I Live Again by Ileana, Princess of Romania
BESIDES THE message from Dachau, my former life spoke to me again on one evening in the spring of 1951 when I went with friends to a showing of some adventure films. For among these films was one taken of the bombing of the oil fields at Ploesti in Romania, on August 1, 1943. There on the screen was the long, straight road between the dusty fields full of oil wells and storage tanks; the road from Ploesti to Campina. Since it was a road I considered monotonous and uninteresting to drive, I used to hurry over it, keeping my mind on something else to make the time seem to pass more quickly. Yet when I last drove over that road, one night in 1948, it lay in darkness and I strained my eyes to catch a glimpse of the landscape, while I wished that time might slow and stop altogether, for I was leaving Romania forever. It was, therefore, a shock that evening three years later to see the familiar ribbon of road unroll before me on a moving-picture screen in Massachusetts, and to realize that those pictures had been taken in 1943, from the planes I did not recognize as American bombers.
I had taken the children to Romania for the summer, and while I was there I had a number of consultations with the military and Red Cross authorities in Bucarest. It had become evident to me that the work for the Romanian wounded must be extended, since not all of them were being sent to Vienna where our organization could reach them. On the first of August I had promised to open a training school for girls in Ploesti, with Madame Antonescu, and I drove out early from Bucarest to spend the morning with a friend who had just had a new baby. While we were talking, planes flew over the house, and I looked out to see what kind they were. Their insignia was a star, but—I said to my friend with relief—it is not a Russian star! And we went on talking about the baby. Then there were explosions. They must be doing practise runs, I said to her: but the noise continued. When it was time for me to leave for the school exercises she protested a little, but my secretary and I assured her that since the noise had stopped the practise must be over, and we drove across town to the school. Secretly both he and I had each begun to feel a little suspicious about this "practise," especially after we passed a wrecked plane, still burning. At several points a policeman stepped from the side of the road as if to stop us, but hesitated and stepped back when he saw the royal insignia on the car. It was not until we reached the school, however, that we confirmed our suspicions. There had been an American bombing raid on Ploesti: the war had for a moment been extended to the gates of Bucarest.
The school program went forward, although Madame Antonescu did not arrive because the officials in Bucarest had been warned of the raid. In the joy of finding among the school staff several young women who had been my Girl Scouts a dozen years before, I did not think too much about the raid until later, but when I did I realized that new dangers threatened my country. Could I be satisfied to remain in Austria if Romania needed me?
I went finally to talk with Prince Stirbey, an old and trusted friend of my family, who both before and during World War I had occupied the highest post at the court of my parents, a post to which he had been appointed by King Carol I. The high regard felt for him in Romania was again proved in 1944, when he was recalled from his retirement to try to help with the difficult problems I have mentioned in an earlier chapter. When I went to him for advice in 1943, he kindly and wisely, but very frankly, discussed the Romanian political situation and world conditions with me, until I could understand something of the tragic situation in which my country found herself. I put my problem before him. It had become increasingly difficult for me to live in Austria. My work with my own wounded countrymen had in many ways shielded me from direct contact with political events, but the increasing pressure of Nazi indoctrination was beginning to affect even Austria. It had been, I felt, my duty as the wife of an Austrian citizen to avoid any expression of an opinion which might make things difficult for him. Brought up as I had been, I could not avoid strong personal objections to the totalitarianism of the Nazi political philosophy, and to the methods used by the Party, but I expressed these only to Anton, and only in private. Up to this time, also, little was known—at least in Austria—about the atrocities that were later published to the world, and therefore my objections were to abstract ideas rather than to concrete examples, since few of these were known to me.
—I had been secretly highly amused at the necessity of proving, before Anton could get his officer's commission, that for four generations (I believe it was) our parents and grandparents had been christened in Christian churches. It seemed particularly funny to write to England for proof that my great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, had been so christened, and I was quite sure that the official who solemnly replied shared my amusement. I also had been interested to find that I was descended from a much wider assortment of people than I had realized; the Emperor of Brazil, for example, and a niece of Napoleon's first wife, Josephine. It was some time, busy as I was with war work and with my own children, before I realized the full implications of such policies.—
After the first few months of the German occupation there was no violence visible to the general public. News of political imprisonment or of concentration camps was, as you can understand, not published in the daily press. You in the United States can have no conception of how entirely the totalitarian governments control publications and communications.—For example, now in Romania no private citizen may purchase pencil, paper, or ink without a petition to the Communist government, and the possession of a typewriter requires a permit such as the United States demands for the possession of firearms.—Since the people in Austria were for a long time not aware of how complete this control of the press had become, for those who knew it had no way of telling it, it is literally true that a full knowledge of what had gone on during those years was later an appalling surprise to many people whom you might expect to know about it. (Even in the United States, we must remember, I have now and then heard intelligent citizens express an equally complete and sincere surprise when some investigation has exposed certain undesirable conditions in this country.)
