I Live Again by Ileana, Princess of Romania
NOW FOLLOWED a period of the curious calm that precedes a storm. The hospital continued to take shape before my admiring and still astonished eyes. Colonel Serbu came nearly every morning and evening to watch the growth of the building and he grew ever more enthusiastic over it. We had visions of what we might do after the war to enlarge and strengthen it; we even thought that we might then be able to add a school of nursing.
One day he said, to my surprise, "By the way, I have a whole operating theater over at the factory. Never used, you know. Put in when we added the dispensary. You can have it for your hospital."
In a day or two a lorry arrived with the big lamp, the operating table, a few instruments, and the essential and invaluable sterilizer. To me it was as if a gift had dropped from the skies, and I felt humbly grateful for the miraculous help I was being given.
On another day I went farther afield to get the pots and pans and all the other supplies of that sort that were needed. I drove to Medias, the birthplace of the little Romanian pony we had at Sonnberg, and at a factory there I received for half the factory price nearly all I needed, while at the same time I received from a glass factory the glasses and medicine bottles as a gift. On this trip I was able to take the children, and to make an excursion of it.
I was glad of every opportunity to have them with me, and also glad to contrive for them a little freedom and fun. It was not always easy to give them a fair amount of my time. Since the three older ones were in school during the spring, and Frau Koller was teaching the three younger ones while their nurse, Gretl, cared for them, I had felt satisfied about them then. The summer brought them more free time and also the joy of being together in the castle, which they loved. Frau Koller and Gretl were still constantly with them, so that I knew they were being well cared for during my absences, and all of them except Magi and Elisabeth were old enough to understand what work I was doing, and how much it was needed. Yet I was delighted with every chance to be with them, especially when I could try to re-create for them the Romania of my own childhood.
One of our most pleasant excursions had been to Sinaia in June. The Queen had come to lunch with us, and had visited the hospital annex at Bran Poarta, which she said she liked very much. Then, to the delight of the children, she had invited us all for lunch two days later, and we had driven over the mountains with a great deal of pleasant anticipation. A room at the Peles had been prepared for us, and until Sitta was ready I showed the children and Gretl over the palace. Then there was lunch at the Foisor, where Michael and Sitta were living, and more explorations by the children afterwards.
Michael was away just then, but his mother spoke quite frankly of many of their worries and difficulties, and I was pleased to find her feeling so pleasant and friendly. She ended by giving me a generous gift for my hospital, which made the day as completely happy for me as it had been for the children.
But it was after Anton's return that we had a special day of real and perfect enjoyment which I think each of us will always remember. It grew out of my need to visit Sibiu to inspect the beginning of the school for "seeing eye" dogs, which I had been instrumental in encouraging while I was still at Sonnberg. I was sure the trip would interest the children, and therefore we planned to make it a family party.
The training school for dogs was attached to the famous Sibiu Military School of Equitation, at the head of which was an acquaintance of my youth, Colonel Chirculescu. As a young sublieutenant he had suddenly come into prominence at the annual Military Horse Show because of his exceptional talent for training horses. With his own none-too-good army horse he had won the first prize, which was an Anglo-Arab from the state studs. Training his prize horse, he won with it another horse as first prize the following year; and with this second horse he won a third at the next show! At this point he retired from that particular competition himself, although he still trained horses for others. He himself, however, took many prizes in high jumping, and was the captain of our Romanian Military Team at the Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936—the team that won second place.
That had been an exciting event in my life in Austria, for after the Olympics were over the Romanian Military Team participated in another international competition in Vienna, and there they won first place. Anton and I were in a box a little to one side of the box where the President of the Republic sat, and I was of course full of joy at the triumph of my friends and countrymen. The fact that when the events were over the team came directly to our box and saluted me with full formality seemed perfectly natural to me—until they left us and went to the President's box for another military salute! It was then I suddenly realized that I was, after all, in Austria, and should not be given precedence over the head of the state. Anton and I walked over to meet the team as they dismounted, and I told them that they must not come again to my box, but must go to the President's box and be introduced to the dignitaries there, instructions which they protested about but finally accepted. I confess that I really did not much regret the honor they had done me: it would, I think, have been more than human not to love sharing in the triumph won by my small country over many larger than she. My greatest pleasure, however, came later; for we entertained the team at Sonnberg, where they enjoyed rides in Anton's plane, played with our three babies, and joined with me in reminiscences of Romania.
It was, therefore, with happy anticipation that I told the children about Colonel Chirculescu and his career, for he had been no less outstanding on the battlefield. Now at Sibiu he had succeeded in forming an outstanding school of riding, where the old traditions of formal horsemanship, as well as the most modern methods, were both wonderfully taught. One of his staff, who had lost his leg at the hip and could no longer ride, had found consolation in undertaking the work of training dogs for his blind comrades, which made Sibiu the center for this new project.
The day was glorious, and from beginning to end was free of air raids and even of warnings. The high grass in the fields through which we drove was full of flowers of every color, and the feeling of joy reminded me of days when I had joined in my parents' visits to all parts of Romania. At Sibiu, too, we were received with full honors—trumpet, a guard of honor, and formal presentation—just as in the old days, and the children, who had never seen this, were of course enchanted.
