I Live Again by Ileana, Princess of Romania
NOT ALL my days at the station canteen left me with the feeling that we had been able to alleviate the misery of the thousands of people who had been driven from their homes. For some we could do nothing, and then my feeling of frustration added to the depression always lurking in the background of my mind as I worked. What, after all, was a little bread and hot soup to someone who had lost everything?
I remember especially one bleak Sunday afternoon. A cold, cutting wind was blowing, and a merciless sleet added to the discomfort of the weather. The mixture of rain and snow froze on our coats until we walked in armor plate, and the bitter cold everywhere made our aching and swollen hands clumsy in handling the icy slices of raw bacon we were working with in the canteen. There were three trains to be dealt with at once. The people were hungry, cold, and unreasonable in their misery and despair, while the space between the lines was all too narrow for the seething mass of distraught humanity that surged out of the trains in a desperate attempt to get food. The air was full of the cries of frightened children, the pleas of frantic mothers, and the noises of hungry beasts who had also gone a long time without food or water.
We of the canteen, even with the extra help of soldiers sent for in the emergency, had a hard time to distribute food impartially and efficiently, and even to keep our tempers: for there comes a point when one's pity is unbearable, and it takes much self-control to avoid expressing one's helpless anger at conditions one cannot 'relieve. At one moment I found myself alone in the crowd, trying to save my two big cans of precious milk from being overturned in the desperate scramble from all sides to reach it. Suddenly, as I was forced against the outer platform of one of the railway cars, an officer standing above me on the platform reached down and lifted my two cans and then me to a position beside him.
"Domnitza Deana?" he asked in a quick aside. And, when I nodded, out of breath from the last strenuous minutes in the crowd, "I thought so! We have worked together before!"
With his bulk between me and the crowd, I was able to serve the milk over his shoulder without spilling any of it; and the orderly assigned to me, with his uniform and broad shoulders to carry him through the milling people, was able to bring us fresh supplies. Never shall I forget those hungry and exhausted faces looking up at me. Their expression of patient acceptance of an awful fate was in many ways harder to bear than resentment would have been. At long last the immediate needs of the crowd were satisfied. The train pulled out with no chance for me to exchange more than brief expressions of thanks and good will with my officer friend, but as always I had been deeply moved by his recognition of me. Such things seemed to link my present with those years of my girlhood in Romania, and to make me feel that I had indeed come home. Perhaps I needed those moments to strengthen me for my later bitter experiences.
That Sunday evening all of us in the canteen were glad to sit down for a little and try to soothe our hands, which had become more bruised and aching, and to warm our feet. We hoped that no more trains would come, since our supplies were low and we were exhausted, but Mrs. Podgoreanu had no illusions. Eying her little army expertly, she put us to work. The boiling of tea started again; the counting out of sugar; the cutting of bacon—but there was no more milk or bread. When the coming of another train was announced, I for one felt tears of exhaustion and anxiety coming to my eyes. Outwardly I tried to work even more quickly, and inwardly I prayed both for strength and for supplies. I felt that to face hungry children with no milk and no bread would be something I could not bear, and glancing at Mrs. Podgoreanu I realized that she shared my fears. Dear God, let not Thy children go hungry! Give us this day our daily bread! ran my thoughts, while my hands measured out tea and emptied bags of exactly forty-seven lumps of sugar into the cans. It was growing dark. We worked in silence, bracing ourselves for the noise that would tell us the train was coming into the station.
Suddenly the outer door of the canteen opened, and through the storm and rush of bitter air we saw women muffled in shawls, their arms full of bundles. Some carried cans of ready-boiled milk or of coffee, and others had great baskets of freshly baked cozonac, the Romanian holiday brioche. We could have hugged the good women, bundles and all, but instead we hastened to help unload the supplies they had brought.
"Ah!" they sighed. "The bad roads! The men taking it easy on a Sunday! Everything seemed to keep us back! Are we too late?"
"Dumnezeu dragutzu v'a trimes!" we told them, using the familiar local expression which literally means "God, the Dear One, sent you!" and I know that we all felt we had received a prompt answer to the prayers in our hearts.
"The train is in!" Off we went down the line to the very end of the train, my faithful orderly and I carrying as much as we could between us. We were by this time doing good teamwork, so that the moment I emptied the first half of the cans and baskets he left for a refill, and the task went more quickly. There was little light because of the blackout, but enough to show us carriage after carriage of unfortunates, as we moved along the line. Sleepy and exhausted, many of these refugees stayed within the cars and let us serve them through the windows, and so it was that near the end of the train I came to a window where a woman stood in the shadows, holding a little bundle in her arms.