Yet, as I explained to Prince Stirbey, I was beginning to know too much about affairs in Austria and Germany to remain detached from them. The position that had at first protected me from knowledge was now bringing me inside information. The Nazi philosophy was not one I wished my children to learn to accept. What should I do? He looked at me seriously as he answered:
"But you must decide what you feel yourself to be. Are you Austrian, German, or Romanian?"
There could be only one answer to this, and I made it from my very heart of hearts.
"I am a Romanian," I said.
His reply was sternly challenging. "Then stand by your choice! Be a Romanian!"
His words continued to echo in my ears as I went on with the responsibilities I had undertaken. Perhaps because of them I made a last minute change in my plans for the children. The sixteen-hour train trip the two older children must make when they went to and from their school at Salem, and which now Alexandra, too, would have to share, had become steadily more of a worry to me because of the increasing bombing of the railroad lines. I decided to leave the three older children in Romania, where they could attend the Saxon schools and perfect their knowledge of Romanian gradually; but I took the three younger children back to Sonnberg with me in September, 1943.
I went back, however, with a plan to make the work with the Romanian wounded more widespread and efficient, and because of my talk with Prince Stirbey I also had a half-formulated determination to arrange it so that it would not depend on me personally. I took with me a letter which charged me with the care of all Romanian wounded within the Reich, Czechoslovakia, and Poland. All consulates were to give assistance as I required it. It was to be my duty to search out the wounded, and to decide, after learning their condition, which ones should remain in Austria or Germany for treatment and which should be sent to Romania.
The letter was signed by the Romanian Chief of Staff, General Steflea, a man who was more fortunate than many of his comrades. His fate in 1946 was to be the happy one of falling dead of a heart attack as he bent over his newly born first grandchild, before the Russians got around to punishing him. For the Russians took a very broad view of war responsibility, once they occupied Romania. Anyone who had in any way contributed to the war effort, they said, was a war criminal and deserved any penalty they liked to assign: imprisonment, forced labor, or death. Therefore, they had their choice not only of military but of civilian victims, for the road mender and the girl who sewed buttons on uniforms, the farmer who sold food which might find its way to a soldier's stomach, and the engineer whose plans made a factory more productive—all were contributors to the war effort and all were, therefore, war criminals. No one was safe, even after the first years of the occupation were past. The Russian memory was long, and if a man himself could not be found for punishment, his family would do as well. There was, for instance, a White Russian who had escaped with his baby son in 1919 from the Bolshevik Revolution. In 1945 the unforgetting Russians looked for him in Bucarest, and since he had disappeared into hiding they arrested and killed the son, who did not even remember Russia. As Romanian Chief of Staff, General Steflea's fate could not have been anything but a horrible death from the Russians, which is why I consider him fortunate to have died a natural one.
In order to be more free to leave Sonnberg for the traveling I must do in setting up my new work, I installed at the castle in the fall of 1943 a resident doctor and a nurse. Besides the hospital in Vienna that was a clearinghouse for Romanian wounded, there were eleven other hospitals there which specialized in specific types of cases; and there were at least five such places for treatment in Berlin. Some dealt chiefly with blinded soldiers, some with amputees, some with bone tuberculosis victims, some with those needing plastic surgery, and so on. Perhaps the surgeons best known in the United States were the Drs. Lorenz, father and son, in Vienna, who were bone surgeons, and Dr. Sauerbruch in Berlin, who was one of the first men to operate on a lung, and who invented instruments still used in this type of operation. During the latter part of 1943 and the early part of 1944 about three thousand Romanian wounded passed through the bureau at Vienna, and were assigned to one of these hospitals or sent back to Romania for treatment. At the same time a real beginning in the training of blinded soldiers and of seeing-eye dogs was made in Romania at the Sibiu School of Equitation, which I shall tell you about later, and arrangements were made for technicians to go to Austria to learn how to make artificial limbs and eyes.
