I Live Again by Ileana, Princess of Romania
HERE IN my New England bedroom, on the night table beside my Bible and prayer book, is a heavy silver cross. It is about four and a half inches long, and the crucifix is engraved upon it. Wherever I go it accompanies me. Whether I am in a friend's house or have made a journey to a strange town where I must lecture, it lies beside me; a continual token of the power of faith and sacrifice. It reminds me of my home and of my work, and of the trust that those whom I left behind have given me. It is a symbol of the Strength that enables me to "live again," for as I look at it the words spring to my mind: "In the world ye shall have tribulation, but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world." If He had not overcome the world, and in so doing left us His example, how could I ever have borne the day upon which I received this silver cross?
It was January 12 in 1948. My nephew, King Michael, had been forced by the Communists to abdicate on December 30, 1947, and we were being sent away from all we knew and loved to an unknown destination. The train that was carrying us out of Romania stopped in the station of Brasov, a place of ruin because it had suffered badly from bombardments. I looked out sadly upon the empty, cold platform where I had worked in the Red Cross canteen, but it was night and no one except the Red guards were permitted anywhere within sight. Here, as in all the rest of our sad journey, the people were forbidden a last farewell look.
Suddenly I saw a figure familiar and dear. In her canteen uniform, muffled in a heavy winter coat, stood a friend beside whom I had worked day after day. Indomitable as ever, fearless and headstrong, she had braved the authorities by daring to disobey orders, and had come to say good-bye to 'her departing comrade. I rushed to the compartment door and swung it open. Before the guards could intervene we were in each other's arms, and she pressed something into my hands while she whispered to me:
"God bless you! And carry on wherever you may be."
I could only nod my head. Words failed me, as did my tears. The train moved on. I stared, dry eyed, upon a countryside well known and well beloved, lying silent beneath the snow and the still, cold moonlight, and in my hands I clasped a silver cross.
When I hold this cross today, and look out my window in this country which is so far from my own, my eyes rest upon a silver fir tree, and for a moment I seem to be looking at the firs my mother planted around the little wooden church at Bran. How gratefully I used to take fleeting rests in my castle in the little valley of the Carpathians, where I had settled the younger children while I worked in the Red Cross canteen in the town of Brasov, about twenty-five miles away.
As I have said, the three older children had been attending day schools in Brasov since September, 1943. The problem of where they could stay had been solved by my secretary's sister, whose husband was captain of the fire brigade there. In Romania this was controlled by the army, and men might do their military service in the fire departments of the towns and cities if they wished. The Captain had a nice apartment in the barracks and by an arrangement with an unmarried officer also quartered there he was able to use extra rooms for Stefan, Minola, and Alexandra. Since the children were well acquainted with my secretary and his family, they felt satisfied to be there even when I was still in Austria. When I brought Niki, Magi, and Elisabeth to Romania in March, 1944, I settled them into a house in the village of Bran, since the castle there could not be used during the winter months. Frau Koller and their nurse, Gretl, were in charge of them, since at first I expected to be able to travel back and forth between Austria and Romania. Had I not thought so I would have sent some of my precious possessions from Austria to Bran, instead of leaving them in Sonnberg. As it was, because of the danger of bombing when one traveled by train, I stopped carrying with me on my journeys, and so I have forever lost, my two most cherished treasures: my Bible and my last letter from my mother.
The suddenly strained relationship between Germany and Hungary that stopped all civilian travel in March would, I thought, keep me in Brasov only temporarily. Nevertheless, I foresaw several weeks of inactivity, which I have never been able to bear, and I also saw the need of every available pair of hands. The Russians were pressing hard upon our northern and northeastern frontiers, and innumerable refugee trains which passed through Brasov were taking the threatened population to safer districts. I applied to the Brasov chapter of the Red Cross to give me work until I could return to Austria, and I was assigned to the station canteen there.
