I Live Again by Ileana, Princess of Romania
IN THE spring of 1951 in New York City a young Romanian asked friends of mine to introduce him to me. He had, he said, a message for me, a message from Dachau. It was strange in such a setting, and at the beginning of a new life, to be reminded so suddenly and vividly of another life; it was strange to reflect that I might have received that message much earlier and more directly, for it was from a Romanian student I had known in Vienna.
In 1944, when Romania came to terms with the Allies, you can understand that Romanians caught outside their own country became suddenly enemies of the German Reich, and were hated with a bitterness which was in proportion to the fear of defeat that was slowly seeping into that Reich. In Vienna the Romanian students studying there were given a choice between disowning their country and going to prison camps. From one such camp the student I had known and this young musician I met in New York tried to escape. They were caught on the Italian frontier and sent to Dachau, and there my friend died of hunger and the ill treatment for which Dachau has become a synonym. When dying he gave his companion his last messages for his family, and he asked that if his friend should live he would deliver those messages, and also one to me. He wanted me to know, he said, that the most beautiful and precious experience in his life had been working with me in Vienna for the Romanian wounded.
The young musician in New York had been among those fortunate enough to survive until the Americans came to Dachau. He had been among those fortunate enough to find sponsorship and come to the United States. He, too, "lives again," but there are many more students huddled in the crowded camps of Europe who have no opportunity to learn the ways of freedom. I think of them often, for ever since my own girlhood I have known the young students of my country.
In Austria they were for me a link with Romania. We had an apartment in Vienna, a part of an old palace which had been converted into flats. It was a convenient place to stay when we must come in from Sonnberg, especially when the war made traveling difficult and gasoline a commodity to be used sparingly, so that we must do as many errands as possible on one trip. It had a kitchen, a living room, a bedroom, two smaller sleeping alcoves, and another large living room which we found little use for, except that it was a pleasant sitting room and looked out on the garden. Here I had sat on that February day in 1942 when the telephone rang and a friend told me about a wounded Romanian officer; and here in this large room which had known the formalities of the days of the empire I had made a meeting place for the Romanian Student Club of Vienna.
There must have been sixty or seventy young men and women in Vienna in 1942, studying medicine, music, or law, or enrolled in technical schools. They felt for our country the same concern that so oppressed me, as events forced her more deeply into the destruction brought on the world by the two totalitarian powers, Russia and Germany. They found some relief for their concern by tightening their belts as conditions grew more difficult, and by working even harder to gain the skills that they felt Romania would now need more than ever. When I found a certain relief for my own anxiety by throwing myself into the work of helping our Romanian wounded, the students were pleased to join their efforts to mine.
By Christmas of 1942 I was beginning to realize that my work for these soldiers must somehow be organized on a wider scale. Those were memorable holidays; so different from the Christmas of six years before when my mother had been with us at Sonnberg that it was like another world, another planet. In the first place, I had met earlier in the winter a young Romanian officer who had been wounded at Odessa by a bullet which had gone in one temple and out the other, destroying the sight of both eyes. It was not so much the fact that Sandu had survived such a wound which made him an object of interest and concern in the hospital where he was, but his whole character and personality. He had been a brilliant student, standing at the top of his class before he went into the army. In fact, blinded as he was, he later earned his Ph.D. in Bucarest. But besides this he was such a fine and lovable young man that when the doctors had at first some hopes of restoring his sight by transplanting a cornea in one of his eyes, his own batman begged to be allowed to donate an eye. The doctors of course refused to accept this sacrifice, and since the nerve had died no operation could be attempted, but no one forgot the nobility of such an offer or the character of the young man who had inspired it.
