I Live Again by Ileana, Princess of Romania
SNOW FELL relentlessly and slowly out of a leaden sky. I watched from the low window of our Vienna apartment and saw with anxiety and a certain exasperation how the drifts piled ever higher in our sodden little garden. It was February 24, 1942, and I was making my first visit to Vienna after the birth of my sixth child, little Elisabeth, now over five weeks old and snugly asleep in her cot. She and I had made our first journey as separate entities, though we were still bound together by the flow of life my breasts held for her. I had intended to stay in town only a day or two for medical checkups and the necessary errands for the family, but twice our attempts to reach Sonnberg had been prevented by high winds, storm, and snow. Once we had managed to get some distance out of Vienna before the impassable roads forced us to go back, with the waste of gasoline lying heavily on my conscience.
I was anxious to return to the other children, and I felt both a physical and a mental depression. The journey had shown me that I had by no means recovered my normal strength, but this was not all. After the sober months at Sonnberg, where I had been preoccupied with the effort to produce food and to keep up the morale of our household and of the village while I awaited my child's birth, I found that Vienna jarred strangely on my nerves. Friends had taken me to the opening of a fashion collection, and I had been astonished not only at the amount and variety of beautiful materials, but at the conversations around me. It seemed to me incredible that people could spend thought and money on such nonessentials in wartime. I felt indignant at their agitation because of the restrictions on beauty parlors and other luxuries. Oddly enough, my indignation was increased rather than lessened when I succumbed and ordered things for myself! I felt ashamed that I, who knew better, should forget even for a moment the sacrifices being made at the front.
At Sonnberg war seemed very close to us always. When I heard that the son of one of our neighbors had been killed in battle I had written in my journal:
In the quiet countryside, where everyone was a friend or an acquaintance, there were few battles which did not wear the face of someone known to us. In the country, too, the lives of all women were changed more completely and obviously than was usually the case in the cities. The restrictions in fuel for both house and car meant immediate and radical changes in living where other transportation was not available. The rationing of food and clothes meant that farm produce must be more strictly accounted for; that certain crops must be increased and certain alterations be made in the number and kind of livestock one owned. The mobilizing of all men, until only the very old or crippled remained, meant that farm tasks must be taken over by women. All these things made life strange and difficult for us who were suddenly saddled with the entire responsibility of the estate as well as of the household. Anxiety, privation, and difficulties of all kinds at first made a nightmare of the decisions between unknowns which were constantly being forced upon us.
Responsibilities pressed upon one so constantly that there was hardly time for the normal activities of living. I remember how in October, 1939, there had come finally an afternoon when I admitted to myself that the birth of my fifth child was near. Yet I denied the feeling as long as possible so that I might put all in order. I went about the estate, checking to see that everything was well organized for the time I must remain in bed. I drove my car into the garage, which was some distance from the house, and emptied it of water because the nights were getting cold and I must not risk damage to the engine. I went to the kitchen to see that all was well there, and made a tour of inspection throughout the house before turning my attention to my increasing pains, and calling the doctor to come.—For in wartime, as in peace, I wished my children to be born at home. It is something about which I feel strongly, for birth is a family event. I loved that hour when it was possible to call the other children in to see the newest member of the household.—
This first of my two children born in wartime was also a daughter, Maria Magdalena, whom we called Magi. Her christening service had to be postponed because her father, like so many other fathers, was at the front and did not even hear news of her birth immediately. Anton had been conscripted in the fall of 1938 at the time of the Sudeten crisis, and had been stationed for three weeks at the frontier, which was only about an hour's drive from Sonnberg. I remember going to see him once, and having someone point out to me how the little houses of the frontier guards had been put on wheels so that they could be moved with ease as the frontier was changed from one place to another—something which seemed to me to show how artificial are many of the boundaries between men and countries. It is not those which can be so easily moved which need concern us unduly, but it is our failure to discern the basic and eternal boundaries before we have crossed them which leads to many of our difficulties.
