In the beginning of April in 1916, German lancers rode away and in their place Austrian Sixth Infantry Regiment settled in. It was mainly made up of Slovaks.
After the Germans left, a complete ruin remained. They took all the furniture from the manor, broke windows and left a total disaster. Their horses made holes in the stables and devoured wooden troughs while the rest of the army burned fences and railings. Slovaks also did not disappoint. They were stealing chickens, pulling out the last potatoes from the burrows and taking whatever they could.
That spring very little grain was planted, simply because there was not enough seed to sow. The fields were trampled by the soldiers and the artillery carts and looked more like hard roads than farmlands. When the time came to plow these fields it was like plowing over rocks. I plowed our fields together with my cousin Maria Jaremko, but neither she nor I had the strength nor the skill to do this type of work. Thanks only to Paweł Medynski, our old neighbor and a good friend of my father. He would come and help out, give us advice and repair our harrows and plow. My mother would often cry, seeing how the plow’s handles were higher than me and would thrash me to the right or to the left.
Soon after a warm and beautiful summer begun with the conditions greatly favoring the war efforts. The artillery was bombarding every day and night somewhere in the distance and large number of planes flew across the bright blue sky. Airplanes by 1916 were so far advanced that they were already dropping bombs and firing from the machine guns.
July finally came and with it greatly awaited harvest season. Our supplies for making bread were by now completely exhausted and we badly needed some wheat and potatoes. Old Mr. Medynski prepared my scythe and began teaching me how to mow. It was a very tedious process because I did not as yet had the strength to use the scythe. My sister Catherine and my mother took sickles to the fields and I, kind of a pretend reaper, carried a scythe. My God, how this job looked like only the good Lord and my mother knew. We struggled something awful, and there was nothing to show for.
The harvest season was almost coming to an end when the powerful war front armada begun playing the baritones. The Russian army launched a strong offensive, headed by general Brusilov. For an entire week there were deafening explosions and an unusual movement of troops. A field hospital was set up in our school where wounded soldiers were brought in every day. After a few days of this powerful offensive, Russians broke through the Austro-German defenses and approached our village for the second time. Three days later, Russians crossed the River Seret and broke the Austrian front lines throughout a considerable distance. They stopped for a short time in the trenches which we dug last autumn. The Austrian army set up a long-range artillery division behind the cemetery in Białkowce and were firing with such a force that our windows shuddered. The third line of trenches that stretched beyond Bogdanówka through the Mogila, Odgaju and Odbiałkowce fields suddenly became strategically important. Austrian officers were studying maps and riding horses through the fields. We all knew that the village was in a very dangerous situation. People were in a panic and did not know what to do. Some started digging shelters.
At night the artillery was firing so hard that no one even thought about sleeping. Under cover of this artillery fire the Austrian infantry regiments retreated with the machine guns and ammunition to the new lines of defense. They marched in compact units through most of the night. By early morning the artillery firing completely subsided and within a few minutes they drove through our village with the only noise of the cannons’ wheels rumbling on the dry road.
Morning became warm but cloudy. Behind the artillery, a few small infantry battalions and lancer squadrons were carrying machine guns on the horseback. It was probably the rearguard which protected the retreating artillery. The bridge over our Wosuszka River was mined by a small detachment of sappers, who were stationed in the barn of Anna Pająk. A guard sat quietly under this bridge, probably waiting for an order to blow it up. A cavalry squadron drove across the Sykora fields, then stopped on the bridge and an officer started saying something to the sapper who was guarding the bridge. It was very quiet, but it was the calm before the storm. The same officer stopped his cavalry squadron around the school and was telling the women there, that there was no longer any Austrian soldiers between the village and the approaching Russian army. There were only a few sappers who were about to blow up the bridge and leave. He advised everyone to leave the village because the Russians were getting closer and the fighting was imminent.
Austrian army dug themselves in the trenches on the Mogiła just outside our village.
As the lancers were galloping away towards Mszana, a strong detonation broke the silence. The bridge blew up and like a box of matches scattered all around.
