from ‘Harper’s Weekly’ March 4, 1916
'What I Saw in Poland'
by W. H. Hamilton

An American in Russian Poland

after the battle for Warsaw

 

We arrived at Warsaw about four thirty in the afternoon. It was hailing and raining and miserably cold, and I was very happy at the prospect of a warm meal with a comfortable bed. My dismay was great, therefore, when I was informed at the hotel that they could not give me a room, but that I had to obtain the same from the military kommandatur of the city, "just around the corner." Leaving my baggage in the hotel lobby, I hastened to this dignitary's office, where I found a line three blocks in length made up of the most bedraggled lot of people that I have ever seen, all of them, I subsequently learned, Poles of the city who had to report every two days to have their passports visÚd.

Walking up to the Landsturm sentry on guard outside, I was received with a push in the chest which knocked me back about five feet, and the instruction to go to the foot of the line. The prospect of waiting several hours on this same line did not appeal to me in the slightest, and I rebounded with the information that I did not happen to be a Pole — but was an American, and I insisted on being allowed to go directly to the kommandatur. (It is hardly fair to mention this incident without adding that the greater proportion of the German military officials with whom I constantly came into contact were most courteous at all times; and I have nothing but sympathy for the old sentry. He probably had a family waiting for him some place and wanted to go home. I know that most of those I talked with at various times and in various places felt that way.) I was let by with an approach to an apology, and eventually for the agreeable sum of three marks I was assigned to a splendid room in the best hotel, the Bristol. I saw a fine outlook here for economy, but they made up for it later in the food prices.

Early the next morning, though it was Sunday, I called at the American Consulate, and found gathered in the hallway downstairs about fifty Poles and Polish Jews, awaiting their turn to see our overworked representative, hoping through him to get into communication with their relatives or friends in America. Mr. Fernando de Soto, the consul, a most agreeable and efficient person, showed me a table stacked with letters in Polish, German and Russian which had been pouring in to him at the rate of over one hundred a day from these refugees. This comprises a task which has been quite too much for the consular force, and the present endeavor of the Jewish societies in America to take some of the burden in this direction from his shoulders will be most welcome, I am sure. The German aeroplane raids over Warsaw previous to its fall were almost productive of a great calamity. All of the bomb dropping was done by a young American volunteer, and the explosions almost without exception took place within a radius of a few blocks of the consulate. One bomb in particular landed just before the door — raising havoc with all of the windows and glassware in the building, and several days thereafter another dropped just behind the building, taking care of anything fragile which had managed to escape the earlier raid. The nerves of Mr. de Soto and his family are about as shattered as most of his possessions.

The greater part of my day was occupied in securing the passports necessary for circulation in the occupied provinces. The most important of these papers is the Ausweiss, a harmless looking certificate issued by the medical authorities conveying the information that the bearer "is free from contagious diseases and vermin." This precaution is indicative of the lengths to which the German authorities have been forced to go in an effort to prevent the spread of the deadly typhus.

Warsaw is nominally under Polish administration. The mayor, Prince Wladislaw Lubowiski, and his staff still occupy their former posts, but this of course is purely a paper government and allowed to exist merely for the sake of expediency. After the Russian evacuation and previous to the German entry, a garde civile was hastily organized to prevent the lawlessness which might have followed the withdrawal of the Russian police force. The members of this garde are drawn from the best Polish element in the city, and are designated by a red and white brassard. This voluntary organization is still in being, but at the present time is of use chiefly to furnish information to the German soldiers and any strangers who happen to be in the city.

An apparent attempt has been made to preserve the normal life, industrial, educational and social. Although the interior metal fittings of the manufacturing plants were torn out by the Russians and carried away in their headlong retreat, as was everything else which was not destroyed, where parts can be supplied from Germany, these plants are resuming operations. The University of Warsaw has been reopened with great acclaim; productions are given every evening at the large Municipal Theatre and at the Opera, curiously enough in both cases the performances being in the Polish language; and in several of the restaurants a but partly successful attempt is being made to create some sort of night life.

The Polish people, however, are obviously restless and do not seem at all inclined for the moment to revert to their normal habits of life. There are many underlying reasons for this resistance on their part, most of which are political. All of the shops are open, but the merchants have a decided complaint against the German soldier, namely, that he spends no money. They speak longingly of the olden days when the Russian officer was there, supplied with unlimited funds which he spent freely, particularly in the jewelry shops. Just what an officer in the middle of a rigorous campaign wants with quantities of jewelry is rather difficult to imagine, but a description of the camp followers of the other sex who accompanied the army on its retreat suggested a reason. Outwardly the city has been damaged practically not at all. The side of the tower of the gorgeous Russian Cathedral was blown out in order that the bells might be carried off, and here and there a building has been destroyed by a stray shell, but there was no bombardment of the city from either side, and only the destroyed bridges over the Vistula bring home the fact that the city was directly in the path of the destructive retreat.

Russian prisoners are everywhere. I was told, for example, that there are more of these on the eastern front than there are German soldiers, and that they are doing everything except the actual fighting, thus doubling the efficiency of the forces in the field. Hour after hour day and night, haggard and worn, they are marched through the streets of Warsaw, either en route to Germany or out into the provinces, where one sees them clearing out forests, double-tracking the railroad, and cultivating the fields. Concentration camps are unknown; every prisoner earns his keep and a great deal more.