Since Sandu was one of the first blinded soldiers I came to know, I remember well how I felt when I met him. I made the usual remarks of greeting, but suddenly I realized that he could not see me smile nor be put at ease by observing that my manner was informal. I felt an overwhelming sense of helplessness at my inability to communicate with him, and a sudden comprehension of the strange world of darkness in which these blinded men must learn to live. It awakened me to the need of doing something for them, and I made a special effort to find out how training could be given them. It was an effort which eventually led to Romanians being sent to Austria to learn the latest methods of such training, but that was many months later. In December of 1942 I could only invite to Sonnberg for the holidays this young officer, two other blinded soldiers, and a fourth wounded man who had his sight and could help care for them.
The fourth man was, however, also considered in rather desperate straits. He was a captain who had been wounded in the throat in Russia, and been hidden from the Russian soldiers by an old Russian peasant woman—for it is an instinct with women to save life. When his Romanian comrades found him he was nearly dead, but since the bleeding from his throat had stopped they fastened him to the front of a tank and in this way transported him to the hospital train that brought him to Vienna. There at the hospital it was discovered that the bullet had pierced both the jugular vein and the aorta—the great artery in the neck; that the blood had clotted in the wound, but that the vein and artery had healed with an opening between them. Blood going to and from the heart intermingled at this point with a little gurgling sound, quite plainly audible, and his heart was overworked because of the condition. Later a surgeon was able to separate and sew up the vein and the artery, and he lived, but at this Christmastime the doctors in Vienna felt that the chances of his surviving such an operation were almost nonexistent.
These four Romanians, I felt, we could make room for in our household so that they might have Christmas with a family and children. I had earlier added to the staff at the castle a young Romanian whose uncle had been aide-de-camp to my mother. In 1941, while I was at Bran for a short visit, he had been detached from his post in Bucarest to act as my secretary and chauffeur, and he had been allowed to drive me back to Sonnberg. He had proved such a splendid companion for Stefan, then nine, that I had asked if he might stay until after my sixth child was born; and as my work for the wounded came into being and increased, his assignment with me was continued. In the end, Arnold Bittermann was with us until we finally left Romania for Switzerland, when I insisted that he must return to his profession of engineering and make a new life for himself, something he has successfully done in Holland, after getting his mother and sister safely out of Romania.
With me also was my friend, Frau Ilse Koller, who had come to me before Magi was born, and who also remained with me until shortly before I was forced finally to leave Romania. She helped both with the care of the children and with some of the details of the work with the wounded; but during that December of 1942 she herself became very ill of mastoid, so that twice the bone had to be scraped. The children's governess developed pneumonia at the same time, and Sandi had an ear infection which finally meant that she must be taken to the hospital in Vienna to have both eardrums pierced. I began to feel that the holidays were not going to be the cheerful ones I had planned, but I was desperately anxious that in spite of difficulties my arrangements for the wounded in Vienna should not be interfered with.
It was here that I called on the Romanian students for additional help, and they did not fail me. I had estimated that there would be only about two hundred Romanian wounded in Vienna over the holidays, since I knew that one large group of several hundred was to be sent home before Christmas. I felt that those who were left behind would need special cheering, so I planned to wear Romanian peasant costume and to take each man a small Christmas package. The students helped by making quantities of cozonac, a special date bread which is a part of every Romanian Christmas, and by organizing groups which went to each hospital to sing Romanian carols to the wounded there.
To our horror we discovered almost at the last moment that we had badly underestimated the number of Romanian soldiers in the hospitals, and that instead of two hundred there were more nearly five hundred. Still overwhelmed by this, and working madly to collect packages for these extras, we learned also that the ship with four hundred wounded, who were to have been sent down the Danube to Romania, had been caught by a sudden freeze and was trapped in the ice. The boat was a former excursion steamer, pleasant enough for peaceful summers on the river, but by no means designed to make a comfortable hospital ship. When I visited it I found that the men were sleeping in tiers of three bunks, an arrangement which makes it most difficult to care for them, and that the flimsy materials used to enclose what had been open decks were hardly weatherproof. In order to keep these enclosures above freezing, so much heat had to be forced through the pipes that the inner rooms were almost as hot as Turkish baths, and neither condition pleased men who were in physical pain from their wounds and in mental pain because of their disappointment at not reaching Romania in time for Christmas.
