I Live Again by Ileana, Princess of Romania
IN BRASOV once more, I found an order for the establishment of the Red Cross hospital there. These hospitals in Romania were considered as being under the orders of the army, which provided the doctors, orderlies, and all the staff except the nurses, who were Red Cross. The linen, beds, and general equipment also belonged to the Red Cross, and the medical supplies came from both sources. The Bucarest Red Cross headquarters sent two excellent nurses to organize and begin this new unit—two sisters who had both had considerable hospital experience. The elder, Mrs. Simone Cantacuzino Pascanu, was a charming and gentle but energetic person, who for two years had nursed the incurable cases. She was to be head nurse, while her assistant would be her sister, Mrs. Nadeje Soutzo; a vivacious and enterprising young woman who had been with a field unit as far as Rostov-on-the-Don, nearly four hundred miles east of the Romanian-Russian border.
From the very first moment our understanding was perfect, and the three of us worked in harmony through good days and bad. I confess I had been a little anxious about the women who would be appointed to head the unit. When one is dealing with the horrible effects of war it may seem that matters of precedence and protocol are slight things to think of, but an awkwardness in the small relationships of life often becomes far more important than it should, if everyone is working under a great deal of nervous tension. I knew perfectly well that there could be embarrassing incidents. High-ranking officers of the military staff, together with government officials, visited hospitals at various times on trips of inspection of one sort or another. Even though, in accordance with the wish of Sitta and Michael, I joined the staff simply as one of the nurses, to the visiting officials I would always be the daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Marie, and the aunt of the reigning king. They would have felt it contrary to their habits of courtesy, as well as to all rules of etiquette, if they failed to treat me according to my rank. Fortunately both Simone and her sister had sufficient social experience and sufficient sense of humor to appreciate the situation. Such small matters as who received whom, who was presented to whom, and who went through a doorway first, were all handled to the satisfaction of our visitors without the administration of the hospital being disturbed in any way!
The two sisters faced the dangers of bombardment and of Russian occupation with the same harmony and good humor they were able to muster for the small, everyday worries of getting a new hospital in running order. Naturally it took courage, as well, to face many of these things, but a depressed or a bad-tempered courage does not carry you far, and we have all suffered from martyrs to duty who are continually pointing out the greatness of their devotion! I felt that the hospital was fortunate to be organized under such direction.
The first and most important problem was to find a suitable building for our three hundred fifty beds. General Tataranu and the Mayor were anxious to give us all possible help, but they had no jurisdiction over the one building that really pleased us, which was a high school belonging to the church. It was a beautiful and modern red brick building, named after one of the Orthodox Church's greatest Transylvanian prelates, Archbishop Saguna, who had been head of the church in that province about 1880. To use the building we would have to have the permission of the Metropolitan, who lived in Sibiu. This was a drive of only an hour or an hour and a half from Brasov, and I was happy to ask for an audience with him because he and I were old friends. This prince of our church had been one of Transylvania's greatest fighters for Romanian freedom from the rule of the Hungarians, and because he had much administrative capacity as well, the church in Transylvania had made great progress after its long years of repression. During my Y.W.C.A. activities I had often come in contact with him. In fact, it was under his sponsorship that the Y.W.C.A. had held its first rally in Sibiu in 1924, where at fifteen I made my first public address. Therefore, it was not difficult for me to approach him and explain our need of the high school building, and I returned to Brasov with the desired permission.—Knowing as I do his devotion to the cause of our freedom, I cannot help wondering today what has happened to him to make him co-operate with the Russians, as I hear he has.
Now my work fell into a regular pattern, although I still expected that I would be returning to Austria in a few weeks at most—as soon as the difficulties between Germany and Hungary were finally settled. In the meantime I spent three mornings a week on bringing up to date the courses in nursing at the military hospital, and four mornings at the station canteen. The afternoons I spent in helping to organize the new Red Cross hospital, and often in the evenings I would return to the canteen to give Mrs. Podgoreanu a helping hand. Terrible sights still passed before my eyes, and there were days when I felt that even the burden of witnessing it all was too much to endure. Now, today, I still feel that of all the sorrows of war, those of the fleeing and of the refugee are the worst. Bombardments are destructive and terrible, but they are swift cataclysms that leave you either alive or dead. You know where you are, so to speak. But to the fugitive and the refugee there is one long-continued misery for which there can be no end, either happy or unhappy.