The women and children started crying and lamenting, not knowing what to do?
“Load the carts and move out.” Old Medynski shouted.
We were just about finished with loading the cart when suddenly a grenade exploded in front of Michał Boyko house. Glass from the shattered windows showered all over and a nearby ash tree shed all of its leaves. Within a moment, a second grenade ripped apart a gate in Nowak place with boards flying over the rooftops. Projectiles begun whistling over our heads and exploding everywhere. We were already too late to leave and had to seek safety in a ditch where we dug a large shelter. Everyone was hiding wherever they could. In this chaos I forgot about the horses, which were in the yard harnessed to the cart. I took off and quickly removed a harness and let the horses go into the orchard. There were two white mares, one was ours and the other belonged to my aunt, Jaremko. When I was taking the harness off, three grenades hit the church and the red brick dust showered all over our buildings. Grenades were exploding on the meadows and the fields, but especially in the Sykora park where large spruce trees were flying in the air like blades of cannabis. It didn’t take long and the entire Warsaw Street was on fire. Smoke now covered most of the village where many children and women were crying, and the cattle bellowed. This lasted until seven o’clock in the evening when the shooting suddenly stopped and a patrol of Hungarian soldiers rode into the village. They told us that the ceasefire was intentional, to give an opportunity for the civilian people to leave the village.
We decided to drive away as soon as possible, but where are the horses? It is really strange that animals have their own instinct and also get scared. The horses did not stay in the orchard, where there was much grass to feed on, but went to the barn and huddled together in a corner. I quickly harnessed the horses to the cart and we drove towards Mszana. Because the buildings on the Warsaw Street were on fire, we had to go through Mr. Olender’s yard and onto the old road.
About twenty carts drove away from the village at that time. The old road towards Mogiła however, was barricaded with barbed wire and planks. A young officer seeing us, ordered the soldiers to move aside the barricade and we went through. In Mszana, there were hundreds of soldiers and many more civilian refugees. Some people drove further west where they boarded army trains which took them to the Czech Moravian Ostrava or to Hungary. My mother, like most of our neighbours, decided to stay no matter what happens. It was a good decision. The front did not stop at this point because the Russian army deployed a flanking maneuver, attacking from Manojów towards Zborów and threatened the current front line from the back. Our situation which few hours ago was so dangerous, suddenly changed for the better.
The artillery and machine gun fire lasted throughout the night, but at dawn the Austrians left their positions and retreated some 15 kilometers, beyond Zborów and Złota Góra (Golden Mountain) to Kudobince and Kabarowce. This is where the front stopped and remained there for the entire year. That morning we saw the same Russian uniforms again which we have seen a year ago and when we thought, they would never return.
We decided to return home. On the way back, we passed through an onslaught of Russian infantry, cavalry and heavy artillery with rolling stock.
When we got home everything was in ruins. Our yard was full of Cossack horses tied to the trees. The horses had devoured all the bark and the trees looked white like the naked human knees. All the windows were broken in our house, while inside, the Cossacks were cooking chickens and geese taken from us and other people. A sack of flour, which we didn’t manage to take with us, some drab scattered it all throughout the kitchen floor. A beautiful, large wall clock, brought by my father before the war from Kraków, was lying broken on the ground trampled by the Cossacks.
Hundreds of books from the Village Social School Library were thrown into a large manure pit and trampled with horses.
It was then that our precious family documents were destroyed in a fire. My mother wept like a child seeing everything in ruin. The Cossacks must have felt sorry for the crying matron, because they took the cooked chicken and one by one left the house. Besides, it was hot as hell in the kitchen from all the cooking.
A large supply trailer was standing in front of our house along with a field kitchen cooking dinner for the army. The chief cook, seeing a weeping woman asked my mother,
“Woman, why you are crying?”
“Can’t you see why? You smashed the windows, took everything and spilled all of my flour. I have five children and with what can I feed them now?” complained my mother.
