Hospital of the Queen's Heart by Ileana, Princess of Romania
CHAPTER
17

My hospital was a dream that came true, and as it grew and developed far past my expectations, new ideas came to me and I began to dream other dreams—how could I do more for the people of Bran? How could I prevent wretchedness and distress before the need arose of relieving it? How could I persuade them to adopt new, better methods of living and doing their work, so as to make their lives easier and less full of drudgery and fatigue?

The Bran peasants were content with their primitive, age-old ways of living, but if, for instance, I could show them the comfort and convenience of having wells in their backyards, in contrast with the toil and hardship of going to the brook in all weathers for water and laboriously hauling it back to the house in pails, I was sure that they would adopt the easier way. They needed only to be persuaded to try it. Or better yet, I could demonstrate to them the luxury of having a pump in the yard—or even in a kitchen sink.

They could be shown how to build better stoves for warmth as well as for cooking. The fireplace and hearth in many peasants' homes, raised two or three feet off the floor, was inadequate for both. Yet that is what they have used for hundreds of years.

They could learn the use of refrigerators. The village had electricity, which was most unusual in a remote place like Bran. It is a far cry from primitive, archaic fireplaces for cooking to shiny white electric ranges, but if I had had the means to get electric stoves into the villages I am certain that a few classes of instruction in their use and comfort would have won over every woman to them.

I knew that they should be shown how better to use the food they raised. The peasants sold their eggs, butter, milk and cheese instead of first using themselves what they needed and then selling what was left. Gradually, I wanted to teach the women better cooking methods, and also greater variation and balance in the diet, which they certainly needed to learn. I dreamed of adding a small diet kitchen to the women's ward, to use as a classroom for these convalescent instruction groups.

The men needed to learn that better housing of their livestock and better care of their cattle and horses would be to their profit; it is obvious to everyone that a well-fed horse housed in a dry stable can be worked harder and longer and is more co-operative than a poorly fed, cold and wet one. Yet the Romanian peasants were extraordinarily ignorant in the care of their animals. Unsparing of themselves, casual of their own persons and needs, and strangers to comfort as we think of it, they had no comprehension at all of decent care of their livestock. They were not unkind—it was simply lack of knowledge; they did not know that such a problem existed. Also, another ever-present factor in all these reforms I dreamed of bringing about was the dead weight of inertia which I had to combat at every turn—annoying it was, and thoroughly exasperating, but never to be erased. Doubtless it was the effect of many hundreds of years of enemy occupation and persecution, an ingrained peasant sense of the uselessness of improving anything, of building with any sort of permanence for the future; for if they acquired possessions, or produced more goods than they could use or immediately dispose of, their property was always in danger of being seized by the current existing authorities, taken away from them and used for the enemy's cause. Alas! the centuries justified their inborn apathy.

In the hospital, I began simple experiments with some of my ideas. There is much time after a hospital lying-in, or for that matter during any convalescence, which can be either wasted or profitably used. Our convalescent women were not given putty to model to pass the time. Instead, we had informal classes in adult education, as I grandiloquently used to call them. For one thing, we showed the women how to bathe and dress their babies and young children properly. Romanian mothers had no idea at all about comfortable baby clothing or sufficient underwear. They dressed their children in the same way that Romanian children have been clothed for hundreds of years. They made beautiful embroidered dresses, skirts, coats and caps for their children to wear, but they knew nothing at all about providing their youngsters with warm bands and panties or soft wool shirts to wear next to their little bodies. Chills, colds and pneumonia were commonplace.

I talked to groups of bathrobed women about diet and explained to them why certain foods were necessary to their families' health and growth; I showed them how to prepare formulas for the babies who could not be nursed, in order to give them a good start in life even though deprived of nature's nourishment. I felt certain that a good elementary knowledge of this would result in lessening our large infant mortality.

I told them about the wisdom and convenience of feeding their babies at fixed hours, not just when they cried—although I discover that here in America this method is at present outmoded. However, I was glad to see their delight in the success of this system, for the overworked mothers found that they could be sure of three or four uninterrupted hours between feedings, in which to accomplish their tasks or to be away from their homes. They grasped the idea quickly that system is good in anyone's life, even their babies', and that the time to establish the habit is in infancy.