Brasov is a charming old Saxon town. It lies as if in a fold of the skirts of the Carpathians, just where the rich Transylvanian plateau begins. Like all medieval towns with any pretense to dignity, it boasts of a castle and a Gothic church. The castle, which stands on a hill in the middle of the town, is not particularly interesting from an architectural standpoint, and is used as a prison, but the church is a very beautiful one of its kind. It is called "the Black Church" because of the dark color of its stones, and it adds a great deal to the charm of the town's appearance. Viewed from the air, Brasov looks somewhat like an octopus, with its body lying on the plateau and its many arms winding up the valleys formed by the outspread little foothills of the mountains towering above. The streets wind up and down and round. about, and except for some taller buildings and the anachronism of a modern hotel in the center of town, the houses are almost all one and two stories, many with red-tiled roofs and ocher-tinted walls. The flower-filled gardens merge with the forest itself, and on market days peasants from the surrounding villages add the gay color of their costumes to the picture.
Romanians, Hungarians, and Saxons make up the citizens of the town, as these three distinct peoples make up almost the whole of Transylvania. Though the Romanians form the overwhelming majority, and trace their ancestry back to the days of the colonizing of Trajan's Dacia Felix, they have always been farmers. Their forebears were referred to in the old chronicles of invading nations as "pastores Romanorum," and "pastores" their descendants remained during seven hundred years of oppression by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Under the protection of the Teutonic Knights, Germans came to settle in Transylvania eight hundred years ago, and there is a legend that the original group were the children spirited away by the Pied Piper of Hamelin. The Hungarians who finally ruled this land "across the forests" as masters and conquerors were never able to destroy the Romanian language or culture, in spite of unbelievably drastic efforts to do this. The German settlers were always permitted their own schools and churches, even by the Hungarians, and as a result the three languages still exist, and many Transylvanians are as matter-of-factly trilingual as are the Swiss. With the establishment of Romania Mare in 1918, the learning of the Romanian language was required, but no attempt was made to eradicate any other language. For this reason I was able to place my older children in a Saxon school, where, in the German they already knew, their education could continue without interruption while they improved their knowledge of the Romanian language.
Brasov had kept its pleasing Old World look, as I have told you, but it had developed many and growing industries both within the town and in the surrounding villages. There were plants manufacturing a wide variety of products: textiles, hardware, munitions, airplanes, paper, and railway carriages, for example. There were extensive market gardens and greenhouses, where both vegetables and flowers were raised, and the valleys were dotted with small but rich and well-cultivated farms. In addition to this, and making it a military objective as the war came ever closer, was the fact that Brasov was an important railway center.
It was a sunny, cold morning in March, 1944, when I presented myself, not without some trepidation, at the Red Cross canteen in the station. The station building itself was old but quite imposing, with a shabby dignity of its own. It was rather like a nice old lady who had known better days, and was now lost in the bustling, dirty, miscellaneous crowd that thronged the platforms and waiting rooms. Soldiers, officials, women, children, important-looking gentlemen, and stray dogs jostled one another. I shouldered my way through them to the door leading into what was then the canteen; a room much too small for all the activity it housed. In it there were two enormous caldrons for tea and soup, large tables, cupboards, a sink, and what seemed to me innumerable cups, baskets, bags, and cans.
I was met by a tall, fair-haired, strong-looking woman, who looked straight at me with steady blue eyes. This was Mrs. Podgoreanu, who for four years had been running the canteen tirelessly and efficiently. She had a direct and commanding manner, and she viewed me speculatively, with a sort of "So! What am I to do with you?" expression. There was something uncompromising in the way she shook hands. I felt there was no nonsense about her, and that she would tolerate none, and my usual desperate shyness came over me. Inside I felt small and incompetent, while outside I felt as though my hands and feet were suddenly abnormally large and completely awkward. This self-consciousness, combined with a desperate desire to please, has always been a great handicap to me, for though outwardly I have through a strong sense of duty overcome it, it still greatly disturbs me. When I was younger I sometimes actually fainted from the exertion it took to dominate it. I tried to smile naturally and easily at Mrs. Podgoreanu. "Please," I said, " could I wash up, or do something else, or shall I just wait?"