The Sudeten crisis temporarily over, Anton had been dismissed and had come home in time to help me deal with the billeting of a medical detachment in Sonnberg—the first of thirteen such billetings upon us, lasting from three days to six weeks. This first time a part of the command, including about ten officers, was assigned to the castle itself; and another readjustment of the household had to be made. In such a case one was required to furnish linen and blankets, rooms, beds and other necessary furniture, and also to arrange that the kitchen and living quarters of the house be shared. A few of these close contacts with the army made us realize that universal conscription was very near, and Anton decided to volunteer so that he might choose his service—that of the air. After completing his infantry training, which was required of every soldier, he was assigned to the air forces, first as Kurierstaffel, or flying courier, and later as flying instructor. While I knew intellectually that in war each post is a part of the whole, I confess that it was emotionally a certain consolation to me in those dark days to feel that Anton never actually carried arms or was obliged to kill, for I was torn between my conflicting loyalties at this time, as I shall explain later.
Driven by a feeling that I wanted to be of service, as soon as I had stopped nursing Magi I entered a systematic course of Red Cross training to supplement and complete the courses I had previously taken in England and in Romania. I did not join the German Red Cross because to do so involved swearing fidelity to Hitler, and this I could not do. Therefore I never received a certificate for this nursing course, but the training added a great deal to what I had already learned from both theory and practice. Except for this training course, my life became an irregular one of wartime responsibility and anxiety, with the family calendar keyed to Anton's furloughs. When he had leave which was too short to allow him to come home, I made long journeys across country to be with him. I remember especially one time when I made a fifteen-hour train trip to Berlin to meet Anton, who had a twelve-hour leave there. An infection which I had been fighting was aggravated by the long, cold trip, and Anton had hardly gone back to the front before I became so ill that I went to the Romanian Legation, where I was put to bed with a high fever. I was in such pain that when there was a bombing raid during the night I refused to let them try to move me to the shelters in the basement. It was not until morning that I learned how one of our Romanian couriers, in from Bucarest, had refused to allow his princess to remain alone during the raid, and had sat outside my door all during the night. After I had recovered I was informed by the Romanian Minister of our loss of Transylvania to Hungary and of Bessarabia to Russia, then an ally of Germany. It was also his painful duty to inform me of the abdication of my brother, Carol II, and of the distress and confusion in my country—matters of which I will say a little more in a later chapter.
Some incidents of those years, however, were less serious; and we seized on these with exaggerated gratitude because they allowed us to pretend for a moment to forget the horrors of war. I remember a brief vacation at the Wörthersee in 1940, during Magi's first summer, when we floated her in an old airplane tire, which was just the right size for her, while the other children swam about in delight at her being able to be with them in the water. It was this same summer, when Anton joined us during a longer furlough than usual, that I drove a car which had the Romanian registration of 6 B, with the "6" made in a rather square shape. The first thing we knew the police were investigating us! A citizen of the town had gone to them in great excitement to report that a German officer had been associating with a woman who was obviously an English spy, since she drove a car which was plainly marked "G B" for Great Britain! When the police assured him that he was mistaken, confronted him with us, and reproached him for jumping at such a farfetched conclusion, he was quite unrepentant, and said with righteous indignation:
"Even with all the wartime restrictions, one ought still to have at least the right to denounce!"
t was in March, 1941, that I had my nearest approach to any contact with Hitler, and that was an extremely remote one. I had gone to Vienna from Sonnberg on business, and unfortunately chose quite by accident the day when Hitler had come to sign the Tripartite Pact. The streets were crowded with people hoping to see him pass, and I was forced to park my car many blocks from where I needed to go, and to walk a long distance to transact my business. My life was a strenuous one, and I never seemed to have strength enough to get through my days. Somehow this walk was in the nature of a last straw, and in addition to my general dislike for Hitler's policies I felt an absurd but overwhelming resentment of the fact that his presence in Vienna was making life even more difficult than usual. I took great care—and a certain pleasure—in making sure that I did not go near any place where I might catch even a glimpse of him or his car!
Of such great and small incidents were the years after my mother's death made up—of such incidents, all occurring against the almost monotonous background of daily living under increasing difficulties and growing sorrow. With five small children, I was not spared the ordinary diseases of childhood, which had to be tended without neglecting my other duties, and with less help than in normal times because of the increasing demands of war. Some of these illnesses were more serious than others. Alexandra, who was six in 1941, had a severe infection in both ears, and it was finally decided to send her to Sinaia in Romania for a few months, where my own childhood nurse could care for her. After the usual delays of red tape, her passport and visas finally arrived, but this was not until her new sister Elisabeth was nearly two weeks old.
