Spring of 1914 was not as quiet as it appeared to us kids. Dark clouds were gathering on the horizon and there was uneasiness about the inevitable upcoming war. Farmers would read and discuss the war in the evenings, which was briskly approaching like a specter. The tension between Serbia and Austria was stretched to the limit and finally in Sarajevo, prince Ferdinand the successor to the Austrian throne was assassinated. This was the spark that ignited WWI.
I remember when a few days before the outbreak of the war all the soldiers on leave were all of a sudden recalled to their garrisons. It was in the third week of July when many soldiers were on leave helping their families with the harvest. It was Sunday afternoon when the villagers were saying good bye to several soldiers leaving Bogdanówka. Among those that were leaving was Jan Nowak, Mikołaj Sztafirny, Jakub Świrski and Hersz Pinkus, none of whom returned alive from the war. These conscripted soldiers were thrown to the first lines of fire and were reportedly all killed in a battle at the River of Złota Lipa (Golden Linden River). I remember how handsome these soldiers looked, dressed in blue and red uniforms with sewn on epaulets.
Soon after these soldiers left Bogdanówka, general mobilization begun of all the reserves under the age of 42. That day there was unbelievable chaos and crying in the village. Mothers were saying farewell to their sons, wives to husbands and children to fathers. Army detachments were posted on all the train stations and bridges. Police stations were reinforced with additional men power. Michał Olender, Elijah Oleynik and my two distant uncles, Peter and Jan Smaruń were posted in the Jezierna police station. Military patrols were posted in the villages and in the surrounding areas throughout that time, even though there was no war as yet. People were walking in a daze without any purpose even though it was the middle of the harvest season and acres of ripe grain was waiting for the sickles and scythes. There was no one to mow however, because majority of the men were taken to the army.
Literally two weeks after the recall of the conscripted soldiers, first artillery shots were heard near the Russian border at Załoźcie just behind the Milno village. Russian artillery was bombarding the city of Załoźcie. By the early evening, caravans of mostly Jewish refugees, either walking or on carts, were arriving in Bogdanówka with some of their belongings. They found refuge in various houses, barns or sheds. There was confusion everywhere. Women and children were crying from hunger and exhaustion from the scorching August sun.
I was then twelve years old and I did not understand how great a tragedy war was for the poor people. I was interested in the movement of people and the army, because it was all new to me. I remember, one Sunday evening, a young Jewish woman was carrying maybe a one year-old child, a large bundle on her back and holding a three-year old girl by her hand. The little girl, tired from walking in the scorching sun, stopped on the bridge near our village. Her mother was pleading with her to keep going since it was not far to the village, but she sat down on the bridge and was crying that her legs hurt. For the first time, I realized that she must be very tired and was not crying because she was happy. I took her on my back and carried her to my house where they stayed in our barn through the night. The following day a regiment of Austrian dragoons with colorful shiny caps and golden armlets rode into the village on big horses. Behind them an artillery with heavy guns came in rumbling on the dry dirt road. They were all going east towards the Russian border. People were bringing out milk, cucumbers and whatever they had as welcome gifts to these soldiers.
One evening some Czech lancers stopped at our village. They posted guards and barricaded the road to the village with few peasant carts. I looked with great curiosity at the saddles loaded with bags, rolled blankets and coats. It was all very interesting what so suddenly was happening before my eyes. I would run after the army every day and at night I slept like a log. It was a constant change, some troops were leaving while others were arriving. All the different uniforms and hats fascinated me. Infantry soldiers wore navy blue uniforms and carried bright red backpacks, while horses were loaded with baggage’s, ammunition and heavier weapons.
One day a whole pack of young boys gathered and we decided to go to Jezierna across the meadows, just to see something more interesting there. As we were approaching the train station, we heard a plane flying over our heads and at the same time shots were fired from the train station and from the two railway bridges. The plane began a slow descent and finally landed on the Jampoler potato fields. Few lancers soon galloped there on their horses. At the train station, people were saying that a Russian aircraft was shut down. After some time the lancers dragged in the plane and brought with them three pilots who were wearing leather jackets and hats. It was a small plane with wide but narrow, double canvas wings. Nothing happened to the pilots or the plane since the bullet made a hole in the tank which leaked out the fuel and the plane landed in the potato fields. This was the first plane that I had ever seen in my life.
Maybe two days later, Russian troops counterattacked on the entire length of the border and invaded Austrian territory. Austrians, under the pressure of Russian forces, began retreating in the direction of Lwów, Przemyśl and the Carpathian Mountains, destroying railway stations, bridges and roads on their way. They burned down a beautiful railway station and destroyed an iron bridge in Jezierna. A large distillery was also burned down in Jezierna with alcohol flowing from the containers that looked like a burning river. At night the sky would be glowing from all the fires burning in many different areas.