"A troop train is coming in. You can serve tea at that window over there," she replied, in a tone which seemed to imply that perhaps at least I would be doing no actual harm in that job, and she gave me some simple, specific directions which I hurriedly tried to follow. Soldiers came to the window, and the canteen suddenly hummed with activity. More Red Cross workers arrived and were introduced to me, and I was delighted to see from what very different social levels they came. There were wives and daughters of judges and apothecaries, soldiers and generals, factory directors and workmen, all evidently used to working together in an efficient team. The canteen was organized in two shifts: from 8:00 A.M. to 1:00 P.M. and from 1.00 P.M. to whatever late hour it happened to become! Not all could do as much as this but, on the other hand, there were a few who were able to work an incredible number of hours, and the chief of these workers was Mrs. Podgoreanu.
I arranged to work sometimes with one group and sometimes with the other, which seemed to please everyone, although my thought was that by working an afternoon shift and the following morning one, I could spend the next twenty-four hours in Bran with the younger children. In Brasov, of course, I stayed at the barracks with the older ones. However, I rarely got to Bran as often as I expected to, and often I worked a number of days continuously, for I felt this was the least I could do as the misery of those tragic days unfolded before my horrified eyes.
Even so, my record never approached that of Mrs. Podgoreanu. She seemed the one person to be there always; the first to arrive and the last to go. Her administrative ability was colossal, her strength a thing to be wondered at, and her leadership so positive and able that I obeyed her gladly even though at times her insistence on an unalterable method of doing some routine task seemed unreasonable. I remember, for example, that instead of weighing out sugar for the jars of tea, we had to count out exactly forty-seven pieces and tie them into little bags ready for use. There were times when an aching back made sitting for hours and counting forty-seven sugar lumps seem an unbearable operation, and her routine habit of picking out an occasional bag at random and recounting to be sure there were exactly forty-seven pieces made us all feel as if we were being treated like children—especially when her finding forty-eight or forty-six pieces meant that all bags must be counted over again. However, I realized even then that perhaps this insistence on a routine of simple, exact work for our hands furnished an outlet for the nervous tension of our other activities. At any rate, I learned to love and admire her unstintingly. Bearing a deep personal sorrow bravely, she was one of the grandest workers, the best leaders, and the most selfless women I have ever known.
The first morning my performance at the tea window apparently proved satisfactory, for I felt that Mrs. Podgoreanu looked at me less skeptically when the troop train pulled out and word came that the first refugee train of the day was arriving. I well remember that first train, for though it seemed terrible to me, it was nothing to compare with the misery I was to see later. In the first place, the morning was sunny and everyone was fairly cheerful, and in the second place, this train had come by a route well provided with canteens, and had not had too many long waits on the road. Still I found their plight unbelievably pathetic, and the condition of my wounded soldiers in Austria, tucked into clean beds and under expert care, seemed suddenly almost enviable in comparison. Women, children, and old men were crowded into cattle cars or third-class carriages, together with all the belongings they had been able to bring with them—and these belongings included livestock. Hens, geese, cows, dogs, and pigs added to the noise and dirt. I saw then for the first time what incongruous things people will take away with them. There were cows standing uneasily next to handsome bronze lamps; hens nesting in Louis XV chairs. The most moving things to me were the solemn-eyed children, tired, dirty, and hungry. How I longed to be able to take them and give them a good bath in warm water!
We of the canteen, loaded with great baskets and large cans, hurried as fast as possible down the rails to begin serving the train at the last carriage, begging the people as we went to remain in their carriages and come in turn to the windows to receive their portions. In our flat baskets we carried bread, smoked ham and bacon, apples, and cheese, and in the cans were milk for the children and hot tea and rum for the older people. Sometimes we had a few orderlies to help carry things, and then we could serve more quickly. It was not at all easy to control what one was giving, and to be sure not to give twice to the same family. It was especially difficult not to be carried away by pity into giving as much as one felt was necessary, for there were so many that we could not really satisfy hunger, we could only appease it. We fed from two to five thousand people daily, and most of the food came from donations. Over us hung always the dread of having a train come in when we had nothing to give.