All those who were helping me redoubled their efforts. In some miraculous way we managed packages for nine hundred men, and I was able to carry out my plan of bringing a small feeling of home into the holidays by delivering them myself, in Romanian dress. This was not, however, the most sensible costume to wear in the unusual cold. Going in and out of the hospitals for several days, passing from heat to cold and cold to heat, and working long hours as I had to to make my rounds, I finally caught a lung infection myself. January of 1943 found me ill in bed, but with a certain feeling of satisfaction that I had at last begun to follow in my mother's footsteps. And with that feeling of accomplishment came an idea for the future.
In spite of the difficulties of the holidays, the soldiers who had stayed with us quite evidently had been more relaxed and happy to be out of the crowded hospital atmosphere. I knew that always there were men who must wait about in a semiconvalescent stage, either for one operation or a series of operations. They were lonely and in a foreign country; they needed to be together. Sonnberg was large, I had my nurse's training, and some of the household staff had assisted in work with the village dispensary and could help me. I was quite sure the servants would prefer a settled arrangement to the difficulties of having troops billeted unexpectedly upon us—something which had already happened thirteen times. Therefore, why not a hospital at Sonnberg for those Romanian soldiers who must wait in Austria for operations?
While I was recovering from my illness I made plans and wrote letters, and when I was allowed to go to Hof Gastein for convalescence I stopped off in Vienna to see those who could help me.—I remember also on that journey visiting the school at Salem where Stefan and Minola were students; the beautiful school on Lake Constance which the Duke of Edinburgh's sister and her husband now own. I remember feeling impatient because I could not, without feeling breathless, walk up the hill from the little station at the pace I usually did! I was anxious to be entirely strong again: there was so much to be done.—
By April, 1943, the Romanian hospital was established at Sonnberg. The five rooms that had once been set aside for my mother had been taken a year earlier by the Kunst Historische Museum—the Historical Museum of Art—of Vienna. By that time museums throughout the country were scattering their possessions in castles and estates, hoping that some would escape the heavy bombing of the cities. This particular museum specialized in period furniture, and I remember the beautiful pieces that had belonged to Maria Theresa and were sent out to Sonnberg. They included her cradle, a chair and a writing table she had used, and many other historical heirlooms of her period.
It was odd to have the Empress's furniture sent to Sonnberg for sanctuary, when it had been one of her roads—the road from Vienna to Prague—which had ruined Sonnberg nearly two hundred years before. As I told you, the little village at our castle gates was a small one, but there was a larger town, a "shopping center," about two miles away. This larger town had once been a tiny village indeed, named "Ober Hollabrun," or, the town "over the holly-bush well," and Sonnberg had been a much more important center. But Maria Theresa's new road by-passed Sonnberg and went through Ober Hollabrun, and before long Sonnberg was only a village of no importance, while its neighbor had become large and flourishing; so large that the holly bush and the well disappeared. Eventually the "Ober" was dropped from its name because when so few people remembered the bush and the well, no one remembered what the town was "over," and what was the use of such a long name anyway? Now, in 1942, some of Maria Theresa's furniture left the big road and came to Sonnberg after all, but it found no real security. For when the Russians occupied Sonnberg they smashed and burned the Queen's furniture as enthusiastically as they destroyed everything else.
But that day of destruction was still a few years in the future in April, 1943, when thirty wounded soldiers were finally settled into their beds at the castle. Much had been done to accomplish this. I had talked with the Military Attaché at the Legation in Berlin, and he had arranged the necessary approval both from Bucarest and from the German authorities. Since Vienna was more and more the center to which our wounded were sent from all fronts, a Romanian Military Bureau was arranged at the Consulate in Vienna, and put in the charge of Dr. Gligore, an excellent doctor who was in Vienna doing special work on diseases of the heart.