The days of March and early April passed. Catholic Easter was celebrated, and I took that day to go to Bran and attend service with all my children. Spring advanced, with all its hopes of returning life in nature. Lent for the Orthodox Church ended, and our Easter, which has to be after the Passover, was about to dawn. Once more I returned to Bran to be with the children for the service.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church we celebrate the resurrection at midnight on Saturday. At first one enters a still darkened church, in which prayers are being read in a low monotonous chant. There are no lights, and the church is shrouded in the mourning used on Good Friday, when the service is really a funeral service in memory of the funeral of Christ. At midnight, the dawn of Easter Sunday, the altar doors are flung open and the officiating priest comes out in golden vestments, carrying a lighted taper, and saying:
"Take light from me!"
The congregation, each holding an individual taper, light theirs from his and follow him out of the church, where the service is read out of doors. At the words "Christ is risen!" the choir bursts into triumphant song, and the whole congregation, joining in the hymn, follows them back into the church, which is now full of light and flowers, with every sign of mourning taken away. There the Mass is celebrated. Whether it is performed in a cathedral with all pomp and ceremony or in a small village shrine, the service never fails to be beautiful and moving. Now, because of the war and the necessity for the blackout, the services all over Romania were postponed to the early morning. It was at the very earliest dawn that we gathered in our humble but beautiful wooden sanctuary in Bran, and that service remains ever present in my mind. There was something not of this earth in the half-light; something that made one feel nearer to the women who went to the grave in sorrow, to have it turned into joy on that first Easter morning.
This feeling of peace and beauty was still with me when, later in the morning, I left my children in Bran and went to celebrate Easter Sunday also with the ill and wounded of the military hospital in Brasov. It was April 16, one of those perfect spring days with the wonderful promise of greenness seeming to hover over the woods and fields. The air was crystal clear and the sun shone warmly from the intensely blue sky. For once I laid aside my nurse's uniform and put on the Romanian peasant dress: the overskirt, the wide belt, the embroidered white blouse with its full sleeves, and the long head veil that is worn by married women. This, I thought, would make the soldiers feel that I was making the day one of festival.
I was joined by General Tataranu and other officials in the large hall of the hospital, where the gifts, the red Easter eggs, the cozonac, and the wine were set out. The army priest read the prayers of blessing, with those of the patients who could leave their beds sitting around him. There was an atmosphere of peace and brotherly love which triumphed over the small troubles and irritations of those who are wounded and those who are tired, who must live together day after day and night after night.
The service over, I went to take a share of the eggs and gifts to the men who could not leave their beds. It was at this moment that the General's aide-de-camp came and told me enemy planes were heading for Brasov. Quick orders were given for the evacuation to the shelters of patients who could go by themselves, but to my horror I learned that the dugout for the stretcher cases was not ready and that there was no shelter for them. They were brought into the central hall, which was considered the safest place inside the hospital, and I prepared to remain with them, but the General refused his consent. When I insisted, he spoke sternly.
"Must I remind you," he said, "that I am in command? This is no moment and there is no need for you to demonstrate your courage. Just now you are a liability, for which I would be held responsible, and you must be protected. Remember also that I will need your help when it is over."
That seemed to settle it, although I felt that inward protest one always feels when a spontaneous impulse is suddenly thwarted. I stepped out into the courtyard to make my way to the dugouts on the hillside just as the first wave of planes was overhead. They were silver and beautiful against the blue sky, so that for an instant they seemed no part of war and destruction. Then suddenly the air was rent by a tremendous sound, and engulfing dust and acrid fumes seemed to surround us from all sides. It was as if a huge, impersonal hand pushed me down flat on my face. Stunned and deafened for a moment, I was roused by the terrified shrieks of a woman whom I saw running downhill and away from safety, carrying a child in her arms. I scrambled to my feet and caught up with her. There was no time to argue even if she could have heard me, so I chose an easier way to stop her. I snatched the child from her arms and turned and ran up the hill, while she followed me, still screaming. We reached the dugouts and jumped into a trench just as the second wave of bombs fell. When the dust cleared a little for the second time I found myself surrounded by weeping women and terrified young girls. I was a little surprised to find that I felt no fear and that I could repeat the 91st Psalm. Slowly it calmed the others, and they quieted. It was then that my own self-control was most threatened, for I saw when I opened my eyes that on each side of me they had taken hold of my long head veil, and had spread it over their heads as if for protection, as if they were indeed my children.
How much time passed before the raid ended is no longer clear to me: there were to be so many raids! I remember that when it was over I went at first to the station, the bomb holes in the roads making it difficult to get through the city, for I knew help might be needed more there than at the hospital with its regular staff. I found the station with its walls still standing, but otherwise a complete ruin. The railway lines themselves were a mass of twisted iron, with destroyed and burning carriages strewn about the yards and oil fires springing up in great tongues of flame. To my relief and joy, there was Mrs. Podgoreanu, calmly attacking the heaps of ashes and burning refuse. Since happily the dispensary, though windowless, was still partly standing, I was able, with what I could salvage quickly and with what I had in a first-aid kit I always carried, to treat several of the wounded before the ambulances arrived.