I conceived the notion of making first aid a part of the school curriculum, and I proposed to the headmaster of the school that he introduce it there. He was in complete favor of the idea, and classes promptly began. I started adult classes in first aid at the hospital also. From this, my mind moved logically to classes in simple hygiene for my convalescents. Dr. Puscariu and I conducted them, and both men and women came. They were interested; they asked questions, eagerly and intelligently. They began to think of themselves in an entirely new light—objectively, as human machines to be kept in clean, healthy running order.

I dreamed of someday having a small library tucked away somewhere in the hospital, stocked with well-illustrated, simple and readable books on many different subjects for the village people to use as well as our patients. I wanted to have books on gardening and agriculture, animal husbandry, cooking, baby and child care, stories for children and for adults. I wanted simple history books, books about other countries and other peoples. I wanted them to have some comprehension of the world and the human beings beyond our mountains and our borders; I wanted them to know how other people lived and thought. Education was both compulsory and free in Romania, and although the universities were full, many students did not go on to higher education, and the majority of those who returned to their homes became buried in a deepening, deadening rut of monotonous everyday living. Fatigue and inertia prevented them from continuing their acquired skills in reading and writing, for life was very hard, physically, for the peasants. They were neither lazy nor lacking in intelligence. The latent ability was there, but it was submerged in the never-ending struggle to just stay alive—wage earning, farming by the most primitive methods, childbearing, the drive to subsist. They were too tired to want to study or to broaden their horizons; in fact, many hardly realized that there were other horizons than their own limited ones—the village and the valley they lived in, the mountains they could raise their eyes and see, their own gardens and yards, church, neighbors, families.

I dreamed of all these ways, and others, to make easier lives possible for them, in order that they need not spend their strength and their years struggling for existence alone. I wanted them to have a simple knowledge and taste of the abundance of life as well.

I knew that it had to be done slowly, even cautiously, for the peasants are suspicious of change and resist it. In the past, elsewhere in Romania, I had observed unsuccessful attempts to better the people by unconsidered, even alien innovations and reforms forced upon them, and I knew full well that nothing "sticks" when it is forced. I knew that the changes I wanted to make would have to appear slowly and grow apace with the accustomed lives of the people, each new idea introduced gradually, almost imperceptibly, tried out and accepted by them of their own accord, because they chose. The peasants are rooted deeply into the earth from which they spring and live close to all their lives. They are slow to change; they cling tenaciously to the way of life they are familiar with; unthinkingly, with no wish to move, they abide in the pattern their forefathers knew.


Another person shared these dreams with me. Dr. X, Communist though he was, had a vision, too, of what could be done to raise the standard of Romanian village life without undue upheaval or revolutionary procedures. Although we stood, each of us, on opposite sides of a chasm which separated our faiths, yet we were able to bridge it by our common love for man. I respected and admired the excellent physician in him and so I could disregard his Communism. He respected the nurse in me and could forget that I was a princess.

After two years of working together, our parting came in a way I least expected, and it gave me something I have never forgotten, a poignant, painful insight into the tragedy of an idealist who became a Communist in pursuit of his beloved concepts, and finally realized that the god he served was evil.

I was often in Bucharest in those days, trying to collect medicine, supplies and food for the hospital. I begrudged these excursions away from the hospital because I felt that I was sorely needed there in the wards and the operating room. There was always some patient or other whom I did not want to leave, not knowing exactly what I might find on my return, and feeling anxiously, perhaps groundlessly, that my presence and care were needed there to nurture the wavering flame of life.

But it became constantly more difficult to obtain supplies, and danger increased correspondingly. I felt less and less inclined to trust others with delicate missions, for their sake as well as my own. A false move, an unwise implication or an indiscreet word could cost the freedom of a friend, the cutting off of supplies, even the confiscation of the hospital.

More and more of my friends were being swallowed up by concentration camps and prisons. Appeals to me for help in rescuing them became even more frequent, and my successes in getting their releases rarer. I embarrassed my acquaintances among the Communist government officials when I faced them so often with my pleadings. Increasingly they turned a deaf ear to me or were not to be found when I called.

