I Live Again by Ileana, Princess of Romania
HERE IN my New England home I find that the winters are very much like those in Romania. On chilly nights I sometimes put across my bed as an extra covering something which, if I show it to you, may seem an odd sort of blanket. It is an evening wrap made by Revillon in Paris: a full-length cape of ermine bordered all around with Canadian red fox. Yet, beautiful as it is, it has never been worn as an evening wrap in its fourteen years of existence as a cloak, while it has often been used as a robe to throw over a bed.
I have this ermine cape, when so much that would be of more use to me has been lost, through those odd chances which affect one's life in war even more than they do in peace. It had been sent for summer storage in Vienna in May, 1944, just before I left Austria for what I did not know then was the last time. It was stored by a furrier whose premises did not happen to be among those sacked and looted by the Russians; and four years later he sent it to me in Switzerland, after the Russians had compelled me to leave Romania. Though, as I have said, it occurred to me both then and later that chance might have preserved many things which would be more useful than an ermine wrap, I confess that I feel a bitter-sweet happiness when it brings me warmth on a frosty night. I have so often seen it thrown over my mother's bed as, an extra covering, and I remember so well how it came to serve this purpose.
In 1936 my mother spent Christmas with us in Sonnberg, and we had our usual happy family festivities, shared with the village. Stefan was almost four and a half, and Minola three years old; both of an age to feel the happy anticipation of the holidays. Sandi, like any small girl of nineteen months, enjoyed the bright lights and gay colors in her own way. In the Catholic and Orthodox countries of Europe, Christmas is celebrated a little differently than it is in the United States. For Austrian children, St. Nicholas—the original of your Santa Claus—comes on the fifth of December, which is his day. He is usually dressed as a bishop, in the best-looking robes and miter that can be provided for him. (I remember at our last Austrian Christmas, in 1943, how I used this very ermine cloak to make our St. Nicholas more resplendent; and how I hoped the children would not notice that the saint wore very obvious soldier's boots, which showed below the fur!) St. Nicholas brings with him Knecht Ruprecht, a kind of captive bad spirit who is prepared to punish any naughty children the good saint may find. Knecht Ruprecht is usually impersonated by someone dressed in dark, furry clothes. He has a tail, and he is loaded with chains which he rattles loudly and fearsomely. Since I never wanted the children frightened, our "Knecht Ruprecht" was represented only by a rattling of chains outside the door; and he was at once dismissed by St. Nicholas because there were no naughty children present! Gifts are left later that night by the saint, after he has interviewed the children; and he leaves them either in stockings hung up or boots left standing by the hearth. On the twenty-fifth of December Christmas is observed as a solemn church festival, although a Christmas tree—supposed to have been brought by the Christ Child—is lighted in every home, and carols are sung by the family.
I do not think my pleasure in that Christmas of 1936 could have been more deeply felt had I known it was the last Christmas we would spend with my mother, and that within those holidays I must find and store up my last treasured pictures of her when she was still well and strong and gay. Those bright days were not clouded with this knowledge. Instead, my pleasure was spoiled only by my resolve to keep my mother from knowing that I was again pregnant, for I knew she would worry at the prospect of my having another baby so soon when the other three births had been such difficult ones. There were occasions when it took all my will power to conceal how very ill I felt, but I managed it somehow, and she left without knowing that in July she would have another grandchild. One of the most vivid memories I have of that holiday season is the picture of the graceful figure of my mother gliding over the ice, for she was an accomplished skater, and the moat at Sonnberg provided a wonderful skating rink. There was nothing to warn me that this was her last visit to the castle.
In the spring of 1937 she had the first indication of the illness to which her death over a year later was finally ascribed. Because of a strained family and political situation about which I will not speak at this time, I was at first not allowed to go to Bucarest to see her; but in April I was finally permitted to spend a week there. She continued to improve slowly until she could at last be moved to the castle at Sinaia; and when Dominic—Niki—was born on July 4 she was able to come briefly to the telephone so that she herself could talk with Anton about her new grandson, and about how I was feeling.