In addition to distributing food and drink, I learned that one of the workers must always go through the carriages looking for illness or special need. This, too, had its difficulties, for some would complain in the hope of getting an extra portion of food, while others would dissemble for fear of being put off the train and separated from their families. In my first train I found one child ill, and an old woman who was obviously dying. Horrified, I rushed back to Mrs. Podgoreanu for instructions, but she accepted my news calmly and gave the necessary information to the doctor, a young man in uniform whom I had not seen before, and who seemed to me to have a rather careless and irresponsible manner. He left in the direction of the railway carriage, and I got a new load of food and drink and continued my work. I seemed to walk back and forth endlessly. Full baskets, empty baskets; full baskets, empty baskets. My arms seemed to grow longer and longer, while my legs grew shorter and shorter.
At last this train moved off, leaving us with the relieved feeling that we had been able to give a little comfort, but it was closely followed by another. This was a military school being evacuated; six or eight hundred boys, all in open railway trucks. They had food, but they were terribly cold, and their officers and instructors were much concerned about them. We gave them hot tea as well as generous portions of sweets, and everyone was pleased to help them because they were such a nice, gay crowd, determinedly making light of their miseries. When one of their officers recognized me and passed the word along, they were delighted, and as the train moved out they gave me a rousing cheer which did me good. I returned to the canteen with my heart a little lighter, and found there the young doctor fussing over the injured hand of a workman and grumbling because he had no help. I glanced at Mrs. Podgoreanu for permission, and then offered my services to him. He accepted them with a shrug, and ordered me about in a highhanded manner, interspersing his directions with condescending remarks of a rather personal kind.
"You should do it this way, madame—or should I say 'miss'?" he inquired, looking at me sidewise under his eyelashes in what I suppose he thought was an irresistible manner.
"You may say 'Madame,' " I replied severely. Then, as he grinned in an amused manner, I added, "I have six children."
"Nonsense!" he retorted. And he added a slangily rude remark which indicated that I must be confusing myself with my sister.
Inwardly amused but outwardly stiff I said solemnly that she had three children of her own, but that I thought the subject in which we were both interested was the injured hand I was bandaging. Before he could reply further, another train was announced, and I finished my job and hurried out, once more heavily laden with supplies.
The people in this train were much worse off than those in the first one had been. Some of them had come from Jassy, Moldavia's capital, where I myself had been a refugee in World War I, and I felt a special anxiety to help them on that account. In one cattle truck I found a woman in labor, an old woman attending her, and the two of them surrounded by the rest of the family as well as by a cow, a few pigs, and some annoyed and cackling hens. I rushed off to get the young doctor, hot water, towels, and other necessities; not an easy or quick job because the train had stopped on a far line and it was a long distance to the canteen and its medicine chest. Back again, and anxious because we had no way of knowing how long the train would stay, I found myself becoming extremely annoyed with the doctor's nonchalance, and I began giving him a few crisp suggestions. He looked a little surprised, and apparently revised his estimate of my age.
"You seem to be accustomed to giving orders!" he said with some irritation at one point.
"I certainly can give them when people don't seem to know their duty!" I replied briskly, and continued to attend to the matter in hand.
All went well with the birth, and presently we had a nice little baby girl. The doctor left to take care of another call, and I helped the old woman to clear up and make the young mother as comfortable and safe as the circumstances permitted. During this process a girl who stopped to see the family recognized me, to the general delight, but no one was especially surprised. One pleasant Romanian characteristic is that they are never astonished at anything! However, when the family at once begged me to be godmother to the new baby, I agreed, and set out to find a priest.
