Helena Jabłońska didn’t really have an extraordinary life. She lived in a city called Przemyśl (pronounced Prishemysil) in Galicia, an eastern province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire located in modern day Poland. In 1914 she was a 51 year-old widow who made her living by renting out rooms in her family’s spacious home to officers of the Austro-Hungarian military. To say her life was happy would probably be going too far—she was alone, and lived in Przemyśl largely to be near to the grave of her husband—but she was comfortable.
This was, of course, before the Great War broke out. In September 1914 a massive Russian Army invaded Galicia, and set a siege on Przemyśl. In October the siege was temporarily lifted by a joint counter-attack by German and Austro-Hungarian forces, and the civilians were ordered to flee. Thousands did, but Helena was not among them. She hesitated because she didn’t know where she would go, and agonized over leaving her husband’s grave behind. As the Austro-Hungarians retreated and the Russian Army neared the town for a second time, she wrote in her diary:
“I hear a year-long siege is expected. I went to the cemetery to pour out my grief and ask for advice. No, I cannot leave my loved ones at a time like this, my heart would break. After all, if things go badly for us and the fortress is taken, I might never see this grave again. I promised Jacek that we would be together. I once swore to him ‘til death and after death’. (1)
To keep her promise, Helena stayed, and in so doing doomed herself to nearly six months of privation and uncertainty. Before the siege was set, it was estimated that the city had enough food stores to last three years. This proved to be wishful thinking; starvation became widespread within months. To make matters worse, the winter of 1914/1915 was one of the coldest on record. An Austrian doctor was appalled by the suffering he witnessed during the siege. He wrote:
“A terrifying number of people are suffering from malnutrition; the starving arrive in their dozens, frozen soldiers are brought in from the outposts, all of them like walking corpses. They lie silently on their cold hospital beds, make no complaints and drink muddy water they call tea. The next day they are carried away to the morgue.” (2)
Meanwhile, Helena battled the depression brought on by her desperate circumstances and the small atrocities that are all too common in wartime. On the 15th of March 1915 she wrote:
“The Russians have burned nearly all the surrounding villages. In one village the inhabitants locked themselves into their huts to keep out the Russians. The Russians boarded up the doors from the outside and set fire to the huts. There is no longer any doubt we will have to surrender. Betrayal and hunger have exhausted us.” (3)
Two days later:
“In my darker moments I am just a short step away from ending all this, so that I can finally have some peace. But I can’t, I can’t because I have to take care of this house … The Russians are giving civilians the freedom to leave, but only on foot, of course. Whoever wants to stay will be allowed to stay. I, of course, have to ‘want to stay’ because I have nowhere else to go.” (4)
On March 22nd 1915, surrender became inevitable. As if it were not bad enough to be starving and surrounded, the citizens of Przemyśl were subjected to looting at the hands of their own soldiers who wanted ensure that nothing of value was handed over to the Russians. One morning, soldiers kicked open Helena’s door and destroyed or stole all of her belongings including her “last mouthful of food.” In an already starving city, this must have doomed many to death.
The next day, after nearly six months of siege, Przemyśl formally surrendered. It must have been surreal for those that witnessed it. Helena wrote:
“At around 2 a.m. they began blowing up the works. Along with the throbbing and screaming of artillery this was so horrible that we were all rigid with fear. The police were sent all over town to warn people that both ammunition dumps, three bridges, and the locomotive works were to be blown up at 5 a.m. We went outside. There were crowds of panic-stricken people with trunks, bundles and children hurrying down the street, their eyes wide with fear, while we stood waiting, shivering with cold.
“The first ammunition dump exploded with a terrifying boom, the ground shook and the glass fell out of the windows. Clouds of ash cascaded from the chimneys and stoves, and chunks of plaster fell from the walls and ceilings. There was soon a second boom. As the day dawned the town looked like a glowing, smoking crater with pink flames glowing from below and morning mist floating above—an amazing, and menacing sight. These hours were perhaps the only hours like this in the whole history of the world. Countless people died of nervous convulsions last night, without any physical injuries or illnesses. By the time the sun climbed into the sky everything was still. Soldiers knelt on their balconies, praying. When the smoke from all the explosions melted away, people slowly went back to their apartments.
“There is a corpse in our house, on the floor above the Litwinskis’. The man seems to have died of fear. I have to do something about him, but nobody wants to get involved, they are all leaving it to me. I persuaded one of the workmen to go down to the army hospital to ask what to do, but they sent him packing and redirected him to divisional headquarters. Over there he was told they would deal with it tomorrow, they’ve got too many corpses today as it is, littering the streets awaiting collection.” (5)
On paper the Russian conquest looked impressive. On the day they entered the city, they captured 9 Austrian Generals, 93 senior staff officers, 2,500 officers and 117,000 enlisted men of the Austro-Hungarian Army (6). In reality, the Russians occupied a corpse-strewn shell, full of the starving and the desperate of which was Helena Jabłońska was just one. So ended the longest siege of the Great War.
It is commonly accepted that the Great War saw roughly 10 million soldiers killed on all sides. However, it is less well known that a similar number of civilians—approximately 7 million—were also killed through direct military action, or through starvation and disease caused by the conditions of the war.
Civilians are sometimes relegated to the status of furniture in history. As “by-standers”, they are by definition non-actors in the march of world events—they are passively present and often ignored. But all too often the true status of by-stander is denied to them. The story of Helena Jabłońska is just one example in a long litany of tragic examples where civilians shared an equal portion of the misery of war. In Przemyśl, soldier and civilian alike died and lay in the cold city streets like so much broken historical furniture.
1. Helena Jabłońska, “Dziennik z oblężonego Przemyśla: 1914-1915,” in Intimate Voices From the First World War, ed. Svetlana Palmer and Sarah Wallis (New York: Harper Collins, 2003), 72-73.
2. Josef Tomann, “The diary of Josef Tomann,” in Intimate Voices From the First World War, ed. Svetlana Palmer and Sarah Wallis (New York: Harper Collins, 2003), 80.
3. Jabłońska, “Przemyśla: 1914-1915,” 81.
4. Jabłońska, “Przemyśla: 1914-1915,” 81.
5. Jabłońska, “Przemyśla: 1914-1915,” 83-84.
6. Svetlana Palmer and Sarah Wallis, Intimate Voices From the First World War (New York: Harper Collins, 2003), 84.
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