Such a reception began when the royal party was sighted, and the trumpeter blew the call that was the signal of the arrival or departure of any member of the royal family. In cities trumpeters were sometimes placed at intervals along the route, and each would blow the signal as the royal party approached him, so that the lovely succession of musical notes seemed to be traveling with us as we rode. At Sibiu, of course, there was only one trumpeter at the gates, but he flung the call out like a banner on the sparkling air. The guard of honor stood at attention, and Colonel Chirculescu waited for us with about twenty officers lined up behind him.
The formal pattern for the occasion was pronounced impressively: "I have the honor to present myself—" and then his rank and name, the number and title of the regiment he commanded, the fact that it had "an effective force" of so many officers, noncommissioned officers, men, and horses; all ending with the information that they were ready for inspection and awaiting my orders. It was a formula I had been familiar with since I was so small that, as I stood waiting to offer my hand, my head was at the level of the officers' belts. I had the double feeling now of hearing it myself and of hearing it through the ears of my own children. It brought back memories of my years of young womanhood; of my feeling of pride in representing the royal family, of anxiety that the affair, whatever it was, should go well, and also (I must confess) of an occasional mischievous wonder as to just what would happen on such a formal occasion if I actually gave an order to the regiment that was, theoretically, awaiting just such an event! However, on this occasion as on those in the past, I did not yield to such a temptation, but bowed, smiled, and thanked the Colonel, and then walked down the line of officers so that each could present himself individually.
With a small force such as was stationed at Sibiu this did not take long, even though Anton and the children followed me through the presentations. I well remembered military receptions where we spent several hours going through these formalities! Here it was soon over, but to the delight of the children they discovered that part of the formal visit of inspection included assigning an officer to each of them. They quickly made friends with their escorts, and thought it was wonderful to have a special person able to answer all of their innumerable questions about the school.
After we had visited the new kennels to see the dogs and had talked with the instructors and seen the plans for the whole installation (which was one of the many projects the Russians destroyed in 1946), we were invited to see a demonstration of riding. The men wore the old blue cavalry uniform that had been used before World War I; the horses were unbelievably handsome; the sun shone; the mountains made a perfect background. It was a holiday being made in our honor, and the very spirit of joy seemed to permeate everyone. The men performed all the intricate maneuvers of the carousels—the complicated drills with horses and riders moving in the spoke-and-wheel patterns that require such perfect training. Exhibitions of the different schools of training and jumping were given, even those of the Somur and of the Vienna Hochschule. There was high jumping, and then a display of cavalry military tactics. For the children's especial delight, the old post chaises and coaches were brought out of the museum, horses were harnessed to them, and the children were permitted to ride in them and even to hold the reins! Finally Colonel Chirculescu himself rode on one of his famous horses, and was just as wonderful as he should have been. The entertainment ended with an excellent meal served in high style while the military band played for us. It had been a perfect holiday; an excursion into the past and into "charmingness." For one day we forgot the war and all our troubles.
It was with redoubled energy that I returned to my daily work and the hospital rounds in Brasov and Bran. I had already decided to call the new hospital "Spitalul Inima Reginei"—The Hospital of the Queen's Heart. When my mother died in 1938 she left, besides her will, a letter to her people, and in this she explained a wish she had expressed to her family many years before. She asked that her heart should not be buried in the church at Curtea de Arges, where the bodies of the royal family were laid, but that it should be removed from her body and placed in the humble little church she herself had built on the shores of the Black Sea. She said that there it would be more accessible than in the royal burying place; that always during her lifetime her people had been able to bring their sorrows and their wishes to her heart, and that she wanted it to be so even after her death. So her heart had been taken to Balcic, her beloved home on the seashore; but the cruel decision at Vienna in 1940 had given that part of Romania to the Bulgarians. A few hours before they took possession of the land that Romania had been so unjustly blackmailed into giving up, my mother's faithful aide-de-camp, General Zwiedineck, had taken the casket containing the heart from the chapel and had carried it to Bran, where it was deposited in our small wooden church. Later I had had a little chapel carved out of the rock of the hill just behind the church, with a winding path and steps mounting up to it, and there I placed the casket containing the heart. There it stood apart and alone, a shrine easily accessible to all.
Ever since her death I had wanted to build a memorial for my mother, and because I have always been interested in sculpturing I had sometimes thought I might be able myself to create something which would express what she was. Now I realized that, instead, a place where those in pain could find comfort and healing was the most fitting memorial for one who had lived only to give and to comfort. Although the hospital would not be entirely finished on the twenty-second of July, I decided to have it blessed then because that was her name day. We made a great occasion of it. The Metropolitan Nicolae Balan of Transylvania came to officiate, and the entire service was held out of doors. Only for the actual blessing of the walls, with its symbolical sprinkling of water from the altar, did the priest go inside. The local authorities, our many benefactors, and as many of the hospital staffs as could come were invited. The weather smiled on us, the purpose and plan of the new hospital were appreciated and approved of, and many new offers of help were given. The Metropolitan made a most moving address, and I took this occasion to thank all those who had so generously helped to create this new center of healing.
