When the Prussians Came to Poland - L. DeGozdawa

The Lives of the Townspeople

Live—we did not live—we barely existed! One grey day blurring into another, waiting, always waiting for something to happen. Hoping against hope for deliverance. "Hope deferred maketh the heart sick" might have been written for the prisoners of war, and when hope is lost, life hangs loosely by a thread—how many there were who cut the thread!

Belated spring came to us, and the "white nights," but it did not matter . . . I changed my thought of rejoining my husband from before the green was on the trees to Wanda's birthday—the sixteenth of June, reminding myself of a donkey who had to be coaxed along the road by a bunch of carrots.

One day our kind friend, the doctor, came to tell me one of the Russian sisters was ill; would I take her in? Of course it was a happiness to be able to do so. But after all was prepared for her reception the Germans refused permission for her to come to me. However, I dared to go to her. She was in the Russian Hospital. A sad place was that Russian Hospital. Without hope, shut off from the world. I spoke with the different officers, taking messages, promising to carry letters. It comforted them and I was convinced that someday I would get out.

The poor sister was very ill, in mind as well as body; but there was nothing I could do to help—my duty was towards the prisoners on the streets, who were not allowed in the hospital. On my way home I stopped with two other sisters at the soldiers' hospital, seeing acquaintances carrying food to the wounded; that awful pea soup with stray potatoes. Everything was grimly clean for the prevention of infection to the German soldiers; there had been such awful epidemics that they were a little more careful. When leaving that hospital the German soldiers on guard jeered at and insulted us—saying there were no officers there, why had we come? And much more to the same effect, only worse. We paid no attention to what was said, only I shall not soon forget that walk back through the town. Every soldier had something to say. How glad I was to have my own roof. When I thought of those two girls facing those wretched, insulting soldiers every time they went to dinner, I felt my rooms a haven of safety. Oh! yes, I was favored!

After the Captain left, the military used my apartment more. They would come and sit, using it as a Club. Very often an officer took up his quarters there for a few days. So it happened on the 7th, 8th, and 9th of May.

On the morning of the 8th, my cook came back from the town, telling me the Germans were celebrating some great deed. She had not got the story straight, but the soldiers were given license that day. Misfortune enough for us! In the evening the officers celebrated at my house, a great number of them,—I was begged to give them tea. There was no use objecting, it would only have brought misfortune upon us, so samovar after samovar I patiently served them. Tea! A half glass or cup of rum, and a little water and tea. My cook told me how things were going early in the evening. In the officers' room they drank great glasses full of brandy and so on, then came to the table to drink their tea.

The tongues were loosened quickly enough and I heard the terrible story of the Lusitania. They read me the dispatches, trying to make me express an opinion. What would have happened to us had I dared to express my opinion? It was taking a risk to say, "God have mercy on the poor ones left behind," as I did, hardly trusting myself to speak. Even that brought a storm of protest upon me. No one was to blame, only the English, the people had been warned, they had gone to their deaths with their eyes open—and so on, ad libitum, opening the way for the most terrible tirade against the Americans.

I had listened to enough terrible things uttered against the English to call down destruction upon my house where they were uttered—not daring to say one word in protest. It would have cost our lives. But when they began to blackguard America and the Americans, beginning with the President, then I felt the time had come to make them understand I would not listen to everything. Trembling so that my knees almost refused to support me, I rose from the table, saying:

"I will not listen to one more word against America. I am heart-sick over this horrible news. You must excuse me from further service."

This had the effect of sobering them, a certain high officer saying,

"The gracious lady is right!"

Another one suggested that, before I went, the health of the Kaiser and the victory of the German arms be drunk. They had champagne, and I let them pour a glassful for me without protest—fetching a small carafe. When they drank the toast I simply emptied the glass into the carafe, saying when there was so much illness in the town, those few drops might save somebody's life. At this one of the officers brought me a full bottle of champagne from his room, saying:

"Now you will drink our toast!"

Frightened, but even more determined, I answered,

"No! Not if there were rivers of champagne!" instantly adding, "that I was awfully glad to get the wine for my patients, even if I did not feel called upon to thank them for it. They had taken so much from me."

Saying "good-night," with a certain finality of tone I went to my children. I drew up a chair between the boys' cribs, and lifting little Wanda from the bed held her in my arms, thinking that if they tried to make me pour more tea I should have my excuse ready.

For a few minutes after I left, the officers were quieter, but soon they began to sing—to cry "Hoch! Hoch! Hoch!"—growing so noisy in their carousal that the children were awakened. This once I was thankful, for when an officer came to beg me to come to the table once more, I was very busy with the children—laying my finger on my lips and shaking my head as an answer. Dash, our little Spitz dog, growled continually that night. She knew there was danger, and, in her animal way, expressed sympathy! It was such a fearsome night in the town—with the soldiers drinking—that not many people slept. At three o'clock the officer came once more, swaying from side to side in his efforts to keep his balance, to bid me serve them with tea. I had my little daughter in my arms, and she began to cry, thus giving me courage to say:

"No! I cannot leave the child. You have all had quite enough. It is time to go to bed, and let my children sleep."

I suppose the bare fact of speaking in this way impressed a drunken man, and also that I showed no fear. At any rate by four o'clock when the guns ceased their cannonade, it was quiet in the house, leaving me to wonder how many such nights I could live through and keep my reason—thinking of my plight, that I must be civil to men who could rejoice over the innocent lives lost when the Lusitania went down.