To "search out the wounded," as I was commissioned, I made many journeys, learning the techniques of wartime travel. Since stations and railway junctions were bombed regularly and were most vulnerable targets, one learned to travel with hand luggage only. At the warning of a raid, trains moved quickly away from stations whenever possible, and passengers got out and lay down in the fields, since the bomb shelters available at the stations themselves were only adequate for the railway employees and could not be used by the traveling public. Gasoline was so scarce that most of my travels began at five in the morning, when I left Sonnberg to drive three miles with a horse and carriage to the station at Hollabrun to catch the first train to Vienna. There were bright, pleasant mornings when I remembered with amusement my girlhood ambition to own and drive a horse and carriage, but there were other raw, cold mornings when I definitely regretted that my ambition had been achieved. Sometimes the children's governess—the lady who had had no idea how clothes were washed and ironed—went with me as far as Vienna, but I cannot actually say that we traveled together. She felt that her dignity demanded she go second class, which was always crowded, while I had discovered that the workmen traveling third class got on and off at the way stations in such numbers that I could be sure of getting a seat before too long. Therefore, when the train came in, the governess stood with dignity in a second-class carriage all the way to Vienna, while I sat down with thankfulness in a third-class one!
On these journeys I visited Freiburg, Leipzig, Breslau, Berlin, Linz, Salzburg, Prague, and other cities, besides making occasional short trips to Romania. While I found all the journeys strenuous, I remember especially the trip in December of 1943, when I went to bring the three older children home from school for the Christmas holidays. I had only four days to spend in Romania, and in connection with my work I had to keep many appointments with officials and to hold audiences myself. There were friends to see, a christening to attend, personal business to transact. In addition to this, I traveled with a long list of requests from wounded soldiers whom I had come to know particularly well, and whose families lived in or near Bucarest and Brasov. Would I not have a moment to telephone to a father or a mother that their son was really recovering? If it should happen that I was near this street, or went through that village, could I not stop a moment to see a blind grandmother, or a sick little son, and tell them that grandson or father would be thinking of them at Christmas? It is difficult to refuse requests whispered through bandages or made by men bravely enduring the pain of complicated operations, and I tried hard to deliver my list of messages.
Because most of the cases held for treatment in Austria were serious ones, I could not always be entirely reassuring. The bravery of the soldiers' families in their efforts to conceal their anxiety and grief was very real and very moving, and my calls and visits were not easy ones to make. Only rarely was there a lighter moment, as when I telephoned a businessman at his office to deliver a message from his son, and said—as is the custom in making a telephone call—"Aici Domnitza Ileana"—Here is the Princess Beam. Obviously thinking he was the victim of a practical joke, he replied sharply, "And the Emperor of China here!" and hung up the receiver. It was not until the third attempt that he suddenly realized I was in earnest, and I was glad to have an encouraging message for him so that we could laugh together about my difficulty in delivering it.
What I had not foreseen was the response to the messages. The families of these soldiers, and of others in Sonnberg and Vienna, at once saw an opportunity to send a little gift back to the dear one who must spend Christmas in a foreign land. In no time at all I was the recipient of literally scores of packages, each one small, but the total amounting to an appalling pile. They were brought personally, each with an eager plea that son or brother or sweetheart or husband be given this special delicacy which he must be missing. How could I refuse? In the end an entire bed in our compartment on the train had to be sacrificed to take care of the incredible number of small parcels, which we had bundled together as well as we could.
As if this were not enough, it became evident that Minola was really ill. She had had her tenth-birthday tea the day before, so that when she complained of feeling sick before we left I had not taken it too seriously, but had got her to bed to rest until it was time to leave. However, once the journey began it was clear that it was no mere upset, but something more serious. From Budapest on we had only one compartment. With our own luggage and the soldiers' parcels, there was literally not room to move. The train got later and later, with Minola more fretful and clearly very ill, and eventually I felt certain that she had scarlet fever. Then I was terrified for fear the officials would discover it and put us off the train, miles from home. Since the compartment was already contaminated, I felt it would do no harm if we could get as far as Vienna, and fortunately it worked out that the difficulties of wartime travel kept anyone from observing us too closely.
I was so thankful to get to our apartment in Vienna that I could bear with fortitude the reaction of the railway officials when I warned them what I thought the child's illness was. Of course they regarded it as a last straw added to their already burdened existences, and I was as apologetic as possible! We spent a wakeful night in Vienna, trying to keep Minola comfortable and to find a doctor, who promptly verified my diagnosis but cheered us by saying that he thought it was going to be a light case. The next morning we proceeded to Sonnberg. Warned by telephone, they had made provisions to isolate Minola from the other children and from the soldiers, and my friend, Frau Ilse Koller, volunteered to nurse her through the quarantine so that I might be able to go on with my other responsibilities—which at the moment included overseeing the delivery of a quantity of packages from Romania! And that night, just as I finally managed to get thankfully to bed, the telephone rang. Anton, on his way home with Christmas leave, had had car trouble and was stuck thirty miles away. The fires had to be made up, water heated to start our car, and a rescue party dispatched. It was seven o'clock in the morning before everyone was safely back at Sonnberg, and the holidays really began.