"Milk! Milk for the child!" I called to her.
"What for?" came her bitter answer. "It is no good now! Here! Take him and bury him if you have a heart; my heart is dead!" And out through the window she handed me the frozen little creature, blue and cold in death. I took him, and for a moment I felt my heart stand still—he was so cold and light. But I had to go on with my duty. There were other children in the car who were alive and wanted the milk, so I put the pathetic little bundle between my feet so that it would not be trampled, and served out the last of my supplies. The train moved on. With the empty cans and baskets on one arm, and the dead child on the other, I walked back to the canteen, and never was the way so long, so weary.
There were many of these tragedies, and they were deepened by the fact that they must be handled so quickly, in the little space of time while a train waited in the station. On another afternoon I went into the dispensary to find our new doctor arguing with a desperate mother about a baby who had pneumonia. She had six other children, this youngest child was obviously almost dying, and the refugee train was about to leave. We pleaded with her to leave the baby with us, since that offered it the only possible chance to live. Finally she agreed, if I would swear to care for it as if it were my own. Everything else was put aside for the moment while I found a proper nursing home, a doctor, and a nurse. That afternoon we won our race with death, and for six long weeks we battled, but death won in the end. It was a bitter sorrow for me, for it is always hard to learn to accept the mercy of God in taking to Himself those too weak for living in this world we have so mismanaged. My only consolation was that the mother felt we had done all we could, and more than she could have done herself.
This matter of death on the trains always added anxiety and strain to the sorrow that comes at such a time. Families anxious to get as far as possible from the battle lines, and afraid that inspection at a station would result in separation, or in the whole carful of people being held in quarantine, would go to incredible lengths to conceal sickness. And when someone died on the train, many times the body would be pushed out a window as the train moved through the darkness, and found along the railway lines the next day. In the crowded confusion of the evacuation no real check on families was possible, and there was no one to notice at the point of arrival whether or not a family was the same size it had been when leaving home. If a mother had died, and the children were divided among other families in the car, who would report it? And if a family had a child or two less, who was to know that somewhere little dead bodies had been abandoned in a flight to save the living? Yet because of the ever-present danger of plague the authorities tried to be watchful, and there were severe penalties for concealing death or illness.
I remember one evening walking from the canteen to the dispensary, and suddenly noticing a man with a suitcase dodging furtively through the crowd. Something in his manner made me watch him, and almost at once a man following him burst through a group of people, crying desperately:
"Stop him! He's stolen my bag!"
With a bravado I did not feel was honest, the first man tried to brush him aside and deny the charge, but the second man was almost hysterically insistent. The gathering knot of people interested in what was going on brought a gendarme to the spot almost at once, and he was none too gentle as he shouted at the crowd to disperse, while he angrily ordered both men to walk ahead of him to the station police office. I followed them, anxious to see if I could help. It seemed to me that there had been more than anxiety, there had been stark terror in the second man's expression as he tried to snatch the bag from the fugitive.
When we were all in the police office and shut away from the crowd, the officer in charge brusquely asked what the trouble was. The second man, obviously making a heroic effort to control himself, repeated his accusation that his suitcase had been stolen. The first man, evidently sensing as I had the insecurity of his accuser, stoutly denied the charge again. The officer shrugged his shoulders.
"But this is simple," he said. "Tell what is in the suitcase, and we will open it. If you are right—" He shrugged again.
Once more I saw an unaccountable terror in the man's expression.
"No! I—I c-c-can't tell you!" he stammered hoarsely.
The first man was quick to seize his advantage. "You see!" he said triumphantly to the officer. "He's lying!"
I tried to think of a possible explanation. Could it be that because the suitcase belonged to some other member of his family the second man was afraid he could not identify what was in it? Or, what was more likely, was he carrying contraband? I talked with the police officer, who also began to feel that there was something out of the ordinary here. Then I talked to the second man, trying to persuade him gently that we would do all we could to help him, but that the suitcase must be opened to support his charge that it had been stolen. With a final gesture of desperation he surrendered and gave us the key. We opened the bag. Inside was the body of a little boy in a ragged gray suit: his two-year-old son, who had died on the train, and whom he was trying to take with him so that he and his wife could bury the child where they might visit his grave.
