I Live Again by Ileana, Princess of Romania
ONCE THERE was a princess who lived in a beautiful castle. But while she was away an enemy invaded it, and her faithful servants hid some of her treasures in an old chimney which they hurriedly walled up. . . .
It is no fairy tale I tell you. Do you see the beautifully carved pieces of jade here on the mantelpiece in my New England bedroom? They came to me from my mother, and are a part of a lovely collection she had; but for three years they were walled up in an old chimney, in a room where Russian occupation troops were staying. The Castle of Sonnberg, more than four hundred years old, had of course many chimneys running through its massive walls; but when I first bought it I did not think of the unused ones as places to hide treasures. Instead, they were merely something to reckon with in our plans for renovating what was a badly run-down building.
Anton and I, like many young couples with small children, wished to find a home in the country. Our problems were the usual ones, with perhaps a few complications which one would not experience in the United States. In the first place, Anton was what is called in German "heimatlos," which means, literally, "home-landless." This made our first two children also heimatlos, or without citizenship; our next two were Austrian citizens; and our last two were born German citizens—all without our having any choice in the matter.
When Emperor Charles, of the House of Austria, abdicated in 1918, and Austria was formally declared a republic, my husband's parents were among those relatives of the Emperor who refused to recognize the new government. They and their children were therefore declared heimatlos, and compelled to leave the country. Anton's parents took their children to Spain, where they continued to live until the Spanish Revolution began, in 1931. The fact that Anton and his family were forced to leave Spain, just about the time my engagement to him was announced, changed our plans for our future life. For a short time after our marriage we lived in Munich, in Germany; but the Austrian government finally gave us permission to live in Austria. We leased a house in Mödling, near Vienna, and there our first two children were born—still, however, officially without citizenship.
When one lives in times of national crises, one's memories of political events tie in oddly with one's memories of family life. For example, the thought of the Socialist uprising in Vienna in February, 1934, is for me bound in with my deep anxiety for my little son, Stefan, who was seriously ill at that time. He was barely eighteen months old, and his baby sister was less than two months old. Anton had gone to the airdome on the other side of Vienna when I heard the guns begin—first scattered shots, then the continuous fire of machine guns, and finally artillery fire. My anxiety for my sick child, my fear for Anton's safety whether he remained at the airport or tried to make his way home, and the necessity for calming and reassuring the servants when I was far from feeling any assurance whatever myself—all this comes back to me when I think of that difficult period in Austrian history. Chancellor Dollfuss was killed in a similar uprising five months later, but in the meantime he had declared an amnesty for the royalist sympathizers. This restored Anton's citizenship, and also gave Austrian citizenship to our two older children. The next two children were born as Austrian citizens; but the seizure of Austria by Hitler in 1938 meant that our last two children were registered as German citizens, and became Austrian only after the defeat of Germany in 1945.
These later events, however, were not foreseen when in 1934 our quest for a house in the country ended at the Castle of Sonnberg. Although it was thirty miles from Vienna—farther than we had expected to go—and had lapsed into a deplorable condition after having been to some extent modernized and remodeled about twenty-five years before, we liked it so much that we decided to buy it. We began the process of putting it in order by having it cleaned; and at least twenty carloads of rubbish—papers, magazines, wrecked furniture, rags, broken glass and dishes, and plain, ordinary dirt—were hauled away!
As so often happens, everything took longer than we had expected; and since our lease expired at Mödling before the work was finished, we moved into the castle while there were still twenty-four workmen on the premises, and nothing was completely in order. Our heavy furniture was brought in vans, and our car was loaded with small oddments—including, oddest of all, a pony! When one lives in the country, of course one wants a pony for the children. Ours had come from a circus—a Czechoslovakian circus which I had often seen when it toured Romania, and which I had been delighted to see again in Vienna. When I asked the proprietor if he had any extra ponies he would like to sell, he proudly presented me with a Romanian pony, named Medias for the Romanian town where the circus was playing when the pony was born. I was of course much pleased with Medias, but I confess that he added no little to our transportation problems on moving day!
In Romania, and in fact in all countries of the Eastern Orthodox Church, no one would think of establishing a household, even for a short time, in a house which had not been blessed. The fact that others who lived there before you had the ceremony performed makes no difference. Each new start made in that house has its own service of blessing, which consists of prayers and readings from the Bible, and includes the story of the First Miracle at the wedding in Cana of Galilee. Then a container of water is blessed, and this water is sprinkled upon all the walls of the house. Asking God's blessing on every beginning is something our church considers important. Not only homes but all institutions—hospitals, schools, factories, everything—begin their activities with this service of blessing. With this same service my children and I began our new lives in our New England home, on the name day of my elder son, Stefan. One's name day, which is the day of the saint for whom one is named, is to us more important than one's actual birthday. I was therefore happy when at Sonnberg, the repairs finally finished, we were able to have our ceremony of house blessing on the twenty-first of May—my Saint's Day, which has always been especially dear to me because it is also a special festival in the Romanian Church.