It was partly to telephone Sandi from the Consulate in Vienna that I had come to town that February in 1942; but when I had heard from her that she was happy and contented, and from my nurse that Sandi was already gaining in strength and weight, I felt the impatience about which I have spoken. I felt alien to those acquaintances in Vienna who were trying to ignore the war, and my sympathy with those friends who had lost dear ones only made me more conscious of the fact that I was doing nothing constructive in the city. Indeed, as I looked out on the falling snow which was keeping me separated from my other children, I felt with growing frustration that I was really doing little that was constructive at Sonnberg. There we had gradually achieved a certain system under which I was no longer needed personally as much as I had been at the beginning of the war. Surely, I felt, there must be something more I could do which would satisfy my longing to be of real use. Small Elisabeth, whom we had already begun to call "Herzi"—Little Heart—slept placidly on in the gathering twilight. And just then, as if in answer to this deep wish of mine, the telephone rang.
On the wire was an acquaintance who had been visiting one of the soldiers' hospitals in the city. She thought I might be interested to know that quite by chance she had heard of a wounded Romanian officer among the patients. I took down the address of. the hospital and made a quick mental calculation. Did my gasoline permit my taking the car or must I go by streetcar? I decided to risk the automobile, since it would be so much quicker, and without difficulty I located the small and unimposing hospital, established in an old school building. I inquired at the desk for a Romanian officer. Yes, there were even two Romanian officers, I was assured— but this was not a visiting hour! I exerted myself to waken the sympathy of the officer in charge for these men who were wounded and in a strange country, and presently I was taken to them. They were not too seriously hurt, but they were unhappy because they had no clothes or personal possessions, no way of writing to their families, and no idea of how long they would be kept in this particular hospital. They had been sent to Vienna with thirty wounded soldiers, but assignments to different hospitals had separated them from their men, and they could find no one who would help them get in touch with one another.
They were delighted to meet "a Romanian lady" who could speak to them in their own language, and they told me their troubles promptly and in detail, but obviously with little hope that I—whom they considered simply another fellow citizen somehow stranded in Vienna—would be able to do much about it. I wanted them to feel reassured about this, but I felt a little hesitant about just how to introduce myself without making them feel shy. Finally I decided to leave them the Romanian paper I had got at the Consulate that day, and had had no chance to read. Its address included my full title, so I asked them if they would like to have some news from home, and left the paper on one of the beds when I turned to go. I was hardly outside the door before I was called back; and after quick apologies for their failure to recognize and address me as "Altetza Regala"—Your Royal Highness—they helped me to make more specific plans for finding the other thirty Romanians. Learning who I was not only made them feel I might be able really to do something about their troubles, but also—I was happy to notice—made them feel with relief that they had found someone from whom they had a right to expect help. It was moments like this that made me glad I was a princess!
I do not remember exactly how many offices and hospitals I visited before finding those thirty soldiers, but eventually I located not only these men but other groups of Romanian wounded —some who were in serious condition. The roads to Sonnberg continued impassable for nearly a week, but in that week I found and entered upon another road, which led into one of the richest periods of my life. When I now look back upon that snowy February day, I realize what a long, long way I have come and how much I have learned. I know now that love and pity, implemented with the will to serve, can transcend all things and work incredible miracles; that one can overcome shyness, fatigue, fear, and even what seems uncontrollable physical repulsion, by a simple overwhelming longing to serve and be of use. I have learned that there is an entrance to most men's hearts, be they foes or friends, regardless of political opinion or national convictions. Before death and pain men are equal, and most men realize this and are ready to help one another. I have learned that where there is faith in the Lord, His work can be done.
The road along which I learned these lessons, and which led me into more deeply moving personal contacts than any I had had before, seemed a short and simple bypath as I took my first steps upon it. In the beginning it was easy to find out and satisfy the needs of our Romanian wounded. Most important at first, I found, was to talk with their doctors and nurses; to translate the soldiers' requests and questions, and the answers which were made in a language unknown to them; to give them a feeling of security by showing them there was someone who cared what became of them in a strange land. I thought much of my mother during those days, and of what she had done for our soldiers during World War I; of the endless hours she spent in the hospitals in Jassy, going fearlessly not only among those who were wounded, but among those dying of typhus. I felt I knew what she would want me to do, now that she must work through the hands of others. I knew a call had come that I must obey; that I must find a balance between its demands and those of my family life; and in large measure I succeeded.
