn night and day since they were taken captive!

Soon the man got away from the favorite topic of conversation because I asked him if he had a family. He had in Memel—and how pathetic he was on the subject, when speaking of his wife alone there and his small children, but he could not see the point when I told him he should show consideration and help the unfortunate prisoners. For himself and the Germans, he was very sorry; but for the Russians he had only a curse or a kick. He grew so excited talking to me, defending the policy of "frightfulness" that the Russian prisoners had ample time to finish and smoke the cigarettes. They had all eaten too much for starving men. The copper was empty—I had thought they would carry home half in their little tin pails. The soldier who spoke English told me it was the first warm food he had eaten since December when he was taken prisoner at the battle of Warsaw—since then not even hot tea! Sometimes they got chunks of black bread.

We did not get the typhus hospital, but Saturday of Holy Week I was given permission to feed two parties of prisoners daily, a party consisting of twenty-one men. I did not see how it was to be done, but gladly took the permission. As a Sister, I was allowed to help the men, if they were brought to me. Near our house a number of prisoners were to be employed, also cleaning the streets.

Easter was truly a rising from the dead. Wanda girl got up on her feet, white and weak, but the worst was past, and I could once more count one, two, three little heads. We had hoped the Russians would be back for Easter, but instead great reinforcements arrived for the Germans.

The typhus signs protected me from the military, but the rest of the town was overrun.

On Easter afternoon I had two visitors, one of our priests, and a German General who had been quartered in my house. The General said it was very tiresome in Suwalki so he thought he would come to see how we were getting along, if the quarantine was soon to be raised so the good quarters could once more be occupied. The Polish priest and German General spoke of my affairs together, and as a result of my visitors' conversation I wrote my first petition to be allowed to leave Suwalki. With everyday life grew more difficult for me. The children were ravenous, and needed delicate, nourishing food, not only potatoes and milk, of which there was not always two quarts, though paid for. Black bread cost enormously, but occasionally was to be had, the Jews demanding as much as three roubles a loaf! This bread could not be given to typhus patients, as much as the children begged for it.

Once I saw a soldier on the street eating an orange—biting into it as if an orange was quite ordinary fare in Suwalki—I would have given anything under the sun to get that orange for the children, but had to be glad they were warm and had milk and potatoes. Every day there was the excitement of feeding the two parties of prisoners; once there was nothing but soup made of meal, and a very old and dry ham bone! To make so much soup with one small bone! The prisoners found it good, hot at least. The Jews knew I was feeding prisoners and so brought anything they could get to me, knowing they would be paid—the Germans taking things without the ceremony of paying!