Once they had got through and rescue work was begun, General Tataranu came to tell me that all hands were badly needed at the military hospital. How we wished that the Red Cross hospital was finished and also functioning! Changing quickly into uniform, I went with him and found a truly dreadful scene of confusion. The wailing cries, the deep anguished groans, and the horrible sights where it was impossible to distinguish man from woman, or the living from the dead, were enough to appall anyone; yet the urgent need, the absolute must with which we were faced, made even the horror insignificant.
Only once did my knees give way under me. A man who had not seemed very badly hurt suddenly struggled wildly for breath, and in his paroxysms tried to jump off the table. A doctor called me to help hold him down, and as I bent over him a jet of blood from a small wound in his chest suddenly spurted out and hit me in a warm sticky stream on my neck, and gushed down my chest. Instantly I put my fist over the hole, pressing hard, but one of the principal arteries was pierced, and my efforts were vain. It was then that my knees buckled, but the cry of a child close by forced me to forget my deep-seated horror of blood, and to look for it. The poor little thing lay unhurt on a stretcher beside its dead and mangled mother. I picked it up, still feeling dizzy and a little vague, and finally deposited it temporarily in the bed of a willing and kindly soldier, where it stayed until later that night, when I found a proper place for it.
In such ways all of us who were able to do so continued to work until a little order and comfort had been brought out of the confusion, but by that time wounded from the neighboring villager were being brought in. The General appeared again, tired and drawn with strain and fatigue, to ask me to accompany him to other hospitals. He said that in one there were wounded men back from the front who had not suffered actual hurt from the bombardment but were badly shaken in nerves. Could I possibly clean myself up and go with him to give them their delayed Easter gifts? He felt that such an informal visit would calm them, and stop the harm their present nervous and disturbed condition was doing them.
For a moment, as I looked about me and thought of what I had been doing, the idea of giving Easter eggs and holiday bread to men lying in clean, unbloodied sheets seemed so incredible as to be madness. Was it only this morning that our holiday gifts had been spread in this hall? But obediently I found a clean apron. The source of the water supply had been damaged, and water was scarce, so I used only enough to get rid of the blood that showed before going with the General to carry an Easter greeting.
I continued to have this dreamlike feeling during our other visits of inspection, and it was not until after we had finished that I realized suddenly I had had nothing to eat since the early morning breakfast after the Resurrection Service in Bran that morning. I stopped for some food, and then took the baby from his guardian soldier and found a nursing home for him. After that I was free to go back to Bran and to my family, where there would be water enough finally to wash away the blood that had dried on me and on my clothing.
As I drove I thought hack over the incredible hours that had passed since I went over the same road on my way to Brasov that morning. It was of course not the first bombardment I had witnessed. As a child I had lived through many in World War I, and in World War II, I had been through more than a dozen in Berlin. Yet these later ones had always happened to be in another section of town, and unless one is in the thick of it one does not realize how terrible it can be. I remembered that I myself, hearing descriptions of a raid which had not come very near me, had thought, After all, it can't be so bad as all that! It is a sad truth that we seldom really understand the pain of others and are rarely deeply moved by what does not happen to ourselves. Until we somehow overcome this, there is little hope that the world will improve, for obviously no one of us can experience everything in one lifetime. I feel that we should try harder to develop our understanding of evil things we have not experienced, and so be better able to sympathize and help others.
"After all, it can't be so bad as all that!"
It is a comforting thought, but the comfort is false. Somewhere that evening there was a radio news commentator who must have had that comforting thought, for otherwise he would not have described any bombardment in quite the terms he did. I had been welcomed by my relieved family and had cleaned myself thoroughly. Alone in my bedroom I was realizing that the air raid had brought keenly home the fact, so regretted in Romania, that overwhelming circumstances had made the United States our enemy. It seemed to me a tragic thing that on the crowds of families going home from church on Easter Sunday it had been American bombers that dropped bloody death and suffering. The things I had seen that day rose before my eyes again, and I prayed earnestly for peace. Surely, I thought, surely in America they also pray for an end to something so dreadful, even though in their homes and in their churches the families of their soldiers are safe from death from the skies. And then Stefan and Minola burst into my room, pale and horrified. They had already seen enough of war to imagine what Brasov had been like on this Easter, and they had been listening to the short-wave radio with its comments on the news of the day. Clearly and cheerfully—almost gaily—the voice of the commentator had come to them:
"The city of Brasov in Romania today received its Easter eggs!"