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Horses, cows, and Typhus: Quaker work in Poland after World War I

Photo: / AFSC

In 1919, the new Polish government asked members of the Religious Society of Friends to help stop an outbreak of typhus. The epidemic was caused by refugees who brought it with them when they returned to claim their farmland after World War I. During the war, many farmers and villagers had hastily evacuated the countryside when Germans advanced into the area, devastating large parts and turning them into battlefields. The people who owned the land had fled to the east to parts of Russia. When post-war famine struck those places, many decided to return and claim their battle-scarred farmland.

Stopping the spread of typhus

The flood of returning refugees continued for a number of years, bringing a steady flow of typhus. Quakers in London were aware of the need for trained personnel to deal with communicable diseases in Poland because of information received from British government missions. In 1919, a delegation of three British and U.S. Quakers visited Poland to determine what Quakers could do to help with this emergency. The Polish Ministry of Health declared, "The help of the Society of Friends in the campaign against typhus will be very gladly accepted…." A Quaker unit was sent from London to work in the ministry's campaign to try to stop the epidemic.

Friends worked in teams, meeting refugees at rail heads and disinfecting them. Quaker workers also visited homes, pressing the importance of cleaning walls, furniture, clothes, and anything else that might harbor lice, which carried the dreaded disease. This helped somewhat, but the numbers of returning people were overwhelming, and many moved into Poland carrying the disease with them and spreading it more widely.

Improving nutrition and farm production

Cow from S.S. "William Riddle" being milked dockside at Gdansk, with children waiting for milkAs the typhus epidemic was brought under some control, other problems came to light, such as the many malnourished children who were subject to tuberculosis. To address this, a scheme was devised to provide them with more milk. Cottonseed meal was imported and distributed to dairy farms, where it was fed to herds of cows-also malnourished-doubling production. In payment, the dairy farms were required to send the additional milk to urban centers, where it was distributed to needy children.

Another difficulty facing those returning to reclaim their farms was that their houses and farm buildings had been destroyed. People established temporary homes in dugouts, some of which had been built by armies during the war. The land itself needed to be prepared for planting, but barbed wire covered some areas, making it difficult to work the soil. Birch and other trees had grown over the ground while it was used for battlefields and not under the plow. It would take backbreaking work to clear the fields and prepare them for seeding.

Quakers supplied tractors and other farm implements, but horses were needed, as well. Through the Polish Army, the Quakers obtained 1,100 horses, which at first were distributed to farmers. Then a more efficient, practical way was found to deal with the situation. A master plan was created, managed by a "horse controller," who sent teams of horses to plow the fields consecutively, rather than giving the horses to individual farmers for personal use. Seeds and tools were also supplied to the farmers.

Caring for orphans

The new Polish nation faced the question of how to provide homes for an estimated 300,000 orphans. The government gave an estate, named Kolpin, to Quakers to provide a home for a small group of children. Older boys and girls were invited to Kolpin to learn farm techniques to prepare them for agricultural work. In addition, people from the surrounding area were invited to lectures and could take agricultural courses at Kolpin.

Gratitude for generous service

In these and other ways, Quakers reached out to the people of Poland in a troubled time. Although it is difficult to gauge the effect in concrete terms, the following story reveals a wordless depth of gratitude for these and other efforts.

A young British woman, Gertrude Powicke, was sent to Poland from France, where she had been working with a Quaker unit. After selfless efforts in a Polish community, she became ill from typhus and died. The local priest was upset that church doctrine forbade burying such a loving, faithful woman in the church cemetery, since she was not Roman Catholic. There seemed no solution, other than breaking church law, so her grave was dug on land adjoining the cemetery on the other side of the fence, and there she was buried.

On the morning following her funeral, Friends and community members discovered that the fence had been moved to include her grave within the cemetery's consecrated ground.

—Written by Jack Sutters, former AFSC archivist