When Niki was a month old we went as usual to the Wörthersee for the summer. This time Niki occupied the albie in the plane, and we had as additional passengers a dozen chickens to ensure fresh eggs for the children. However, I remained anxious about my mother. I continued my urgent requests to be permitted to come to Romania to see her, and during the last of September we were allowed to join her at the Castle of Bran. We went with her to Balcic, where she had another hemorrhage in October, and had to be moved to Bucarest. There she seemed to be recovering gradually, and we celebrated her sixty-second birthday with her on October 29—an occasion when so many of her people expressed their joy at her recovery that she was almost overwhelmed by it. It was during those weeks that she saw a picture of the ermine cloak sketched in a Paris fashion magazine, and said sadly to me:
"How I would love to have this if I were well! But I shall never wear anything of that kind again."
I decided inwardly that she should have it; that perhaps it would supply a little impetus to her fight for health and strength if she felt I expected her to grow well again and to wear an evening wrap. I ordered it for her Christmas gift before we left Romania for Sonnberg in November, and it arrived to give her surprise and pleasure—but a pleasure marred because she was not well enough to come to us at Christmas, and I was not permitted to spend Christmas with her in Romania.
Not until February of 1938 could I see her again, when she was well enough to be taken to Meran, in the Italian Tyrol. I joined her there, and it was there I first saw the ermine cloak thrown across her bed as a robe, for there was still no possibility of her wearing it as I had hoped to see her do. Her condition was the result not only of illness but of the anxiety and strain in the family which she saw only too clearly were affecting her beloved Romania. My constant worry about her prevented my following the mounting Austrian crisis as closely as I would otherwise have done. It was therefore with deep shock that I heard over the radio on March 12 the news that Nazi troops had crossed the Austrian border, to complete the following day what Hitler hypocritically called the "Wiedereingleiderung"—the "again-interlinking"—of Austria with Germany.
My responsibility for my children at once took precedence over everything else, in my mother's mind as well as in my own; and she sent me immediately in her car to Innsbruck, where I took the first train for Vienna. As we drove through the Brenner Pass to get to Innsbruck, which is in the Austrian Tyrol, we crossed the frontier, and there I first saw the reality of what I had been hearing on the radio, for the Austrian coats of arms had been torn from the customhouse, and were thrown on the ground.
The journey across Austria, which normally would have occupied nearly the whole day, took even longer because of the "glorious liberation" Austria was suffering. At irregular intervals the train was stopped and entered by bands of hoodlums which included young men and women in their late teens and early twenties, irresponsible and reckless in the general disorganization that was taking place. They would demand that the conductor show them the passports of all the passengers, and would talk loudly of the treatment being given to anyone "disloyal" to the Nazis. I realized very quickly that the name "Habsburg" on my passport would be certain to win instant and unfavorable attention, but before I had much time to worry about what to do I received a reassuring look from the conductor. In the instinctive way one sometimes senses the presence of a friend—or of an enemy—I understood that he would help me; and I noticed during the day that when he was ostensibly showing the passports to the self-appointed "loyalty investigators" he managed to shuffle them in such a way that mine was apparently never seen. It was a kindness for which, of course, I could not thank him for fear of endangering him if I were overheard, since already I began to realize how conditions were.