So, in the fall of 1947, when I was told at the Ministry that Dr. X was seriously ill and could not see me, I felt sure that he, too, had received .orders to disregard me. This is the way of Communism and it is part of their strength. Friendship, the knowledge that a non-Communist is useful or of value to the community counts for nothing when an order comes from headquarters that the person is "out." "Out" he is, personal sentiment or wise discrimination notwithstanding. Orders are promptly executed like the smooth meshing of the parts of a merciless, impersonal machine.

But I was wrong about Dr. X. He was indeed seriously ill. The same day I asked to see him and was turned away at the Ministry, his wife telephoned me at my home. She had learned of my inquiry for her husband, and she called to tell me how desperately ill he was. He had cerebral edema. His physician had forbidden all visitors, but he permitted me to see him.

"He would like so much to have you come," she told me over the wire. "In his worst times I can distract him by talking of you. He loves to look at pictures of you as a little girl. We hope you will come, Domnitza Ileana."

"Of course I shall," I replied warmly, touched by what she said. "I will come immediately."

I ordered my car and drove to the Ministry where the X's had an apartment, upstairs over the public rooms and the offices.

Mrs. X had been a hospital maid. She was Hungarian, a thin, sallow woman with the eyes of a fanatic, pale gray and without lashes. She had untidy, straggling mousy hair that somehow annoyed me. I had met her once before, when she and her husband came to dinner at my house in Bucharest, and I found it difficult to get on with her. She had little to say, and she was stiff and ill at ease. Although for many years I had gone through a painful and sometimes bitter school of learning how to put people at their ease, I felt an unaccustomed, unhappy awkwardness and self-consciousness, perhaps her inner tension and discomfort communicating itself to me. It had been rather a dreadful evening.

But today, when she opened the door at my ring, and I saw her drawn, tired face, my pity was stirred. I felt suddenly that this woman must indeed love her huge, pudgy, unattractive husband to be so disturbed and full of grief. The barriers of rank and faction fell between us; we were just two anxious women, confronted with the deadly illness of a man, and there are no politics in that situation.

The X's quarters were unexpectedly small and uncomfortable. There were two small, disproportionate rooms, high and narrow, badly lighted. The walls were puce-colored, hueless and ugly with age, and the limp draperies at the tall windows I gathered had once been purple. The scanty furniture was cheaply modern and wholly without taste.

She ushered me through the sitting room and into their equally drab bedroom. Dr. X lay upon an oddly conceived, built-in bed of black wood, a sad brown blanket over him. He had an icebag on his head, and his face was unnaturally red and puffed. The room was without comfort; it was cheerless in the half-light and, to my professional eye, hopelessly inadequate for the care of this seriously sick man.

Dr. X opened his eyes and smiled in feeble welcome. I sat down beside him and took his hand. Mrs. X sat nervously on the edge of a chair opposite and told me about his illness. Her voice was thin and high-pitched with tiredness; she continually rubbed her dry fingers together. They rasped annoyingly. Her whole being bespoke tension and exhaustion. She needed rest badly.

"Why don't you go and lie down for an hour?" I suggested impulsively. "Let me take over. Tell me what your husband needs—I will gladly take care of him."

I hardly thought that she would consent, and she did in fact hesitate a moment as a matter of course. Then she agreed gratefully and smiled for the first time since I came. She went into the sitting room and lay down on the couch there, falling asleep almost instantly. I covered her with an afghan which I found folded over the back of a chair, drew the curtains and left her.

There was little that my unexpected patient needed except the icebag. I went to the windowless little kitchen and refilled it; I brought it back and settled it for him, then sat down beside him again. He wanted to talk. He asked about the hospital; I gave him its recent news, and we discussed plans for it and for the village, as we had often done before in other surroundings—in his office downstairs.

Gradually he began to talk about himself, and there slowly came clearly to me a glimpse of the bitter torment in the man. It was so virulent, he was so overwrought as he spoke, that the truth suddenly dawned on me: here was the real cause of his illness—for I seemed to recognize by instinct what I have since come to know as psychosomatic sickness. Before me lay a crushingly disappointed man whose whole ideal for many years had finally collapsed, shocking him into bitter reality.