Still nursing little Elisabeth, I made frequent visits and increasingly longer stays in Vienna, taking her with me. More and more Romanian wounded arrived in Vienna, and besides visiting the old hospitals I spent long hours locating and visiting those which were rapidly being improvised in all parts of the city. The work became too much for me alone, and since the officials at the Vienna Consulate began to feel I was making too many demands on them, I went to the Romanian Legation in Berlin. While at first they were inclined to feel that this was not so important an affair as the political crises with which they were dealing, eventually—like the tiresome widow in the New Testament—I was heard because of my importunity. Despite the interruption of an operation which I myself had to undergo that summer, the machinery for helping our wounded was set up so that we could not only take care of finding and sending home the less seriously hurt, but could assemble in one hospital most of those who must stay for longer treatments, such as plastic surgery.
Put together in a few short paragraphs, this work which I felt had been given into my charge sounds impersonal and even undemanding. What do you think of when you read these pages? Of my visiting the wards as a dignified and royal Lady Bountiful, distributing small gifts? In a wartime economy the smallest gift of extra food, of tobacco, of clothing, of money for stamps and personal needs, represented thought and effort, and was obtained only by constant appeals to friends both in Austria and in Romania. I became a beggar of the first rank, regardless of royal dignity! Do you picture me sitting calmly, presiding over the files of records, so that friends might find one another and news from the home villages might be properly distributed? When the wounded arriving from many points are men of many nationalities and languages, records have a way of being lost; and it is only by constant inquiry and careful piecing together of information that any sort of system and order can be attained. The Viennese could be pardoned for feeling that their own nationals should be given first preference, and it required tact and patience to win assistance for my Romanians—who were, after all, only "foreigners" in Austria. In the end, dozens of people were helping with the work, but their efforts had to be coordinated in order to be of real value; and there was little "calm presiding" done by anyone! Do you think of me sitting graciously beside the bed of a wounded soldier—his wounds of course located in some part of his anatomy where they are out of sight and can give no offense to anyone—and writing at his dictation a tender letter to his mother or his sweetheart? The number of such pleasant bedsides is small compared to wounds which cannot be hidden; and most of these dictated letters one writes with anguish, knowing the anguish they will carry to a loving heart. And there are other letters which must be written; letters which can no longer be dictated by the soldier at whose bedside one has sat.
Actually there was no formal and regular pattern to the work I did during every bit of the time I could spare from Sonnberg. Often one thing led to another, so that from one simple errand connected with one particular soldier I would be led to another task, and another, and another. I found myself doing things I would not have believed I could bear to do, and accepting calmly sights and sounds more horrible than I had ever imagined could exist. I began to realize that my childhood in Jassy had a purpose in my life; that those heartbreaking experiences had prepared me for what I must now do.
I remember one young Romanian student, dying of tuberculosis which he had developed at the front. He asked so little for himself, he was so patient and uncomplaining, and he faced death with such courage that he gave help and inspiration to me whenever I visited him. We had talked much of our beautiful Romania, where flowers which must be cultivated in other countries grow wild and cover the fields with carpets of brilliant color. He died on a cold and dreary day, and I felt suddenly that I must try to find at least a few blossoms which could be buried with him as a symbol of the beauty we both loved. When I returned to his ward with them, his body had already been taken to the hospital morgue. Could I take the flowers there? I wanted to know. But certainly!—that is, if I was sure I would not be afraid to do it?
I saw no reason to feel afraid. I had seen death: I had covered the still face and made the sign of the cross while I prayed as our Orthodox Church taught us—a prayer which in English is like this:
Without conscious thought I pictured vaguely some secluded room in the hospital where the sheeted bodies would lie waiting for the further preparations; for the uniform to be put on for the last time; for the hands to be crossed on the breast. And with this expectation furnishing a background for my conscious thoughts, of the letter I must write to my soldier's family I walked through the halls of the hospital and into the morgue.
Time suddenly stopped for me as I stood there, inexpressibly horrified by the stiff and naked bodies piled on tables and shelves with a neatness and order which somehow only made the sight more shocking. And on a table in the center of the room two men were matter-of-factly wrapping another naked body in brown paper, as if it were an unusually large and unwieldy parcel to be tied up. There were other such parcels as well, already wrapped and tied. Uniforms? I suddenly remembered a skiing party many years before. We were a lighthearted group, but most of the young men had served in World War I. When one of them tripped and fell in the snow his friends called to one another laughingly:
"Well, if he's seriously hurt, don't forget to take off his boots!"