They were good holidays, however, even though they had begun with such difficulty. We did not know they were to be our last in Austria. On the fifth of December St. Nicholas had been impersonated by a friend who was home on leave from the front. Robed magnificently in the ermine wrap I had given my mother, but with his military boots showing all too plainly beneath it, he had made his comments on the children's behavior in clever verse which amused everyone—even Niki, whose six-year-old conscience was a little tender on some points. Now, at Christmastime, trees were set up in the hospitals, and the packages from Romania, along with parcels the rest of us had been making, were delivered to the wounded. There was a special tree for Minola, who was feeling only comfortably like an invalid. Changing my clothes and disinfecting my hands had enabled me to go to see her regularly, which kept me from worrying too much about her, and she was charmed with having her own special Christmas celebration. We had the large tree in the castle, and the village children and as many officers and soldiers as we could manage were invited to share it. To make the occasion as festive as possible we all dressed in our best, and I wore the lovely sapphire and diamond diadem because so much of the time my family and my household of soldiers saw me only in traveling clothes or nurse's uniform. There were carols, and gifts, and the joy of the children, which triumphed for a brief time over the thought of a world at war—and another year had come to a close.
Nineteen hundred and forty-four began in the shadows of growing anxiety in Austria over the progress of the war, and to this in my case was added my personal anxiety for my own country. Conditions of living and of travel became worse as the destruction from the Allied bombing increased. Everyone was irritable and tired. There were constant minor frictions everywhere, to a degree which no one can imagine who has not lived in a country which is a battleground. I remember, for example, a series of domestic squabbles between some of the maids and some of the refugees we had found room for, which resulted in the police being "informed" that the maids had more shoes than the rationing system allowed. When a thorough hausdurchsuchung was conducted to count our shoes, and some of the servants were indeed found to own more than the legal two pairs, nothing was done about it by the police, but much bad feeling remained in the household.
There were the more serious problems of the soldiers. Some of those with the most terrible wounds were unable to bear the pain, and managed sometimes in the confusion of wartime conditions in the cities to get extra morphine. They would become addicts, and before later treatments could be given them they would have to be broken of the habit. This was a long and agonizing process in which I tried to do my share of helping. Inevitably, too, we failed to save some lives for which we fought long and desperately, and each defeat of this kind was a personal sorrow because we came very close to the people we tried to help in their struggles to live.
There were the upsets and accidents that any household suffers where there are children. During one holiday when the children were all at Sonnberg, Sandi, turning a cartwheel, bumped into Stefan. To recover his balance he threw out his arm so quickly and vigorously that he put it through a glass window and cut himself badly. The nurse, seeing the blood spurt from a wound in his forearm, quickly put on a tourniquet and ran for a doctor without noticing that another cut above his elbow also was bleeding badly. Only the fact that a doctor happened to be in the castle and came at once prevented Stefan from bleeding to death, and he still carries the scars of the accident. Niki, almost seven in 1944, crushed his hand in the door of the motorcar, and one of Anton's short furloughs was spent largely in taking the poor child back and forth to Vienna until it was certain that the bones were set correctly and were healing. But my main concern for the three children who were with me in Austria was caused by the war news. More and more I felt that I wanted them to be in Romania, even though the Russians were steadily advancing and my Austrian friends felt that I was mad to think of going toward the enemy instead of staying where I was.
I had had little personal experience with Russians since my childhood days, when the Bolshevik Revolution brought a constant succession of desperate refugees fleeing to Romania for protection. Russians were associated in my mind with the cruel deaths of members of my mother's family in Russia, and especially with the murder of my little cousin, the Czarevitch Alexis, who had been my personal charge when the Czar and Czarina visited Romania with their children in 1914. I had seen the effects of the Revolution on the Russian armies in Jassy, and later there had been the stories of refugees who were helped by some of the charitable organizations with which I worked in my teens. In Austria, however, during these war years there had been actual Russians scattered through the country: some who were war prisoners and some who had run away from their own land by choice.