With the bureau to keep records and reports of the wounded, the work I had been doing was much more easily systematized. While their numbers were continually increased, the Romanians were being reached much more quickly and efficiently than they had been before. There was still, however, an immense amount of personal work to be done, and here the Romanian students continued to be my chief assistants. There were letters to be written, errands to be done, the never-ending translation of Romanian to German and German to Romanian, the blind and helpless to be read to and fed. In all these services the Student Club was amazingly tireless, patient, and efficient, and we worked together in a fellowship which brought back to me my own student days in Bucarest; a fellowship which I shall never forget.
The number of students and their willingness to help in the Vienna hospitals made it possible for me to spend much time at Sonnberg during that spring. It was a simple convalescent hospital, actually, with no elaborate equipment and with an almost nonexistent staff. There was no resident nurse or doctor at first. Instead, we had a doctor at Hollabrun who called on us at regular intervals and whom we could call in an emergency, and I myself ran the hospital with the help of an orderly. The army furnished sheets, blankets, bandages, and drugs, while I provided the building, the beds, and the equipment. All services were provided either by my own household or by the men themselves. My servants did the cleaning, and I hired extra washerwomen to do the hospital laundry, while the soldiers who were able to move about helped care for themselves and for their more helpless companions. Those who were able washed themselves and helped make the beds, while I bathed and fed those who were not able to do these things for themselves: those who had no hands, for example. Since I had learned massage from a Swedish friend before I was married, I was able to carry on treatments of this kind, as well as to change bandages and dispense drugs.
Usually my day began with the problem of food, a problem which became more serious as time went on, since wartime shortages were numerous and difficult. The wounded, of course, had their army rations, which had to be kept completely separate from our own civilian food rations, even up to the last bit of leftovers. However, since the soldiers who were able to do so were happy to make themselves part of the household, and to help with cooking and table setting, I am quite sure there was a certain amount of surreptitious sharing of the extra food! Our regular food rations were plain and uninteresting, even though fairly adequate, while the army rations included more attractive foods—even some of the frozen fruits and vegetables, which I then saw for the first time. —I remember that most of the soldiers did not care for the frozen applesauce which was once sent, and refused to eat all of it, so that I was able to give some to the children and even have a taste myself!
To make things more complicated, the families of the soldiers and interested friends of mine in Romania used to send us food parcels full of things simply not available in Austria: things like suet, ham, bacon, sugar, cheese, and the rich conserves of Romania which are like no others anywhere; conserves so delicious that a spoonful is served, with a glass of water, when in the United States you would serve ice cream or sherbet. There were also dried soups and other staples, all of which "extra" foods enabled me to supplement the rations of the wounded, and to have special dishes prepared for those who needed to be tempted to eat or who required a special diet.
It was this extra food from Romania which finally led to a "strike" of the washerwomen soon after the hospital had opened. They came to me one day to demand that they be given some of the food we were serving the wounded at the castle. I realized how hard it must be for them to see foods prepared which were not available to them, so I told them that if they would turn their ration cards over to me I would "trade" some of their staples for the special foods and see that they had full meals which would include some of the Romanian "extras." But it developed that this was not at all what they had in mind. They had no intention of giving me their ration cards; they were demanding extra food as a bonus. This was of course against the law, but they assured me that others of the "highly born" were doing it and that I would have to do it too if I wished to get help. And what would "The Party" say, I wanted to know, about their making such a threat—and to a hospital too! But they were not to be frightened by this at the moment; they were too sure I needed them. I must either promise extra food, on this "black market" basis, or they would walk out immediately, and in the middle of the washing!