“Yes, I do see it, but what can you do with such a horde of soldiers in such time as today? There was no one here to protect your home. We will be leaving in about four hours however, and when most of the squadron leaves, I will give you some food for you and your children. Tell your boy to come here when most of the soldiers leave.”
He was truly a good man.
Few hours later an officer rode on a horseback and asked the cook,
“Are you ready to depart?”
“Not yet, sir!”
“We are leaving and when you finish packing, make sure you follow the road towards Mszana and Wolosowka.”
“As you order, sir.”
Cossacks rode off except for the cooks, the coachmen and a provisions trailer. The chief cook climbed into the wagon, pulled a 50-pound bag of millet groats and said to me,
“Take this bag to your home and come back quickly.”
He also gave us two sacks of flour, a bucket full of sugar, some preserves, butter and a few loaves of bread. My mother thanked him for his good heart and generosity. He just smiled and said,
“Don’t mention it, just enjoy our Russian goods. Tsar Nikolai has everything and can spare some for you as well.”
‘Doswitania’ and they left.
It was Sunday. My mother started cooking dinner, happy that she had somethings to do it with, while Catherine and I begun cleaning the house and unloading our cart.
Our entire wealth back then consisted of one horse, one cow, and a sow which in a few days was to have piglets. When we were leaving to Mszana, we had to leave the sow behind because there was no place on the cart and she was too heavy to walk. What we found out, this pig was pretty smart and further reinforced the fact that animals have some sort of instinct and wits. Cossacks that night took whatever they could, killing poultry and pigs, broke apiaries and took all the honey. Our old sow dragged herself into the stables and hid behind the door in the straw. Although she must have been very hungry, and the door was open, she did not come out as if sensing what awaited her. It was strange that none of the Cossacks saw her in the stable. It was only when she heard my mother’s voice near the barn, she came out grunting. Cossacks just looked at each other and one of them said,
“Where the hell was this pig hiding?”
From that Sunday on our lives went through yet another change. Soldiers were constantly around here like swarms of hornets. Bogdanówka and the surrounding area became one large army headquarters of the reserves of the second line. As long as it was warm, the soldiers slept in the attics, barns, sheds and tents. When heavy snowfalls arrived in winter, they started moving in, fifteen or twenty per house, not counting the civilian families already living there. I must admit however, the Russian army was very well cared for. The soldiers were well dressed for the cold winter weather, and as far as food, not only that they lived well, but probably fed the civilian population in a large percentage around them. When they took some chickens, pigs or something else, I cannot say that it was due to lack of food, but to the fact that soldiers had their antics and sometimes were doing what they shouldn’t do.
Several sappers, who were constructing railway tracks from Jezierna station through our OdBiałkowce fields towards Olejów, were stationed for some time in our barn. Later on, the ‘Third Telegraph’ detachment stayed there as well. They were laying telegraph lines from the Sykora’s manor headquarters to various commands at the front line. A very handsome eighteen year old was among these soldiers. His name was Zelizniak. He must have come from a very rich family, as could be seen from the frequent and extensive packages he received from his family. He also received numerous photographs and letters. He was very intelligent and treated all the civilians with respect. He stayed with us for very short time however, and left to attend an officer’s school.
I must add that the 140 Zarajski Infantry Regiment stayed here as well, but very briefly.
Just before Christmas, the 319 Medical Transport unit arrived and set their wagons up in the fields and on our street. They stayed here throughout the winter. About one hundred medical wagons were spread out on the Pająk and Dubinsky fields. Head doctor (known as wracz) lived with the Nowak’s but his medical office was located in Michał Olender’s house. He was a baron with a rank of colonel, and probably from a German family as his name was Brumer. Brumer was a good doctor and a decent man. In addition to his military hospital duties, he treated many civilian people. This was a blessing, because there were no civilian doctors anywhere in our area. I should add that in the Russian tsarist army there were many Germans in high positions, which in itself contributed much to the fall of the tsarist rule. Tsarina being of German origin, as the Duchess and cousin to William II, treated and cared for her countrymen very well.
