When the Prussians Came to Poland - L. DeGozdawa


The big fight was over. Our captors settled themselves down for an indefinite stay. We in the town paid dearly for the hopes we had dared to entertain. Fines innumerable were imposed;—half the people were in prison,—and we had "civil" government. Curiously enough the "Bezirkschef" was a Russian Jew with a very funny name! He was from Courland, and immediately let us feel his power. Especially, did I come in for various favors! As soon as he arrived, my petition was again refused. He held that I was a spy, and was on the watch to catch me. One of the reasons given for refusing my petition was that I had fed the prisoners! This time they were right. If I could have got information to the Russians I would have done so, with joy and gladness, only there was no chance! Also I fed the prisoners.

The three Russian Sisters were convicted of espionage. Evidently one of them had asked some question of a German officer. I trembled for them, the one was still weak from the fever, when they came to me one day to tell me they were to be taken into Germany. Feeling the danger to me and my children through their visit they hardly wished to sit down. A German doctor came in to see what they were up to, also a soldier. We spoke of music and art and such things. The doctor wished me to sing,—under such circumstances! Those three girls had something to tell me, but got no chance,—poor souls they had lived through awful things. A few days afterwards I saw them driven along the street to the train, every soldier jeering, surrounded by men with guns on their shoulders.

My funds were very low, but my cook had her savings. They were in my care. She had long ago begged me to take them—over four hundred and fifty roubles. I had to do it or else stop helping the prisoners. The men who came for medical help every day expected me to give them a shirt and soap. I could not bear to disappoint them.

Many peasants and Jews came with old shirts for me to buy. One Jew dug up from some refuse heap a lot of the Russian soldiers' shirts, evidently left when the town was evacuated. He wanted thirty kopecks a garment. I told him it was his duty to bring them to me without money. What would happen to him when the Russians came back if I told them such a story! This frightened him and we finally compromised on ten kopecks!

The conditions among the prisoners were no better—only more prisoners! There was little resemblance left to humanity in the men, when the Germans had had them for a while;—they were not only starved, but beaten!

I used to feel that I should go mad if I could not see someone who was neither a prisoner nor a conqueror, but just a human being.

Whitsuntide came, and with it the German priest returned to his duties in Suwalki. This time the military used my apartment as quarters, so we had less of his company, but still too much! He spoke to the townspeople, giving them a message which purported to come from the Pope, a message of non-resistance, humility, and obedience! The Kaiser was to restore the ancient glory of Rome, the temporal kingdom! Every good Catholic was to help the Germans in every way; God was on their side. The falsehood was obvious,—but still the peasants were intimidated. Their own priests did not dare to contradict openly,—but no one believed the German.

On Whitsuntide the soldiers were given license to drink as much as they wished; my piano was carried into the garden; chairs, tables, and couches were taken wherever found, and . . . .a reign of terror began. A woman dared not look out of a window. The men sang and danced and yelled, and amused themselves with any unfortunate one of the town whom they caught. The guns were almost silent those nights; if only word could have been sent to the Russians!

One night I was bathing my children. We were speaking of our dear one, wondering where he might be, when a clangor of the church bells startled us. So many months there had not been a sound from them,—then all at once every bell in the town was ringing! The first thought was naturally that the Germans were caught—surrounded.

A lady came rushing in to me, so excited her whole face quivered. We did not say much, but glanced hopefully at each other. I had the children to put to bed, whatever was happening, and would not speak of our hopes before them. When the little people were in bed and their prayers said, I told them to lie quietly while I went to see why the bells rang. My visitor and myself went on the balcony, by this time the Germans were parading—singing. Every once in a while a Hoch—Hoch—Hoch—would rend the air. We came down so rapidly from our high hopes, with hearts sick and sore from hope deferred, that I hardly cared what it was, until a German orderly from the hospital called out to me,

"Lemberg ist gefallen!"

Lemberg—fallen—taken by the Germans. . . . We two women clung together—a blow indeed—what suffering it would mean to the town—they would be punished horribly! The Austro-German army would forget that it had been Austrian territory before the war . . . I could picture to myself just what was going on;—and my husband's post was in Lemberg! Surely he had long since left . . . .I could have torn my hair out in the anxiety, the uncertainty—of the moment:—if I could just know if he were alive—and not a prisoner.

Little Wanda kept calling, wishing to know if the Germans were going. I told her no, but that they had taken the town where Tatus was. The child comforted me when she said, "But Tatus is not there—Wanda knows it!"

I gathered my wee girl in my arms . . . if I could have cried it would have made my heart easier.

After Wanda had fallen asleep I laid her on the bed and went back to my visitor. I was afraid my apartment would be selected for the officers to celebrate in—I peeped out from behind the curtain;—not one soul was to be seen, only the rioting soldiery—the bells kept up their din—they seemed to beat one into the earth.

The next day fines were imposed upon most of the people—because they had not rejoiced when Lemberg was set free, out of her bondage to such freedom as we enjoyed! If we could only have attained that point of view things might have been easier for us—we might then have let the prisoners starve and not have shown our displeasure when they were beaten—but owing perhaps to our woeful lack of Kultur we could not quite attain to the Prussian way of thinking!