I knew as well as they did how inconvenient this would be, for we had no supply of extra linen, and the laundry for the household and thirty additional men, all of which must be done by hand, was no small item. But they were wrong, and no good comes in the end if one agrees to what one knows is not right, so I remained firm, and the washerwomen did indeed walk out in the middle of the washing. There was only one thing to be done: I must show that I was independent of them. So I marshaled all my available help and we finished the laundry! The children's governess was horrified when she found herself drafted into service.
"But I have no idea how clothes are washed!" she protested plaintively.
"High time you did, then!" I told her firmly—and neglected to mention that I had no idea how they were washed, either. But, as I suspected, a little attention to how my own servants who were helping me carried out the operation was all that was necessary to show one what to do. By our united efforts the clothes were washed and dried and ironed with no casualties, and with Sandi and Niki considering it a tremendous lark.
The next day our washerwomen returned quite meekly, and I did not inquire whether this was because their consciences hurt them or because they had had time to reflect on what a possible report to the Party would do. They explained that they had come to finish the washing, and I replied calmly that the washing had been finished. There was silence while they thought this over. Then they inquired if they should come back next week as usual, and I said politely that I would be glad to have them, and that was the end of the trouble. (And I must admit that to encourage them in right doing I took the occasion of the next holidays to send extra food home with them.)
But that was the only time I had trouble in getting help for my hospital. In fact for a time it looked as if any trouble might lie in the other direction, for except for my secretary and the hospital orderly, all the household staff were women and girls. Since one of the great advantages of Sonnberg was the freedom the "walking wounded" had to move about, and since we had no "night staff," you can understand why one of the German medical staff who came to inspect the hospital was much disturbed. He gave me a serious lecture on the subject, ending with:
"And of course you must inspect all rooms at irregular intervals during the night!"
"Indeed not!" I told him. "For what would you expect me to do if I found something as it should not be? Say politely, 'Oh, I beg your pardon!' and withdraw? Or stay and try to deal with the matter? I feel I do not want to do either!"
Since the poor man could think of no other solution, he went off rather unhappily; but I tried to attack the problem in another way. We cleaned out a large room in the basement and made it into a recreation room; a pleasant lounge where properly supervised "parties" were held regularly. Since there was no need for furtive and sidelong glances when everyone knew there would be open social occasions, the atmosphere remained pleasant and wholesome; a fact which my close association with patients and staff made perfectly evident to me. In fact there were several romances such as that of my maid, who later married one of the soldiers who had lost an arm.
As the months went on we increased the variety of treatments we could offer at Sonnberg. We developed various kinds of occupational therapy: a favorite kind was the making of paper and fiber rope which could be woven into mats and sold, so that patients able to do this could earn a little money while they waited between operations. We also developed all sorts of exercises to re-educate muscles. There were many variations of simple equipment where arms and legs could work against the weight of sandbags of different sizes; there were finger and thumb rings attached to boards so that hands could be exercised; there were small "ladders" on the wall, up which partially paralyzed patients "walked" their fingers, hoping to get higher than their mark of yesterday.
For our patients were chiefly blinded soldiers, amputees, and soldiers who had been frozen. Some blinded soldiers, of course, were only waiting for the operation of transplanting a cornea, but many had been in explosions which had dreadfully injured their faces, and they were undergoing long and painful plastic operations. One soldier had thirty-six of these before he again looked human: another had had his chin blown off, and surgeons were working to rebuild one for him in successive operations. It is strange, now that I think of it, to reflect that only one of all these men ever betrayed a hating and hateful bitterness, but I feel that it was not his injuries which caused his attitude. It has been my experience that a hospital does not change one, but that instead it simply makes one more of what one is. In this case it was as the Romanian proverb says: "Isi da arama pe fatza"—He brings his brass to the surface—which is a way of saying that in times of stress gold plating wears off and the brass shows. The man was truly in a dreadful condition. His whole face had literally been blown away, so that he had no nose or cheeks. He had lost not only his sight, but also his senses of smell and taste; and the direct entrance of air into the holes between his eyes, without its being warmed and moistened through the nose passages, was both annoying and painful to him. Surgeons had begun the long process of rebuilding a face for him, and in time they produced a very normal appearance, but when he first came to Sonnberg I was grateful every time I walked with him that he could not know the full horribleness of his appearance. At first I was inclined to hope that his vicious behavior to his companions, his constant complaints, and his deliberate troublemaking were the result of his condition, but as I grew to know him better I felt that this was not so. His stories of his early life, his accounts of what he had done and thought and felt, were all colored by the same cruelty and hatred. In the end I came to feel that here was truly a poisoned soul, whose state had been accentuated, but not caused, by his misfortunes.