Many things of course remained to be done in the castle. In parts of it central heating had been installed, but this had to be repaired. Wanting to be entirely modern, we converted the coal heater to oil; but we had scarcely time to enjoy it before the war cut off oil supplies to private citizens, and we had to reconvert the heating system to coal. In all of this, as well as in the maddening struggles to repair and to install electricity and plumbing in a castle built before either had been thought of, Anton was able to plan for and direct the workmen. An experienced pilot who not only flew but could repair his own plane, he was a trained engineer, much interested in mechanics. He was able many times to show the workmen how something they considered impossible could be done; and later, as supplies for repairs became harder to get, he kept our equipment in good running order. The responsibility for directing and maintaining even so small an estate as Sonnberg is something quite different from living on a similar scale in the United States. How can I make you feel that you have visited us in Sonnberg in the middle 1930's?
There is, first of all, the castle to show you. It and the eighteen acres of ground around it were perhaps best described by Anton's sister when she said:
"In the center there is a well; around the well stands the castle; around the castle is an island; around the island is a moat; around the moat is a park; and around the park runs a river!"
While this sounds like a child's riddle, it is actually quite an accurate description of Sonnberg. The castle had been built in the sixteenth century. Square, and without ornamentation except for its tower, it had its rooms arranged around an open courtyard with a well in the center. Originally this location had been swampland; a marshy area which a little river, dividing and then reuniting, had made an island. Some sixteenth-century knight had seen the possibility of locating a fortified dwelling here by digging a deep and wide circular moat in the center of the marsh, heaping up the dirt to create an "inner island" on which the castle was built. The swampland outside the moat was tiled and drained, so that except in very wet weather excess water was carried off into the river. We lived, then, upon a double island, and crossed two bridges when we left our castle.
The nearest town, or what you would call our "shopping center," was nearly two miles away; but the little village of Sonnberg was at our gates. There were still standing some of the very houses that had been built close to the castle for protection four hundred years before. The village included the little church and the schoolhouse, which served not only Sonnberg but also two other neighboring villages, and there was a small general store as well as a baker's shop. When one drove through the village and crossed the little river on the castle bridge, the driveway continued across a narrow section of the "outer island"—which was a parkland of woods and meadows—to the moat. Here one crossed on a longer bridge, of six arches, where the original portcullis had been located; and then the driveway led to the entrance of the castle, with the tower rising in the center of the front wall. On this "inner island," around the castle, we laid out our gardens.
Tradition says that the castle was originally three stories high, with the tower two stories above it, but that the weight of the building had gradually caused it to sink into the "made land" on which it was built. Whether that is true or not, we found it only two stories high, with the other floor hardly more than an unusually light and airy basement. The castle walls are of course of stone, four feet thick; but while the floors of the corridors around the inner courtyard and some of the other passageways were also still the original stone, parquetry had been laid over the floors of the rooms.
Houses in Austria are taxed according to the number of rooms in them, and we were taxed on thirty-five rooms. Does this seem a large number? It did enable me to set aside five rooms for my mother on one of the sides of the "hollow square" in which the castle was built; but our own household required a good bit of space. When the six children had been born, there were eight in our own family; and in addition to this number we had a staff of nine servants: cook, kitchen maid, nursemaid, three housemaids, laundress, housekeeper, and chauffeur. The gardener was also the farmer, and had his own house: but at the castle, besides our occasional guests, there were always from thirteen to seventeen people living; and when my mother visited us she brought with her a staff of five or six people, in order to relieve me of responsibility instead of adding more.
You must remember that our household was not run at all like a modern American establishment, which can have laborsaving devices and make use of convenient and economical stores and services. Our laundry, for example, was done by hand; and washing and ironing for a household of that size was enough to keep a fulltime laundress busy. Much of our food was produced on our own place, and when the war brought increasing food shortages, we added to the number of our livestock. Eventually we had about a hundred chickens, as well as ducks, pigs, seven sheep, a cow, and bees, all of which paid their way in an entirely practical manner and were not regarded as amusements or hobbies. The farmer, the housekeeper, and I sheared the sheep; and after the wool had been washed I spun it into yarn—using a distaff, since I have never learned to use a spinning wheel. This yarn was then knit into jerseys, socks, and other articles of clothing for the household. I did much of this knitting, and I also did most of the children's sewing—always by hand, since I had learned to do it that way and not with a machine. Besides the usual vegetables and fruit, we raised potatoes, wheat, and corn on our own land, some of which was leased to the farmer. There was not only the cooking to be done, but the canning, preserving, and drying which stored up our winter food.