As I was hurrying up the platform I met the Commanding General and his staff, and I stopped to greet him. He was General Nicolae Tataranu, an old friend of mine, and one of our best and bravest generals. In World War I he had been severely wounded and taken prisoner by the Germans, but he had managed to escape. I could remember well how as a little girl in Jassy I had sat at my mother's side when she received him, and had listened with her to the exciting tale of his adventures. In World War II he had commanded our troops at Stalingrad, but because he suffered from Parkinson's disease his increasing illness had obliged him to leave the front, and had saved him from the terrible fate of becoming a prisoner of the Russians. I shook him warmly by the hand, and embarked at once upon my tale of the new baby. Would he please send for a priest? He gave the order at once, and then, reminding me tactfully of my royal obligations, he formally presented his staff to me. Suddenly I noticed in the background my flighty young doctor, looking extremely uncomfortable. At the same moment General Tataranu's eye fell upon him.
"Does Your Royal Highness know the doctor on duty here?" he inquired. And when I replied that he had not been presented to me, the General said briskly, "Prezinta-te!"—Present yourself!
Stammering a little, the young doctor sheepishly began the proper formula. "I have the honor to present myself, Lieutenant Doctor—" but his alarmed expression as he evidently recalled his former remarks to me was finally too much for me, and I spoiled his presentation by bursting out laughing. It could have been the beginning of a good friendship, but I never quite got over my feeling that he was too careless in the performance of his job, which to me seemed much more important than caring for patients in the safer surroundings of their own homes or of a hospital. I was therefore not too much surprised to learn some time later of the final incident in his career at Brasov. Mrs. Podgoreanu, making a surprise visit to the infirmary on a night when he was on duty, found him definitely off duty, and not alone. He tried to brazen it out by offering to present the lady, but Mrs. Podgoreanu refused to co-operate.
"I do not need to be told what she is," said Mrs. Podgoreanu icily, "and I do not wish to be told who she is." And almost immediately we had a new doctor assigned to the canteen.
On my first day at the station, however, the doctor faded quite quickly and unobtrusively into the background as soon as his "presentation" was over. While we waited for the priest to appear, General Tataranu informed me that he had come to make a general inspection of the work and to designate a room for the dispensary. He asked me if I would be willing to take over its organization, working with the head of the military hospital in Brasov, and of course I was delighted to accept the job. Then with Mrs. Podgoreanu we inspected a restaurant just outside the station. Because it had acquired what was apparently a well-deserved reputation for various shady activities, it was possible for the army to requisition it for Red Cross uses. It could be used as a rest house for the needy when trains were delayed for long periods, and—as I realized with joy—it would give me a place to bathe the children!
With this settled, I returned to the baby and found that the priest had arrived. We hoisted him with some difficulty into the truck, since he was both old and portly, and there, with the cow in uncomfortable and unaccustomed proximity, he performed the sacred rite. I held the baby over an improvised font while hens scuttled about and pigs grunted, but the mother smiled contentedly, the grandmamma wiped away a tear, the other children giggled shyly, and for a moment everyone was happy. The only real interruption occurred because of a stout orderly, who had heard of the baptism and had somehow found a candle which he felt would add to the solemnity of the occasion. There was no room for him in the crowded railway truck, but he brought from somewhere a small, rickety stepladder upon which he stood just at the door, his candle held high in one hand. Suddenly there was a splintering crash. The ladder had collapsed under his weight, and candle and candleholder together landed in a pile of kindling wood. After a moment, while we made sure he was not seriously hurt, the service continued, hurried a little at the last moment because the train was leaving. As it pulled out everyone waved and smiled for all the world as if there were no misery or heartbreak at all.
—I managed to keep track of my goddaughter. She returned later to Jassy, but of course after I myself left Romania I never heard any more about her. Let us hope that others do not remember how she was born and christened, since in the Communist world it could bring her only harm, but I believe that she and those who love her have not forgotten.
On the heels of this train came another, and then another, and another. Finally it was after midday. The other group of workers arrived, and I felt I had earned my rest. But what pleased me most was that I knew from the way Mrs. Podgoreanu spoke to me that I had won my spurs.
From that day until the day I left the canteen we worked together in perfect harmony and in devotion to the Red Cross and each other—I and my friend and comrade, who one night so gallantly defied all rules to put into my hands a silver cross.