To him, Communism had not been a revolt, nor a means to an end; neither was it an ambition, but a creed to which he had given all his allegiance and his energies. Little by little, at first unacknowledged even to himself, he had seen it fail on every hand, its iniquity causing human suffering and misery that appalled him, prostituting everything it touched and appropriated, even his beloved medical science which I know he loved more than anything in his life. (Dr. X was the only physician in the Party in Romania. Communism is not a system or a philosophy which appeals to doctors; there are remarkably few physicians anywhere who embrace it.)

As he talked, I looked into the darkness of a disenchanted soul, into an abyss which claimed him because he had made it himself and from which he could not escape. Unknowingly, he had served a false god and now that it had failed him, he felt that there was nothing left for him but to die.

I did not learn all this in one visit. Dr. X revealed himself to me in the course of several visits, in his grief, his short broken sentences, half-expressed statements, in what he left unfinished or unsaid. The impression was complete and undeniable; details were not necessary.

Mrs. X came back to us refreshed after her nap, and I left, promising to return the following day. I visited them every day for the week I was in Bucharest, each time relieving Mrs. X so that she could rest for a while, each day becoming better friends with them both. And daily seeing more clearly and more painfully into Dr. X's anguish and his struggle against facing reality, for it meant turning his back upon wasted years of life and effort and starting again to build another life, to form another conception of the ideal and another allegiance, but this time with the hazard of personal physical danger. Then I had to return to Bran and to my responsibilities there. I parted from the X's with a heavy heart. On my last visit we clung to each other regretfully and a little sadly, for we had become oddly fond of each other—the two Communists and the princess who, under their diametrically opposed politics and the veneer which their respective environments had applied, were simply human beings and alike. We knew we would never meet again. We knew that Fate was catching up with us in long strides. For some months I had been aware that the end of the struggle was near—that things couldn't go on as they were indefinitely. I hoped against hope for my country's survival and freedom, but in my tired, low-spirited moments I found I was full of apprehension. My friendship with the X's had to end, for I think we all knew that it never could survive the victory of either side.

Much later, when I read Whittaker Chambers's book Witness, I better understood Dr. X's tragic disillusionment. Having known Dr. X's ordeal, I could easily comprehend and believe Chambers's sincerity, and I deeply admired his honesty and his courage to recant.

Communism is not a movement of the masses, as is so often imagined. It is the faith of intellectuals who have lost their spiritual footing or have never had any. Communism may be preached in the name of the poor and the oppressed with all sincerity by the Communist idealist, and the masses can be enticed into its service by the promise of improved conditions and illusory advantages, but it is not a creed that has real appeal to the uneducated. Communism is a theory, and only the intellectual can find comfort and stability in a theorem; an equation means nothing to simple people. Their acceptance of a thing must come from the heart, not from the brain; from their feelings or emotions, not from their intellect. However idealistic a cloak Communism may wrap about itself, it is uncompromisingly based upon the premise that there is no God, and that denial alone shears it of all truth and possible good. Let those who seek virtue in the Communist concept keep this in mind: that a philosophy which reduces everything to a rational explanation of matter, overlooking the fact that matter does not produce life, is essentially false. It is a falseness which simple souls, uncomplicated by the clutter of indiscriminate "culture," are quick to detect and reject, because it does not satisfy them.

Intellectuals themselves, who have succumbed to the new philosophy, frequently awaken to an inner conviction of its falsity, but few have had the courage and the integrity to face the fact that they have been duped, that their intellectual skating has led them into a false and risky Utopia. Their pride forbids them to admit that they are human and have made a mistake. Few have the courage and the simple goodness to make an aboutface, to take up the cross of their mistake as did Kravchenko, the author of I Chose Freedom, and Whittaker Chambers, and others like these two, who believed in Communism sincerely and who turned from it with equal sincerity.

It is because Communism is so fundamentally unsound according to the unchanging, unchangeable laws of life that it is doomed to failure. It must destroy itself. Its momentary ascendancy is an illusion of validity, as Dr. X realized too late, but it is a potent illusion, and the longer we cling to it with our eyes closed and our ears open to its disseminations, ignoring its threat to the human race, the longer humanity will have to suffer from it and the deeper it will entrench itself in our times. We can be safe only when we are against it without qualification—even those who are dissatisfied with the world as it is and hope to find a panacea for its ills in Communism; even those who do not believe in God. For we are either for Communism or against it—there is no middle path.