One day on our fields known as Mogiła (Sepulcher), Austrian patrol clashed with Russian patrol where one Russian, a Donieckoy Cossack, was taken prisoner. All the people came out to see how this Muscovite looked like. He was a handsome young Cossack, wearing a dark blue trousers with red stripes, instead of a jacket he had a tight greenish shirt with pockets near the top. He was riding on a rather big black horse with his saddle loaded with stuff just like the Austrian horsemen. He was without a hat, probably he lost it.
Another day, Russians killed a young Austrian lancer in the Jackowiecki field. This lancer was the first casualty of war in our area which made us all feel very eery. He was a member of a lancer patrol that stopped in a ravine on the road from Jackowiec to Mszana for some breakfast and to feed the horses. They probably did not expect a formidable patrol of Cossacks hidden within the wheat just below the valley. The Austrians girded their horses and were eating breakfast when the Cossacks suddenly attacked. The Austrians, seeing the Cossacks, pulled the girths, quickly got onto their horses and fled in the opposite direction. One of the lancers forgot to tie the horse’s saddle belt and when the horse jumped over a high bank of the escarpment, the lancer slipped with a heavy saddle to the ground. The horse without a rider took off after the other escaping horsemen. A short fight ensued between several Cossacks and the lancer. People who witnessed this scene said that it was an extremely chilling moment. The lancer managed to lacerate several heads and legs of the Cossack horses with his saber, but eventually he was pierced with a lance. Several women were crying over the body of a young lancer who was buried in his uniform in the Jackowce cemetery. He wore a high lancer’s hat, a tight light blue blouse, red pants, and a blue cape thrown over one shoulder with a golden cord under his neck. The death of this lancer made a grave impression on all the women, but that was just the beginning and it was only a reminder of what about was to happen in the following months and years.
Finally, one day in the morning, the first patrol of Russian Cossacks wearing large sheep skin hats arrived in Bogdanówka. These big hats and long lances were a terrifying site for the women and children. About twenty Cossacks stopped next to the school and, since there was not a living soul on the road, they began to study something on the map. The kids hid behind fences and tree trunks with no one daring to show his head. The Cossacks saw old Mr.Hreczkosij and called him to come over. They were asking him something, but because he did not understand them, the officer waved his hand and rode away towards Mszana. Maybe an hour later entire regiments began rumbling over our village. Cavalry, infantry, artillery and rolling stock continued on for almost six weeks.
One day, a small squadron stopped in our village and ordered to lead them where they could get some vodka. They met Ivan Totośko on the road and they told him to ‘come on with us to get some vodka.’ Vodka in our village was sold in a store owned by a Jew called Srul Shapiro. As a greeting, one of the Cossacks hit Srul across his back with a nahaj and shouted:
“Bring me a damn vodka and make it quick!”
They drank vodka straight from the bottles and ate marinated herrings with butter and honey spread over them. Our women couldn’t understand, how could they eat herrings, butter and honey, all together. Later on, the Cossacks got a large container into which they poured beer, cracked thirty eggs, sprinkled sour cheese, pepper and filled it with some vodka. They stirred all this together and then begun eating it with wooden round spoons, which they pulled from their high boots, while sipping vodka from bottles. Totośko had to keep them company and he had to eat this incredible mixture as well, even though it couldn’t pass through his throat. After finishing this dinner some of them became completely drunk. Those went to sleep, while others began chasing after the young women. Women in fear had to hide themselves in the hemp in the near by gardens. For goodbye the same Cossack hit Srul one more time across his back with a nahaj and told him to ‘cross yourself, you son of a bitch.’ The Jew could not or did not want to, but somehow he manipulated his hand in the form of a cross.
“Do more because we cross ourselves three times.” The Cossack told Srul.
From Srul they went to Szulim Szachter and tore his Sabbath cap apart into which he had sewn some money. After all that, they packed their saddles and rode away singing.
The Russian army was moving like an avalanche through the country site until late autumn. They were saying that they will get underneath the belly of the Austrian army and destroy them. Mothers and wives were often quietly crying hearing a blind lyricist from Serwer singing a Rusyn song,
Jak forshpany wyyizdzhaly,(When everyone was leaving)
Wsi hostynci zatrishchaly, (All the roads were rumbling)
Awstriacki zownirowsky, (Only the Austrian Soldiers)
Hirko tiashko zarydaly.(Were left breathing heavily).
As a young boy I thought to myself, why these stupid women are crying when it is so good now. Every day new soldiers, new news and new entertainment. No school, ducks already grown up, my mother was playing with Anthony and for me it was paradise on earth. Russian soldiers were quite civil towards the local people and did not take anything from them, yet, so there was nothing to complain about. They would only chase some Jews as a joke to feed on clover and then to drink water from the pond, but from that nothing bad happened to anyone.
The war front didn’t stay long in our area and the farmers were able to gather everything from their fields, even all the grain sheaves for the manor were collected and piled in a high stack.
Translated by John Janiga