When the Prussians Came to Poland - L. DeGozdawa

Back to Suwalki

I was expecting my husband continually, but he did not come. New Years, and still alone! The whole month of January went by in anxious waiting. Finally, on the 28th, he came unannounced. In arranging a fever hospital near Lemberg he had contracted an illness, a serious one, and was really not fit to travel. This was the first of a series of misfortunes, for he had permission for us to return to Suwalki, and we decided to go. The hospital work called me and we were so badly situated in Vitebsk. Wherever we were, the separation was the same. Our own home was always better. Suwalki was quiet, schools were open, the Governor was in residence, so we decided to go on the 2nd of February.

This time the journey was made without difficulty in first-class carriages all the way. We arrived at midnight on the 3rd. I remember the ride over the snow, the sleigh bells, the glorious moonlight, through the quiet town to our home,—ours even if desecrated. Jacob had arranged six rooms in the left wing, and had transferred the kitchen to what had been the bathroom, big enough for two kitchens! There was furniture enough for this suite after a vigorous cleansing process. The rest of the house was shut off entirely. Even though it was so terribly cold, I heaved a sigh of relief to be back after all the wanderings.

My husband was tired out by the journey, so I bent all my energies to making him comfortable. However, I had a new patient. My little boy Wladek was feverish. Not much time for outside work for me! But enough to see how the little children picked up in the fields were getting on. With our Panna Jadwiga they were well cared for and getting to look more like children.

Food to buy we found in plenty. Petroleum, everything—a few bottles of spiritus for the lamps we also discovered. Of course there was no gas.

The townspeople were so glad to have us back. It was quite touching. If all had been in good health I should have been almost happy for two days, helping rearrange the hospital in the first floor of our house.

Wladek grew no better. A curious lethargy had possession of the child. The doctor could not decide what the trouble was, but the fever grew.

On the 8th bad news came. My husband had to go back to his post, and Suwalki was once more to be evacuated.

On the 9th Wladek was no better. We suspected typhus. That night I insisted on my husband leaving, saying I would meet him in Warsaw. It was dangerous for him to stay longer. He must not be caught, and with the ill child I could not go. The poor little fellow began to be delirious. Ah! that night when we sat together and spoke as if the great separation were not at hand—and the good-bye!

I listened to my husband's footsteps on the frozen snow, one last look, then silence as of death. I knew the impossibility of going with Wladek, and his twin brother was sickening. Surely the Germans would come and find me!

In the morning the doctor promised to come again in the afternoon, but when he finally came in the evening it was only for a moment to say he would come in the morning and . . . went straight to the station. He knew well enough what it was, but did not wish to tell me.

On the 10th the whole town was on the move—the same haste but less accommodation, and bitter cold weather. There were only unheated freight cars if I had wished to risk my boy's life. It seemed better to let him die in his bed than out in the open—I felt like a rat in a trap. Many people who had not stopped in the first evacuation were remaining, thinking if the Germans came their stay would be a short one.

The wires were cut. I could not telegraph! And all the doctors were gone! I tried to put all thought out of my mind except my children; to accept the inevitable.

Again supplies were bought and carried in, all I could get, and the moment it was possible to leave Wladek I spent concealing them in various places where it seemed unlikely anyone would look.

On the 11th of February, 1915, Suwalki was once more quite empty. All avenues of escape were closed. We were waiting the sacrifice. The Russian army was retreating.

That night, bending over my sick boy, hearing sounds of voices in the house, I woke my cook and taking a candle went to investigate. The place was full of Russian soldiers ready for the march. They begged leave to rest. I told them they should have what comfort I could give them if they would only be quiet as there was a sick child.

My cook boiled samovar after samovar, but even then there was too little to go round. The officers were invited into the rooms I was occupying, and they told me a little of what was happening. The whole army was on the move. They asked if I could not get away.

The next morning my midnight visitors were all gone, but the gardens and streets were alive with men—all mixed together, infantry, artillery, Red Cross, forage-wagons, wounded, Sisters, doctors, priests—with that curious murmur as of many bees. Muddy slush almost to the knees. A thaw had set in. Men and animals suffered discomfort, and were dissatisfied. I went out in all this to find a doctor who would come to us. I shall not forget that search; in and out among the wagons, among the horses—and I am timid by nature. Before the war I was afraid of a mouse, of thunder. But no more!

The soldiers assisted me as much as possible. I found several lazarettes with doctors in charge, but they were forbidden to leave without permission, and to get the permission was difficult.

I was sorry for the Red Cross Sisters. They looked wearied and disheveled after the retreat, and all were anxious.

I finally found the surgeon in charge—like a general—and he came most willingly.

The diagnosis was typhus, the bad kind. I had known it myself. The doctor said:

"Keep up your courage; on you depends your child's life. God will help you. He will save the boy without a doctor!"

The kind soul, often I thought and prayed for him, a poor ill-used prisoner that he was.

I went back with him to where his staff was waiting. His wife, who was a Sister, had grown anxious in his absence. How I envied her! He gave me two bottles of champagne. Our cellars had been emptied by the Germans, and there was great need of something for my poor baby. I said good-bye to those kind, unfortunate people, and picked my way through the streets across the park towards home. Many of the men, tired out, had thrown themselves down on the ground. One had to climb over them. Some had built fires to cook food. How miserable it was; and we were all in the same boat.

Four soldiers who were very ill, hardly able to walk, were entrusted to my care by a doctor, who I met on my way back. He said they would be better with me. It was no use torturing them by dragging them along, so I took them home, giving them into my cook's care.

Wladek was growing steadily worse. It was necessary to forget everything in the fight for his life. The babble of delirium was awful to hear. It tore my heart when he constantly called for his father, "Tatus—Tatus." I thought after living through that moment—nothing could reach me, but I did not know.

"At least we had a comfortable, well-arranged apartment. Surely the Germans if they came, would leave me that corner of my own house. We had food, fuel, and I must think only of the children," so I talked to myself.

Little Wanda and Stas still played together, though I noticed Stas was not himself. What one of the twins had the other invariably took.

There was a nurse; Panna Jadwiga had gone to Vilno with those children when the town was evacuated; my cook, a host in herself! Jacob the butler, his wife, and daughter, a girl not yet seventeen.

Jacob lived in what had been our kitchen in reach of the bell. It might have been worse, I told myself, and prepared to face the situation.

The Russian army left suddenly, going toward Sejny—not a soul on the streets. Silence! Three or four hours later they came rapidly through the town, going towards Augustowo, and once more silence. At eleven o'clock there were still artillery wagons on the streets. I went to the four soldiers. The cook had given them food, they were lying in comfortable beds, and so pitifully grateful. They said, "If the Germans come we will leave you, little Sister!"

That was an awful night! I had to hold Wladek in bed. The little tongue never stopped an instant. I was worn out, having been already three nights continually on my feet, but at last morning dawned on an empty town. Not a soldier or a horse was in sight.

About nine o'clock a peasant came to tell me the Germans were coming! Someone had seen them. I made the four soldiers eat, and gave them food and cigarettes to carry with them. They were ill men. After a mutual blessing they went back to await their fate.

Suddenly hearing an uproar, I saw some of the bad elements of the town looting, searching for food, knocking each other down, screaming—a horrid sight! The Jews who were always so meek, had now more self-assertion, strutting about, stretching up until they looked inches taller. It was hard work to tear myself away from the balcony. I, too, seemed unable to control myself, running from the balcony to the child and from the child to the balcony.

At eleven the streets again grew quiet, the time was near, and I saw the first pikel-haube come around the corner, rifle cocked—on the lookout for snipers!