The soldiers who had had arms or legs amputated were in most cases waiting for stumps to heal so that they could be fitted with artificial limbs, and they too required not only occupational therapy but morale building. At times the greatest number, however, would be those who had suffered frostbite. They had lain too long untended on the battlefield, or at the improvised dressing stations back of the lines. Many, too, had come in unheated trains from the Russian front, and had been frozen on the way. There were whole hospitals in Vienna set up especially for these cases, and to enter them was to smell at once the sickening, sweetish odor of decay already familiar to me from my visits to the baths. A frozen spot on the body is like a burn: frozen flesh and bone will break as readily as do charred flesh and bone. I remember a soldier brought into one of these hospitals who was obviously in a dreadful state. Since his trousers were stiff with dried blood and dirt, the nurse and orderly began to take them off, but, to the horror of everyone around him, when the trousers came off both legs above the knee came off with them. The limbs had been completely frozen, and were so brittle that it required only a little pressure to break them away. Most cases that hopeless, of course, did not get as far as the hospitals, but many of the men had seen sights as bad or worse.
One officer had saved the lives of his men by getting from somewhere a whip and literally beating them, exhausted, sobbing, and cursing him, through the snow to a railroad. Many of his men suffered from frostbite, but they lived, and by the time they had reached the hospital they knew what gratitude they owed him. I would like to have met that officer, for when you realize he was no better off physically than his men, and yet found somewhere the strength of spirit that enabled him to save them, you know he must have been a remarkable person.
With many of the "frozen" wounded, only a part of a muscle had been destroyed, and in the leg or the arm there would remain a fragment which could be re-educated by carefully planned exercises and infinite effort and patience. We felt our greatest sense of triumph when a soldier learned to walk again, or to lift a sandbag with an arm which had been hanging helpless, or to manipulate his pencil and his knife and fork with the two or three fingers that had been saved after the others had dropped off, frozen.
During the spring and early summer of 1943, then, my time was divided between Sonnberg and Vienna, where the Romanian Student Club continued to work in the hospitals. A special group of about twenty, who had organized themselves as a chorus to sing for. the wounded, was under the direction of my friend who died in Dachau. In spite of the difficulties of travel, and a three-mile walk to and from the station, this chorus made the trip to Sonnberg several times to entertain their wounded fellow countrymen at the castle, and I learned to appreciate the courage and ability of their young leader. I have thought of him many times since I received his dying message last spring in New York City.
My "road of the wounded" took a new turning that summer of 1943, and because of this fact I was in Romania when terms were made with the Allies in 1944. Had I not been there at that time, things might have been very different for me. There was Mafalda, daughter of the King of Italy and wife of Philip of Hesse. In 1943 Italy capitulated to the Allies while the Princess was making a journey home from the funeral of her brother-in-law, King Boris of Bulgaria. Since the train went through Romania, it happened that my sister-in-law, King Michael's mother, had a brief visit with her, and so became probably the last friend to see her. For in Germany Mafalda, who had not even heard of Italy's surrender, was removed from the train as an enemy of the Reich and sent to Dachau, where she died without ever having seen her husband or her children again.
So it might well have been with me, and there would have been no need for my friend to send his message in such a roundabout manner. I would have been in Dachau to receive it.