There was in my mind that day only one question, but I was trying to think of it without too much anxiety. I had seemed able to get everything for the hospital except the sheets. All kinds of materials were difficult to buy as a result of the war, and when they could be obtained at all the prices made it almost prohibitive to think of getting enough linens to supply a whole hospital. I had begun to feel a little desperately that because of this lack we would be unable to use the hospital as soon as it was ready, badly needed as it was, when a friend said to me, perhaps not entirely seriously:
"But you who have so much faith—do you limit the power of God when it comes to sheets?"
I felt reproached by this, and from that time I tried to feel confident that this problem also could be solved, although I did not see how. This was the situation when one morning I woke up and had the curious feeling that there was a film over my left eye. I tried to rub and then to wash it away, but it remained the same. When I tried to focus my other eye to look in the mirror, that was difficult, too; so I went to Anton and asked him if he could see anything the matter. He told me that the pupil of the left eye was enormous, almost hiding the iris. My secretary drove me to Brasov, where the doctor tried to find out if I could possibly have got any solution splashed into my eye, perhaps in the hospitals, which could have had this effect, but I was sure I had not. He finally decided that it was simply a matter of general fatigue and overstrain, and that I must rest; this diagnosis was confirmed by a specialist in Bucarest whom Sitta highly recommended.
A little resentfully, therefore, I agreed to go to bed for a week. I have never been very strong, and it has sometimes seemed to me that my work has always been made harder by the fact that I so often feel ill or exhausted while I am doing it; a condition I have always found humiliating, for I had before me the example of my mother's health, always superb until her last illness. One day, while I was still "resting" unwillingly, I was told that a gentleman wished to see me, but of course he realized this was impossible if I was ill in bed. When I heard, however, that he was the proprietor of a big cotton mill on the south side of the mountain, and an acquaintance of Noelie's, I was alert at once. Waving convention aside, I had him shown up into my room, where I lay almost unseeing, and after I had excused myself I began to tell him all about the hospital. He seemed much interested, and said he would like to help. He felt the least he could do was to give me what I needed at cost, but he would have to talk with his brothers, who were partners in the business.
Two weeks later, when my eyes were once more functioning, a truck arrived with much more than I had ordered, and when I looked at the bills they were marked "Paid in full." With great joy Frau Koller sat herself down to do the necessary sewing, and I resolved to try harder not to let doubt cripple my work. It is actually a kind of conceit to do so, a feeling that it is our own work we are doing. If we acknowledge it to be God's work, certainly He is capable of bringing together men of good will who can be His instruments. Mr. Rizescu, the factory owner, and his family became great friends of ours. The children especially loved visiting them in their large log "block house" on the mountains above us; about six hours' climb from Bran. Just as I had in the past, so now my children loved climbing. Sometimes I regretted that I no longer had the time or the strength to join them.
August came, with the news from the front ever more frightening. In a sudden incomprehensible move the Germans took their best troops away from the Moldavian front, leaving our flank unprotected, and every available soldier was sent in a hurry to stop the gaps. General Tataranu was called back to the front, even though his Parkinson's disease was becoming worse, but before he left he brought his wife, his daughter, and his grandchildren to Bran. Our parting was a sad one. We had few illusions, but we would not give up hope for our country. It gave me a strange, lost feeling to part from him; he had been such a rock of efficiency and dependability. I wondered if we would ever meet again, and how.
Then we heard that the Russian offensive had started like a tidal wave. Wild rumors were everywhere; there were hints that Antonescu was losing his fight to avoid surrendering to the Russians without definite guarantees of Romanian independence; there were stories of German threats; of Russian threats; of threats of revolution; of vain appeals to Great Britain and the United States to say definitely what protection Romania would be given if she accepted the offer to "work her passage home," which Churchill had suggested. The soldiers in the wards followed me with pleading looks as I worked among them. What did the future hold for them? I could only tell them that whatever happened I would not leave them.
This seemed to comfort them, but I shuddered to think how little it might mean in reality. In spite of having kept my Romanian citizenship, I was also listed as a German citizen. Because of my frequent trips across the border during the past two years of working with the Romanian wounded in Austria, I had fallen into the habit of using my German passport. Using the Romanian one took a great deal of time because for every separate permission it had to be sent, with all the papers, to the Legation in Berlin, with the risk of its being lost or delayed on the way there and back. The authorities in Vienna, familiar with my work, gave me travel permission without delay. Therefore I myself was in Bran on a German passport, and my husband and children, as well as Frau Koller and Gretl, were listed as German citizens because Austria no longer existed as a separate nation. They had begun to urge recently that we get out of Romania while it was still possible, but I could not seriously consider deserting my country in time of danger. If the Russians came... But I firmly turned my mind away from this thought. It was little good wasting any energy in useless surmise. Everyone was suffering from weariness and war nerves; there was work to be done. If things grew worse, I knew I would need every bit of strength I had—and so I did. There were to be four years of continuous, unending strain, but happily I could not foresee this.