We looked at one another—the police officer, the thief who had stolen the suitcase, the gendarme, and I. Almost without words we came to an agreement. If Her Royal Highness would assume responsibility, the concealment of a body need not be reported officially. Her Royal Highness did, so that the sorrowing father could continue the journey with his wife: both parents a little comforted by the promise I later fulfilled, that there would be a Christian burial, and a picture of the little grave for them.
They were little worlds of tragedy, those refugee trains; yet because they were truly little worlds of their own, there were gallant deeds done, and glimpses of romance, and even moments of something like gaiety. In the canteen as well there were many sunny days when we found we could laugh again, and there were days when no trains came and we grumbled as we counted sugar lumps, or wrestled with the problem of food storage as the donations came in and the refugees did not. There were less tragic but ever-present problems: how to feed the assorted livestock on the trains; how to install baths and the unglamorous but essential sanitary facilities; how to arrange for overnight lodgings where stranded soldiers and passengers might get a few hours' restful sleep; how to prepare and store stretchers and arrange for quick transport of emergency cases to the hospitals when Brasov had only four ambulances for the whole community. And for me, in addition to the hard work, the feeling of being useful, and the moments of drama and high tragedy, there were also occasional embarrassing incidents.
One day while I worked in the dispensary there appeared a retired colonel who was being evacuated on one of the refugee trains. He was a pompous little man, who quite evidently considered himself not only important but irresistibly charming. Since I was alone, he greeted me with a profusion of compliments, and proceeded to confide in me about madame his wife. Madame his wife, the train journey having been long and the facilities inconvenient, had—amusing, was it not?—developed a little difficulty. She was, in short, although he confessed he hesitated to discuss such a thing with so charming a young lady as myself, she was, in short, a trifle constipated! Was there such a thing as a little pill or two which would relieve her discomfort?
As matter-of-factly as possible I assured him that such a condition was common under these difficult travel conditions, and I got out the little pills and put them into a bottle for him in a businesslike manner, hoping to end his unnecessarily familiar and personal remarks. But it was no use. He persisted in his little compliments, as well as in his somewhat snickering observations on life in general, and nothing seemed to discourage him. I busied myself in getting out the record book, and I politely inquired his name, since it was necessary to make a list of those receiving drugs. He was most happy to give me his name, with full military titles and a little boasting thrown in. And then he wished to know my name, since so charming a young lady must have a charming name, he was sure!
I realized a little desperately that he would be far better off if he left without knowing my name, and I wished with all my heart that the departure of the train would suddenly be announced or that someone else would come into the dispensary, but nothing happened. I hesitated, and he became yet more condescending and leaned yet farther over the counter. But he must insist on knowing my name; he must be able to treasure in his memory our delightful little encounter; I need not be shy with him; he had always been a ladies' man, able to encourage the most bashful of girls. So! What was my name? Trying to make the best of the situation, and regretting that the royal family of Romania had no surname I could have used casually, I mumbled it under my breath. "Domnitza Ileana." But he could not hear it; I must say it a little louder! I said it a little louder, and without really listening at all he beamed happily—and chucked me under the chin in a most encouraging and patronizing manner. But what a pretty name it was, indeed! Nothing to be shy about, after all!
And then there was a blank moment when his face suddenly froze and his eyes grew large and horrified. But—but—had I really said—? Was I—was I really—Domnitza—the Princess—? Annoyed with myself for feeling so embarrassed when really 1 had nothing to be embarrassed about, I felt myself turning slowly scarlet. Yes, I admitted in a low voice, I had really said—I really was—And then, to the everlasting gratitude of both of us, the train was at last called, my little colonel faded quickly out of the dispensary, and I saw him no more. But he contributed to the war effort by furnishing a great deal of amusement to Mrs. Podgoreanu, when I told her about him, and we were both quite certain that madame the Colonel's wife would never be told the full story of her little pills.
Mrs. Podgoreanu and I spent little time in being amused, however, since we had plenty to do. Relief and hospital trains had to be served, as well as refugees and military transports, and we were constantly trying to improve our services. The dispensary had to be equipped and kept supplied and the resthouse which General Tataranu had obtained for us had to be at least partially furnished. The Red Cross was by this time extremely low in funds, and it was necessary to appeal constantly to the general public, especially to the merchants who could give articles we were not always able to buy with money. I found people extraordinarily generous and ready to help. One factory director, besides giving us two enormous cooking kettles, gave me his own children's portable bathtub. I was overjoyed by this, and I had a grand time, whenever a train stopover permitted it, washing as many of the tired, dirty children as possible.
