When the Prussians Came to Poland - L. DeGozdawa

In Trouble Through the Children

Towards the last day of May, there was an awful battle lasting four days and nights. So strong was the cannonading that no one thought of going to bed. The nights were light, or it might have been worse watching through the hours. I begged an orderly in the hospital to get me a candle—it was so trying to sit listening without occupation—and those nights I dressed Wanda's doll. To read was impossible and there were only small matters to write of in my journal. I had to keep awake; in fact it was impossible to sleep!

The town was surrounded by fire, for the Germans often used those awful spurting flames. We could hear the singing of the shells, and the impatient tuk-tuk-tuk of the machine guns. For some reason that was the sound I dreaded most,—more than the big cannons. After the first night's battle, we heard that the Russians were gaining. The Germans in the town were all packed up for flight. Prisoners were driven off to East Prussia—hope ran high! Wounded arrived in such numbers that the hospitals already closed for evacuation had to be opened once more. Regiment after regiment of reinforcements went dashing through the town singing! Always a fearsome sign. And artillery—the heavy gun-carriages almost deafening one. Such a din they made! And how we rejoiced when the sound of battle came nearer. We were sad, too, when we thought of all the lives lost in such a fight.

The first day some officers took quarters in the rooms of our house that had been reserved for me—they were awaiting the word to go to the trenches. One of them, a young Herr Lieutenant, played about with the children. He was quite young and very sympathetic, and though the children had steadfastly refused to make friends with the Germans, they seemed to like this one. After spending the day in our rooms, this officer was called out that evening. We were not so glad the second night, for such tremendous reinforcements had arrived that we could not picture to ourselves a force sufficient to overcome them. The next morning we were all standing at the windows watching the wounded arrive at the hospital, when the Herr Lieutenant came into the room! Only over night away, but hardly to be recognized. He was painfully wounded, shot through the elbow, and with various flesh wounds. He was torn, and soiled, and covered with blood stains. The most remarkable expression was on his face—the boyishness quite wiped out, through the suffering.

The poor fellow needed attention sorely, but there were such crowds at the hospital he had to wait. Of course I dared not touch his wound—being a prisoner! I could only do what was possible to make him comfortable—he was faint from pain and hunger. The children were sorry and showed him sweet sympathy. It was curious to hear them talk English to him—standing about as he drank black coffee. Something seemed to be working in the little minds, and finally it came out. Stas said:

"Mammy, what dreadful people the Germans are to shoot their own officers!"

"The Germans did not shoot him, but the Russians! Those were Russian bullets," I explained.

"Mammy, mammy, did the Russians kill all those Germans we saw carried by, and all the wounded in the hospital, did the Russians shoot them?"

In her eagerness to know Wanda could hardly take time to speak.

"Yes, darling, the Russians did all that!"

"Oh goody—goody"—the children began to dance about, wild with joy. The boys wanted to look at the officer's wounds, which the Russians had made; it was difficult to stop them; they had a little orgy of their own. I had not understood; their introduction to the principle of war had just then taken place! It made me heart-sick to see how glad they were to see a wounded man. It was because they had seen so much of the horrible things done by the Germans. I could not help, though I dreaded the effect upon the childish characters; and looked at the officer imploringly.

He was kind, and said:

"I will not report this. You are safe, but don't let them say such things when others are about. You are responsible for your children."

The battle grew in fierceness all that day. Suwalki was almost emptied of Germans. I bought everything it was possible to buy, thinking the Russians would come in hungry after the fight—even bread was to be had! A Jew came to offer it to me—he said he was baking for "our soldiers!" Well, poor creature—he was only trying to save his own skin!

One night more, and then the firing grew farther away—Oh! the awfulness of that feeling of knowing the enemy was still in possession, the despair, the difficulty of keeping any routine in life; one felt the suffering of the people of the town in the very air, and they would be "bestrafed!"

I tried to teach the children something I did not myself believe, but a childish mind is not easily convinced. I told them they must be polite to the Germans or else Mammy would get shot too. Wladek did not take this quite the way I expected—he is such a little patriot—as they all are, but Wladek could not be made to feel the necessity of hiding his feelings!

That afternoon some more officers came in telling me they would like black coffee. One was a typical Prussian—big, red, and brutal. He tried to talk to the children. They would have nothing to do with him. He walked about the room twirling his riding whip, laughing, and satisfied with the result of the battle. So great was his satisfaction he must even express it to the children."Russky kaput," (the Russians are finished!) he kept saying over and over.

The children were antagonistic and frowning. What was about to happen I did not know. I dared not interfere nor say one word. Wladek could at last stand it no longer. He went right up to the officer with his brother and sister by the hand, saying,

"Nein, nein—German kaput!"

The officer started after him furiously. Wladek tried to run still calling out, "German kaput." I caught the boy, begging him to be quiet. The officer shook his riding whip over us.

"We see how you teach your children, Madame! You must make the boy say, 'Russky kaput,' or I will beat him till he does!"

Even then Wladek went right on saying: "German kaput." He seemed possessed—though he did not try to run—feeling his weakness.

The officer tried to take him from me, saying he would give the boy a lesson. When it came to that point I just defied him also, telling him to leave the children alone, that he was only making the boy resentful, that he dared not touch my child still weak from fever, that if he did it would be over my dead body. A horrible scene and one which my boys will never forget; but, we won out!

I used the argument once more that I was an American—in America a man would not strike a little helpless, weak child, and we were finally left in peace. How frightened I was! But not Wladek! He was only glad now it was over, that he had defied the "Germans."