In addition to supervising and sharing these practical and everyday duties, I found time for the gardening, painting, and sculpture which I so loved. I wanted to make the highest tower room into a chapel; and in preparation for this I designed cut-stone insets for the eight windows. For each window I used a different flower in the central panel: iris, rose, lily, delphinium, tulip, thistle, hyacinth, and water lily. I had got as far as cutting out the designs in wood with the jigsaw in Anton's workshop, and having them copied in stone by a workman I knew in Balcic, in Romania, when the war came and interrupted this project.
—I loved those eight panels! I had worked on them with devoted care, happy in the thought of the use for which they were designed; and I had felt—as one so seldom does about one's own work—that I had done them well. Sometimes I wonder if by any chance they have survived the destruction of our home. I wonder if—stacked at one side of a basement room as they were when I last saw them— they were overlooked when our lovely Renaissance furniture was broken and burned; when our glass and china were smashed on the flagstones of the courtyard; when the portrait of my mother painted by de Laszlo was ripped to pieces and burned; when all of our treasures except those few hidden by our horrified servants were either looted or wantonly destroyed by the Russian soldiers. I did not return to Austria after the war to see the empty shell that had once been our beautiful home, and perhaps this makes it easier for me to go back how in memory to 1935, and '36, and '37, when in spite of threatening war clouds life seemed peaceful.
Besides the care of our growing little family of children (for, as I have said, our six children were born during the first ten years of our marriage) and my necessary occupations for the household, and besides the luxury of working on unnecessary but fascinating projects for beautifying the castle and gardens, I found much to do in the village. My children's nurse and I started a small dispensary for infants and children, which was open one day a week. Many of the treatments begun there had to be followed up at the homes, and I made this my responsibility. When a trained nurse was required by those who were especially needy, I arranged my other work so that I could take over that duty as long as it was necessary. During the six winter months I established and managed a canteen to provide food for about thirty of the poorer school children, getting an old woman from the village to do the cooking. I happened also to discover a small and struggling troop of Girl Scouts in Vienna, and I began working with them—organizing summer camps for them in our park. We even had the joy of having English Girl Guides come to teach us the latest ways of camping, which was an adventure for both groups of girls. Throughout the year there were also the festivals to be celebrated. At Christmas of course there was always the Christmas tree party for all the village children, with gifts for the younger ones and candy for the older ones, which I prepared and wrapped.
Perhaps you can see from this that my days were pleasantly and usefully full. In the evenings I found time for my special recreation and joy, which is reading, while my husband busied himself with his short-wave radio transmitter and receiver, for he is an enthusiastic "ham." We seldom went into Vienna, since we both found our home satisfying. In the summer we took our children to a house on the Worthersee, a beautiful lake in Kernten. Across the lake there were only the Karawanken Mountains between us and the home of my sister Mignon, Queen of Yugoslavia—a journey of perhaps thirty miles as the crow flew, but much more difficult to achieve by road. With Anton's plane, of course, we were not bound to roads. Sometimes we flew to England; always we spent a few weeks of every year in Romania; but our great events were the visits of my mother, and she found it pleasant to spend a month or two with us now and then.
As I have said, one of the four sides of the castle's "hollow square" was entirely my mother's, and she arranged it according to her own taste. We adored having her with us, and since she brought her own staff her visits lightened my work a great deal—something I was especially grateful for because I did not recover quickly from the births of my children. You will remember, I confessed earlier that cooking and planning menus had never been my strong point. For this reason I appreciated my mother's bringing her cook with her; and she put me at my ease by reminding me laughingly that she, too, as a young housekeeper had urged her father to bring his cook along when he visited her. He had protested a little, saying that he had been invited to bring his gun, his horse, and even his yacht when he visited friends, but never before had he been invited to bring his cook!
My mother's presence radiated life and light. I cannot here find words to tell what she was or what she meant to me: that would in itself make a book. Everyone loved her. Everything was nicer when she was there—even the village children's faces took on a new look, for she was always interested in each one. I remember that one year for Christmas she crocheted a little cap in bright colors for each child. You can imagine with what pride these small Austrian peasants wore a headcovering made by a queen's royal hand!
But those peaceful years ended in 1938, the year when Austria was engulfed by Nazi Germany. For me the anxieties of that time were at first submerged in a more personal grief, the death of my mother. I remember so well how she had looked at the death of her own mother, and how she said to me, "It is a terrible thing to be nobody's child!" I was a little girl then, and I puzzled over what she had said. How could one be "nobody's child" at any time? But in 1938 I discovered that with Father and Mother gone, one's whole life pattern is altered. There is still life to be lived; there are still responsibilities to be carried forward; but in this world there is no longer the loyal and loving security upon which one relies, often without conscious understanding and appreciation of how much it means. In castle and in village alike—"It is a terrible thing to be nobody's child!"