It was of course necessary to solicit food continuously, as well as to beg from the farmers a supply of forage for the livestock on the trains. After these things were procured they had to be stored, and distributed as wisely as possible. Soon it was evident also that the dispensary required a permanent medical and nursing service, and that our problems were touching many authorities, both military and civilian. Since the coordination of all this was in the hands of the Governor of the region, and he had also been asked to provide for the establishment of a new Red Cross hospital in Brasov, he decided to call together a big meeting for reports and suggestions. A harmless enough occasion, one would think, but it led me into serious trouble.
The meeting took place in the city hall and was well attended. Many useful suggestions and valuable offers of goods and services were made. General Tataranu, Colonel Franz Josef of the military hospital, Mrs. Podgoreanu, and the Prefect, as well as the Mayor, were all present. I had been asked to sit at the speakers' table, and at the end of the meeting I was called on to make whatever suggestions I thought necessary.
By this time I had worked long enough in the canteen to feel deeply the value of the work done there, and to realize how very shorthanded Mrs. Podgoreanu was most of the time. The dirt and confusion, the risk of contagion, the actual squalor and misery of many of the refugees, discouraged many workers from returning after one difficult day. I had not only given up most of the "free time" I had hoped to spend with the younger children in Bran, but I had actually brought the older children down to the station to help out now and then when we were desperate. I felt that if the women in Brasov could only understand the great need of these helpless victims of war they would respond in greater numbers, and I knew also that more help would be essential when the new hospital was opened. So, carried away by my enthusiasm, I made a strong appeal to the women present to do volunteer work for the Red Cross. I called on them to give an unstinted contribution of their time and strength in the many places they were so badly needed, and asked them to remember that the place of honor was where one was needed most. This place was seldom decorative or romantic, I told them, but instead was liable to be most tiresome and unpleasant, yet it offered a glorious chance to demonstrate their patriotism.
I do not remember what words I used, but I do remember that it was one of those rare occasions when I felt that what I had to say had gone directly from my heart to the hearts of others and had been received with perfect understanding. Since speaking in public is something I never do easily, I was pleased with the storm of applause that seemed to confirm my feeling of success. But alas for pride! It always comes to a fall!
More than a week later General Zwiedineck came to see me with a serious face. Since he had been my mother's aide-de-camp and trusted friend, and also looked after my business affairs in Romania, I knew him well, and I realized from his expression that something unpleasant was brewing. He did not keep me in suspense long, but spoke in stern accusation.
"You have addressed an appeal to the Romanian women! Both the Marshal and the court are very angry indeed!"
"But what nonsense!" I replied. "I never wrote a word or gave an interview to anyone! I have been working here at the canteen ever since I came from Austria!"
"Well, but what have you to say to this?" he insisted, and he opened a copy of Universul, the largest newspaper in Bucarest, so that I could see the black headline splashed across the page:
PRINCESS ILEANA MAKES AN APPEAL
I stared in horror. At first I was completely at a loss to understand what had happened, but as I looked at the article more closely I realized that it was a more or less accurate account of what I had said at the meeting in Brasov a week earlier, and had already nearly forgotten about. Only a modest article had appeared in the Brasov paper, but some reporter in the capital city—perhaps honestly intending to do good—had seen an opportunity for a feature story. He could hardly have done anything worse to me, for I was now in an unpleasant and difficult situation.
At this time Romania was under the military dictatorship of Marshal Antonescu, and the Marshal's wife was undisputed head of all relief activities. Both were good friends of mine, but I knew they could quite readily become most exasperated if things went wrong. Besides, power seems to go to the heads of even the best of people, and certainly theirs was no easy position. At this same time my nephew, the young King Michael, and his mother were living in dignified disapproval of the dictatorship, although wholeheartedly concerned with the problems of our country. In a momentary bit of harmony, the Queen and the Marshal's distant cousin, Premier Mihai Antonescu, had decided that she should write an appeal for aid to the refugees, and this was to appear in the newspapers the following day. It was at this unfortunate moment, General Zwiedineck told me coldly, that my own "appeal" had been headlined, completely stealing the thunder from the Queen's article.