If I had not realized this before, I would have done so at once at the station in Vienna, where Anton met me when the train finally arrived, for a Nazi flag was prominently displayed on our car. When I expressed my horrified unwillingness to drive with such an insignia, Anton explained grimly how it had happened. Early that morning fifty men of the SA had arrived at the castle, prepared to take over the premises in order to prevent any Habsburg from trying to interfere with the glorious entrance of Austria into the Reich. Their "moving in" had of course frightened and disorganized the servants, which in turn had upset the children; and Anton had had his hands full all day. There had been moments when their frank suspicions of all archdukes, combined with sudden absence of law and order, had made them a definite danger. When the wire came announcing the time of my arrival, they at first refused to consider allowing Anton to drive to Vienna to meet me—something which was necessary if I was to get to Sonnberg that night. Eventually, however, as he pointed out patiently and repeatedly that no one Was running away, but that instead I was returning to the Reich, as it were, they agreed to let him leave with the car. After all, they had the children and all our possessions as hostages! But—Anton explained to me—no car could move anywhere without the Nazi insignia. It therefore remained on the car as I returned to Sonnberg and our fifty unexpected house guests.
For ten days those men slept in our house and barns, followed us about suspiciously, and—which made us honestly afraid of them—showed themselves so obviously unfamiliar with the firearms they carried that they were a menace to their own safety and that of everyone around them. It soon became plain to us that they were in general the riffraff from neighboring villages, including a few from our own Sonnberg, who had never been willing to work honestly, and who had been encouraged to believe that the new regime would put them "on top" with no effort on their part. Hastily armed and irresponsible groups like this made everyone afraid to do anything which might seem "uncooperative" with our self-appointed "liberators," and life became difficult in both small and large ways.
That first evening, for example, when I telephoned my mother in Meran to tell her I had arrived safely, and that Anton and the children were all right, there was considerable confusion because the operators in Austria insisted that we both talk German instead of the English we had always used. This sudden and arbitrary order, plus the poor telephone connections, confused and worried my mother, who must have complained about it to someone. At any rate, many weeks later when she was moved to the Weisser-Hirsch Sanatorium in Dresden, Hitler's aide-de-camp was sent around with a tremendous ring of orchids and Hitler's humble apologies that a "foreign queen" should have been forced to speak German in order to telephone her daughter. But by that time the Nazis had done so many terrible things in Austria that this particular offense seemed to me an extremely minor one for which to apologize.
At Sonnberg we "entertained" our fifty SA men for ten days, after which they were sent somewhere else. During the first month of the "liberation," in addition to the constant strain and anxiety caused by our "guests" and the fear that more might come in at any time, we were subjected to three or four "hausdurchsuchungen," or house searchings, each time by a different group of men from the black-shirted Storm Troopers, or from the Gestapo. These house searchings had their own technique of accomplishment, and I gradually learned the corresponding technique of meeting them.
Room by room the SS men would search the castle, turning out drawers and closets and throwing their contents on the floor, where everything was left to be put in order later—if the household passed the inspection and the householder therefore remained in residence! Books were leafed through, papers and letters looked over, furniture was searched for secret hiding places, and the entire house was left in confusion and disorder. At Sonnberg we were told that they were looking particularly for any evidence of "monarchistic" activities on our part; or for indications of lack of confidence in the Reich, which might be shown by our sending money or property abroad or by our receiving letters from friends outside which might indicate that we had in any way plotted against or even criticized the government.
The technique of meeting the house searchings, I found, was to remain entirely calm and friendly; to assume that the SS men were doing their duty with the best and most helpful intentions possible; to rise to meet them as if they had been welcome guests; to continue one's normal activities except when asked to go from room to room with them; to make no sudden movement, even to save some precious thing from destruction; to keep one's hands quiet and relaxed; to do nothing which could be interpreted as trying to conceal or hide anything; to answer questions easily and frankly. My life of discipline once more stood me in good stead here; for after the fourth hausdurchsuchung in as many weeks, the leader of the last group of SS not only told me that we would have no more of such invasions, but he added:
"If all princesses were like you, how pleasant it would be!"— a compliment which I received with mixed emotions.