 

German troops marching in Warsaw

 

Now as to the condition of the inhabitants of Poland. The practical American mind thinks that it likes facts and figures, and here are a few. The districts occupied by the German army, which is the only part of Poland that I visited, are inhabited by about seven and one-half million people, and include an area of seventy-five thousand square kilometers. Three-fifths of Poland is practically dependent on agriculture for its living. Of the two-fifths, in towns, nearly thirty per cent are factory workers and their families. During the Russian retreat there was carefully planned and radically carried out as a military measure the laying waste of a broad zone of the country by burning its villages, destroying its crops and herds, and breaking up its means of transportation and communication. Five thousand villages were burned and four million people made homeless. Innumerable country houses and farms were burned, and more than a thousand churches totally destroyed. One million horses and two million cattle were taken for the army or destroyed. Even the bare earth was ravished by the digging of endless trenches, and by the effect of heavy shells. The fertile soil was swept away or buried under clay and gravel, and even in the richest districts of Lublin and Radom, made unproductive for at least a decade. The whole of the agricultural production, valued at $500,000,000 per year, has been entirely stopped by want of seed and implements. Thus there is a rural population of five millions reduced to beggary, dying of hunger and cold, feeding on roots, bark, and in come cases the potatoes which can still be found in the fields. Of fuel there is none, even in the large cities. The coal pits of Dumbrowa were blown up and flooded at the beginning of the war and, although partially reopened, are supplying barely enough for the military needs. The difficulties of transportation are overbearing because of the lack of rolling stock. The Russian railroads, for strategical reasons, were built on a broad gage. The Germans have standardized this gage, but this change has rendered useless all of the Russian rolling stock which was left behind. All freight cars, therefore, had to be supplied from Germany, and a very great shortage is the result. It is interesting to note that in standardizing the railroads the Germans have cut the ends of the railroad ties even with the edge of the tracks, thus making it impossible in the event of a Russian reoccupation of this country, to again broaden the gage without laying down an entirely new set of ties.

Private philanthropy such as America, or, for that matter, all of the neutral countries combined, would be able to concentrate in Poland, is by no means sufficient to care for the requirements of the situation. The budget in Belgium for the single month of last December was fifteen million dollars; America, with all the publicity which was given to the cause of Belgium and with all the enthusiasm which existed for that country, has contributed perhaps six or seven million dollars since the beginning of the war, or in other words, enough to take care of Belgium for about two weeks. This then, illustrates the absolute necessity of organizing the work in Poland under governmental subventions and backed by the credit of the Polish people. This credit, the Poles are ready to mobilize immediately provided the available supply of food can be increased from outside. Sending money into Poland at the present time is an extremely unsatisfactory process, for the prices of what small quantities of foodstuffs are available have increased from 200 to 1500 per cent. The following figures show this situation clearly:

Prices before the war

Sack of wheat flour................ 8 rb.
Sugar, one pud (16 1-3 kilos—36 lbs.) 4.40
Barley grits, one pud.............. 2 rb
Pease, one pud................... 1.50
Soap, one pud.................... 4 rb.
Candles, one pud................10 rb
Naptha, one pud.................. 2 rb.
Bacon, one pud...................10 rb

Present price

Sack of wheat flour................ 50 rb.
Sugar, one pud (16 1-3 kilos—36 lbs.) 16 rb.
Barley grits, one pud.............. 12 rb.
Pease, one pud...................12 rb.
Soap, one pud.................... 36 rb.
Candles, one pud................ 30 rb.
Naptha, one pud.................. 30 rb.
Bacon, one pud...................10 rb. 64 rb.

I say, what food there is, for there is an actual total exhaustion of certain foodstuffs. There are practically no fat meats or other fats and no dried vegetables such as rice, pease and beans. The sugar stock is almost totally exhausted because of the destruction of the cattle, and milk is available in only very small quantities. There is great need of condensed milk. The children and the infirm aged are suffering terribly from the lack of milk, both for direct consumption as drink and as means of preparing special food for children and invalids. There is a certain limited quantity of flour and a larger supply of potatoes. What foods are available can of course be easily distributed in Warsaw, Lodz, and other cities, but in the country means of distribution are wanting, and if it were not for the fact that potatoes are still scattered in the fields in which they have grown, the starvation of the people would already have assumed horrible proportions. Thousands of families, including old and infirm men and women, are maintaining life at present on practically no other food than potatoes. These alone, however, in whatever quantities available, without fats and proteins, cannot long support life, especially in a cold country and among people subjected to exposure. The weak, of course, go first; then the children, the aged and the sick. Then the strong become weak and the new weak succumb. Besides the lack of food, the lack of footwear is very serious. When I visited in Warsaw a number of the eighty odd soup kitchens which have been established there by the civil government, and which distribute once a day a bowl of carrot soup and two hundred grammes of bread to about one hundred thousand of the absolutely destitute, it was bitterly cold. Even though I was wearing a very heavy leather overcoat I felt the cold intensely. A large proportion of the women and children on these bread lines, some of whom had been waiting four and five hours for their daily ration, did not have on shoes and stockings. Some of them were barefoot, with their feet bloodless stubs; other had pieces of bags or other cloth or even newspapers wrapped around them.

 

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