I realized the seriousness of the situation even while I felt I had done nothing wrong. I immediately telephoned the Queen (my sister-in-law, Helen, who had divorced my brother Carol shortly after he first gave up his rights to the throne, in 1925) and explained the situation. She was so kind and understanding that I feared what later proved to have been the case; she had seen only the Brasov article, and not the Bucarest headlines. Then I called Mihai Antonescu, who had seen the headlines and who did not mince his words. It took some time for me to be heard at all, but after he had thoroughly expressed his feelings I finally managed to state authoritatively that I had written no word, and had addressed only the local women at the Governor's meeting. I reminded him that his own organization was to blame for an article quoting a member of the royal family having appeared in a newspaper without verification, and he finally admitted it. But none of this really helped the situation any, even though there were no further consequences. The Queen's appeal appeared a little limply; I felt guilty and unhappy when I was innocently congratulated by friends and officials on my own speech; and I was hurt by the reproaches I felt I had not deserved, and which had been heaped on me so quickly. I resolved once more to hold my tongue and to avoid all public appearances.
The whole experience had indicated freshly to me how difficult my situation in Romania might be. As the youngest of my family, and—because both my sisters had married—the only girl at home after World War I, I had been active in work for my country, as I have told you. I had gone everywhere, and ever since my own refugee experience as a little girl in Jassy I had been treated as a loved child of the people. Even after I married a Habsburg and went to live in Austria, the Romanians, who have a fine disregard for form, continued to consider me theirs, and this had annoyed some people very much. The law of Romania has a loophole for her departing daughters: they can petition to keep their citizenship if they marry foreigners. I had availed myself of this privilege, of course, but my bond with the people was much deeper than this, and both they and I knew it. That this warmed my heart was natural, as was the temptation to me to bask in this affection. Natural also, I suppose, was the resentment of this affection that was felt by others. My mother and I had suffered bitterly from this resentment during her lifetime. I had learned to try to stay out of the limelight, to keep in the shadow; but this was not always easy to manage with a people so enthusiastically demonstrative as the Romanians. They were often hurt by my evasions of them, and would reproach me for what they thought was my "change of heart." Now I realized that a resentment still existed, and at first I felt it would be a serious impediment to the work I hoped to accomplish.
With time, however, I came to understand that this also was a form of temptation. The wish to succeed the easy way, to take the road that lies open and clear before us, often makes our work superficial. Besides, an outward success is not an adequate measure of the depth and durability of what we accomplish. Worldly success did not crown even our Lord's life when He was on earth, though that work was divine and far above our own human efforts. If One as great and pure as He evaded popularity as a temptation, who was I—limited by human weakness, shortsighted and imperfect as I knew myself to be—to shirk this little cross? And good can be accomplished in a small and intimate way even better than in the larger and more impersonal ways. This I came to understand more and more. What greater honor can we ask than to be permitted to save a life? And this honor was to be vouchsafed me often.
But on that day in Brasov I did not foresee what lay before me. I found the reproaches I had received difficult to bear, although I was grateful that I felt only hurt and sorrowful, and not resentful. I have always prayed to avoid feeling bitter toward anyone, and my prayer has been answered. I reminded myself how often I had proved that when I went up what seemed to be a blind alley, if I could wholeheartedly give up and bow my head, if I could truly say, "Thy Will, not mine, be done!" a new and marvelous road would open before me. But it is so hard to give up! Deeply hurt, I left for a few days the work I loved, and went back to Bran and the younger children.
And as I went I felt a sorrowful longing to be a child again, and to be going to my father for comfort. Over and over again I remembered something that had happened to me when I was about sixteen. A cousin of mine had got us both into difficulties, and had laid the blame on me when I did not deserve it at all. Since the cousin was the daughter of my mother's favorite sister, and our guest, my mother hesitated to pass judgment on the matter. It was one of those completely unhappy moments the young experience. I felt that the whole world had turned against me unjustly; there was no hope or joy anywhere.
That night my father came home and heard the story. He was a quiet and reserved man, who never expressed himself without careful thought, and for that reason his words had special weight with everyone. You can imagine, then, how suddenly radiant my world became when I heard what he said.
"But I know my daughter very well, and I know she could not possibly have done this, whatever others may say about it."
And, although it was rare for him to express his affection for us, he came to the room where I lay crying bitterly and told me what he had said, and stayed with me quietly and comfortingly until I had fallen asleep.
Thinking of this as I rode to Bran, I felt desperately lonely for my father. I felt I needed his strength and his kindness, his deep understanding of life. But most of all, I felt, I needed someone to say of me:
"But I know my daughter very well, and I know she could not possibly have done this."