One I remember was a servant girl working for a Viennese woman who had come in distress to live at Sonnberg. I had insisted, over the protests of her mistress, that the Russian girl be invited to that last Christmas tree in the castle, where I wore the diadem. She had surprised everyone by suddenly bursting into tears, and when she could control herself she explained in broken German that her parents had—safely hidden away from the Communists—a picture of the Czarina wearing just such a diadem, and that I reminded her of it, and of her home. Another Russian girl worked for a lady who was very kind to her, and it was through this girl that I had my first inkling of what the Communists had made of their people. In this spring of 1944 the advance of the Russians seemed to bring them daily nearer, and this particular Russian was convinced that it was only a matter of time before they would enter Austria. But she was anxious to show her gratitude for the kind treatment she had received, so she reassured her mistress.
"When the Russians come," she said earnestly, "I will tell them how good you have been to me, and they will be good to you in return, you will see! For they will kill you quickly"—and she made a brisk and vivid gesture of throat-cutting—"and not torture you at all! This I promise I will do for you!" Her evident satisfaction with this generous intention was to me almost unbelievable at the time, but I lived to learn that she spoke matter-of-factly and out of a life which then people could hardly imagine existed.
It was perhaps incidents and experiences of this kind which made the Austrians feel it was insanity to think of taking my other three children to Romania, but for that I had only one answer. If there was to be worse danger, I wanted my children to be where every man was my friend. So in March I took them to Bran and made arrangements to leave them there, intending to return to Austria and continue as long as possible my work for the wounded. There was a joyous reunion when the three older children came from school for a weekend. Stefan had suddenly grown enormously, so that I felt small when he stood beside me. But on March 27, when I was to have left for Vienna, travel suddenly became impossible. The Russians were rumored to have entered Moldavia; refugees were crowding down into southern Romania; the Germans had set up defenses and were engaged in a quarrel with the Hungarians, and all civilian travel across Hungary was forbidden. For the time being, decision was out of my hands. I was in Romania, and there I must stay, even though I had brought only hand luggage with me.
I wrote letters to Austria, turning over the administration of the hospital at Sonnberg to Dr. Gligore and making 'arrangements for my other work there until I could return. During all this time I had a curious, unreasoning feeling that, in spite of my willingness to go on with the work in Austria, my place was now with my own people in my own country. And so it proved to be, for though I went back again in May for a week to check up on the hospital, I had by that time already been drawn into a work in Romania where I seemed to be needed badly. It was still my intention to travel between Austria and Romania often enough to keep in touch with my work with the wounded, but conditions made it impossible for me ever to return to Sonnberg again after that one hurried week in May, 1944. During the last days of April there was a lull in the work I had begun in Romania. I was anxious to see for myself how the hospital in the castle was getting along and how the other plans I had made by mail were working out. Even though travel through Hungary was still difficult and limited, I managed to get the necessary permissions to leave and to return, and I set off by train one evening with my secretary. The Commanding General of the Mountain Troops saw me off from the dark and ruined station of Brasov, so that the memory of destroyed trains was uncomfortably present through all our journey. I must confess that my experiences on trains during bombardments had made me unable to lay aside my dread of them, but we arrived in Vienna safely after only one alarm.
At Sonnberg we were given a heart-warming welcome by the wounded and by my household, but I found that because of the infinite difficulty of communications our telegrams had not been received, and we had missed Anton by a matter of hours. However, he was able to return for two days during that week; a week crowded by appointments and visits to hospitals, by interviews with the military officers and medical staffs, and by the usual personal messages from Romania for some of the wounded. I had hoped to be able to drive my car back to Romania, but when the permission came through it was only for train travel. I realized I was fortunate to have even that, for the intensive bombing was having an effect upon everything. At my last visit to Berlin, earlier in the spring, I had found many parts of the city so destroyed that I lost myself several times while going from the Legation to various hospitals, and this was true of many other cities. Much as I dreaded a train journey, since I always felt imprisoned in a vulnerable target for bombs, it was the only way I could get to Romania. I got my tickets, therefore, with thankfulness, still with no premonition that I was leaving Sonnberg for the last time.
There on a May afternoon, weary from all I had had to do in such a short space of time, I remember with what content I sat down in the garden of the castle. I looked at the flowers I had planted; I looked at the beautiful building that had been my happy home for eight years, and I loved it with all my heart. I am glad I had no warning that I would never see it again, or that its loveliness was to be so wantonly destroyed, for this last picture I carry in my mind is unspoiled. Gently and without my realizing it, as I sat there in the quiet garden, one door closed definitely behind me and another opened. "Nu aduce anul ce aduce ceasul," we say in Romanian: A year does not bring what an hour brings.