Late that spring my mother was moved to a sanatorium in Dresden, Germany; and I was able to get permission to leave Sonnberg to see her. Dresden is almost directly north of Vienna, but a large section of Czechoslovakia lies between Austria and Germany at this point, and my journey was in consequence made much longer because of the necessity of staying within the borders of the Reich. Since conditions were still unsettled in Austria, Anton and I took the children with us for the long trip; but for our second journey to Dresden, in June, we felt that it was safe, as well as much more comfortable for them, to leave them at home. On this occasion, by special permission from both countries, we were allowed to fly over Czechoslovakia, which shortened the trip for Anton and me—a detail which I mention only because the free and unrestricted travel in the United States may prevent your realizing how complicated even short journeys can be in Europe.
In Dresden I had my last glimpse of my mother when I turned to wave good-bye as we left the sanatorium, and from her bed at the window she lifted her hand to us in farewell. From Dresden, still very ill, she was taken back to Romania in early July, and from there I received my last message from her directly—a telegram telling of her arrival, and ending "God bless you all." One of my greatest griefs has been that although I was a nurse I was not permitted to be with her and to assist in caring for her. Anxious and unhappy because of this, and not reassured by messages she sent me through other people, I postponed our usual summer trip to the Wörthersee. It was on July 18, 1938, that I received a telephone call telling me my mother was dying.
Here the difficulties of the political situation in Austria, which had been a constant undercurrent of worry through all my concern for my mother, met us in full force. You can imagine receiving such a message; perhaps you have at some time received exactly that same message; but in the United States you cannot imagine being unable to respond to it—yet that was my situation. Austria had been taken over by Germany, and therefore there was no longer any such thing as Austrian citizenship. Our Austrian passports were worthless, and the new German passports had not yet been issued. Not only were we unable to leave the new "Reich" without a passport, but it would be hopeless to attempt to cross the Hungarian frontier and travel across Hungary without one. It was with the power of desperation that I started the wheels moving: it was through the kindness of many individuals who recognized my grief and desperation, and who from sheer human kindness dared to deviate a little from the official pattern, that passports for Anton and me were issued within an hour.
I still remember the last frantic mishap. The Hungarian Consulate in Vienna had been notified that we would be coming for visas on our new passports, and they were kindness itself about agreeing to wait. Inside the Consulate sat an officer ready to give us our visas—but at the door of the Consulate stood a porter who had not been notified of our arrival, and he refused to let us in.
"The Consulate is closed!" he announced firmly, and shut the door in our faces.
All the representatives of other countries were of course being besieged night and day by members of the oppressed minorities, and by those in political disfavor, for visas which would enable them to escape the Nazis; and the porter undoubtedly had orders not to admit people after hours. When he closed the door in my face, I felt for a moment that insanity of despair which is the special cross of the oppressed and the downtrodden. Then, rallying my forces, I pressed the doorbell again, keeping my finger on it until the porter in a towering rage opened the door a crack to threaten me. Throwing myself against it, I thrust my foot and my arm into the crack, and said with passionate determination, "But I shall go in!" And on this wave of determination I was. indeed inside, with neither the porter nor I knowing exactly why he had given way, and in a short time I had the Hungarian visas.
With no further news of my mother, Anton and I set out in the car for a nineteen-hour drive across Austria, Hungary, and Romania. In the very early morning we came to the Romanian frontier, and I asked the guards if they had any word from the palace, but they said no—no word. When I returned to Austria ten days later they begged my forgiveness.
"But we could not bear to be the ones to tell you of the Queen's death, Domnitza!" they said.
Yet on that first morning I think I knew in my heart what had happened, even though I refused to acknowledge it to myself until we came to the town of Cluj after sunrise and saw the flags all flying at half-mast. My mother had died at five o'clock the day before—while I was still desperately struggling for permission to come to her. And she left me, among other outward symbols of an inner love and tenderness and understanding which are rare even between mothers and daughters, the fairy castle of Bran which we had both cherished so deeply, the sapphire and diamond diadem which has enabled me to begin a new life for my children, and an ermine evening wrap which lies across my bed on frosty nights.