At that time fifteen soldiers lived in our house, seven stayed together with us, and eight Tatars in a separate room. Russians would drink tee and play black jack in the evenings, and argued whenever someone lost. Tatars cooked horse meat because they did not eat any other meat, and after dinner would always sing their prayer songs. One day, all the Tatars were moved to Boyko’s house and in their place officer’s kitchen was made for the Baron and two younger doctors. They had a professional cook, a very cheerful man, who’s name was Wanka.
Among the seven soldiers staying with us, only two could write and read. Bohdasar was one of those soldiers who liked to write letters to his young wife, but could not put a single word on paper. He often asked one of his colleagues who was a passionate gambler and rarely had the time to write for him. One evening, Bohdasar received a letter from home and asked his colleague to read it, but he was playing cards and only barked at him,
“Go away and don’t bother me, I will read it later. The devil will not take it away.”
Bohdasar was very eager to hear what was in the letter, but to his friend cards were more important.
“I can read the letter, Bohdasar,” I said.
“You know how to read Russian?”
“Very good, read, and later on you can write a reply for me.”
After some time, Bohdasar again received a letter in which his wife thanked him for the message, and also a ‘thank you’ to the one who writes. In a second letter, I added that the writer is a fourteen year old Polish boy. Over time, I wrote a series of letters for Bohdasar. One evening he said to his colleague,
“You can go to hell, I have my own secretary.”
Bohdasar went home on a fourteen day leave in March and when he returned he brought a large watermelon for me. This was the first time I had a melon. He also brought some sweets from his wife with a note, ‘Present for the writer, Yasha.’ That’s how she called me in Russian.
Every time I wrote a letter for him, he would give me some sugar which my mother needed. At the beginning of April in 1917, part of the army Bohdasar was with moved to Jezierna. In their place, two paramedics, Matvei and Towstachadko, came to live with us. It was much better now, since we had more space in our house. Matvei was a quiet man, but Towstachadko was an elegant varmint, spending nights with his mistress, Matrona. Matrona was a pretty girl, but what was her real name, I do not know. I only know that she was the daughter of a widow, whom everyone called ‘babina’ Matrona.
Speaking of women during the war in Bogdanówka, as anywhere in the world, so it was in our country. There were some girls and married women who liked to sweeten soldier’s sad life.
From this sweetening, a small platoon of Russians, Hungarians, Czechs or others was born and lived, with the exception of two twins of our neighbor Barbara Filozof who starved them to death. I remember when some people would sarcastically remark that Barbara starved her Muscovites so that they would remain here for longer. That such things were happening during the war, was not something new or surprising. Given the nature of men and the large number of them suddenly found among women who were lonely for a long time, it can be forgiven that blood and nature could weave mischief. There is no lack of frivolous women anywhere in the world, and there was no lack of them in Bogdanówka. In some homes dancing and singing to the accordion music carried on throughout the night. No wonder that after such parties there had to remain a living memorial. There were many women and young girls who indulged in such pleasures, but not all were fortunate. One indulged in sex and nothing happened to her, while another, did it once and was caught on a lure. The women who had illegitimate children were mostly ignored and not looked upon with respect for a few years. Looking at it with humility, it was not fair when a woman was thrashed about as an outcast of society. Why some people were bothered so much with the fact that a single woman had a child? If the child was cared for and brought up healthy, than these women should have been treated on an equal footing with other mothers. For her act, she had a penance by upbringing her child.
One day, a young pregnant girl came from Volhynia to see a soldier who was stationed in Bogdanówka and lived in our house. Two days later, she went to our stable and gave birth to a child. It was sad, when a young girl was giving birth in some stable without a mother or a midwife. My mother saw what was happening and gave her first aid, bathed the child and then nursed the girl until she completely healed. She feared however, that this girl may leave the child and run away. What then could she do with the child? There were no hospitals or orphanages for such children during the war in our area. This girl, however, was on the level and my mother’s fear was unnecessary. She took care of her child, as befits a mother, and after a month the soldier took them both up to her hometown.
Translated by John Janiga