Afterwards I asked one of them about it, and he explained—with evident care for my feelings—that if a soldier was killed on the battlefield his companions took his boots, because they were always so badly needed by someone else. At the time I had not thought much about it, except to be consciously grateful for what I then felt sure was lasting peace. Now it came back—their jesting acceptance of a fact which suddenly had meaning for me. This was wartime. Living soldiers shivered with cold, and there was not enough cloth and leather to keep them warm, nor men to make clothing and boots, nor transportation to carry supplies to the front. What soldier, done at last with the vulnerable flesh, would ask that, it be covered with anything that might still be of use to his friends? And so I went into the room to wait until it was time for me to put my flowers into the quiet hands before they were covered with the stiff brown paper.
Later there was the service; a mass service for the rows of bodies now hidden in coffins covered with the flags of many countries; and even there I found that my knowledge of what was inside the coffins was not a disturbing one. A soldier could accept it. Could I do less?
Perhaps this experience helped me later, when I had to learn to make a supreme effort to realize that the body is only an outward clothing of the soul; that it is not the man himself. I had been asked to look up a soldier who had been a friend of my family for many years, and I had found him. There he lay, who had been strong and cheerful and handsome. He was a skeleton with one leg, and from the stump of the other leg came a nauseating smell of rotting flesh. Because of unhealed wounds and bedsores he could have no clothing on him. Only his eyes in any way resembled the man he had been, and when those eyes recognized me his tears flowed. Filled with compassion and horror I talked with his doctors, who told me it might be possible to save him if a place could be made for him in "the baths."
That was the first time I had heard of the baths, and I immediately used every effort to find out where they were, and then to see that he was moved there as soon as possible. They were not a cheerful sight, those baths! In a cellar whose very air was filled with the stench of decay, soldiers suffering from gangrenous infections in their worst form were placed in cots under moving water. It was a place of living death; and while incredible cures took place, so that one marveled at the recuperative powers of nature, many men died—and not quickly.
I visited our friend there as often as possible, and he proved to be one of those whose wounds finally healed, so that in two months' time he could be moved to another hospital and eventually sent home. It had of course been impossible for me to talk only with him when I came, or to give to him alone the occasional precious cigarettes I could obtain. Few visitors ever came to the baths, and the soldiers there craved this contact with the outside world almost unbearably. I had known this without really thinking about it, but it was impressed upon me when my friend was moved to another hospital. I had not been sure just what day he would leave, and since I was on another errand in that part of the city I stopped in at the baths to find out if he was still there. He had gone, and his place was already filled by another soldier in even worse condition than his had been, but the man in the next bath spoke to me.
"Ah, Your Highness, we were all hoping that you would not hear your friend had been moved until you had come once more!" he said. "Without your visits we shall have nothing to look forward to. I had hoped that I might die before they ended!"
And so it was that I added the baths to my regular calling list, and spent much time there. The man who had spoken to me was a paraplegic; one who had been wounded in the lung and spine, so that he was almost wholly paralyzed. An illegitimate child whose mother had abandoned him, he had been adopted out of pity by an old marketwoman. He had been drafted, wounded, and now lay dying; for the baths failed to help him, and pieces of flesh now and then fell from his legs as they slowly rotted away. For nine more long months he lived; and the last three days of his life I stayed beside him constantly, awaiting his wakening "in a place of light, in a place of greenness, in a place of rest . . ."
Do you find it difficult to imagine scenes like this? So I also would have found it had I not experienced them in two world wars. There were many times when I felt I could not endure it. There were times when my body rebelled against what it must see and do, and I would return to my children for a time and refresh myself in caring for them and living in their world; or I would make a trip to Romania to transact necessary business there, and to beg for more parcels for the wounded. Then I could return to the hospitals—not only to give but to receive.
For the road of the wounded which I took that snowy day in Vienna brought me many gifts in return for that which I gave of myself. There were soldiers who were deaf and blind to everything but the pain or the horror of their condition. For them I could do little except to make some of the time pass more comfortably. But there were many more who stood on the threshold of an open door which was still closed to me, and who gave to me something of the vision they were granted of a new heaven and a new earth. With such men it was easier to ignore those dreadful things which the body can endure before it is laid aside, for they were more consciously aware than most of us of the fact that the body has no lasting connection with the real and eternal self. They knew that in the last analysis it is unimportant—as unimportant as the stiff brown paper one might use to wrap that body once it is finally useless and discarded.