I Live Again by Ileana, Princess of Romania
WHEN I had returned to Bran from Bucarest in the fall of 1944 I gathered strength as quickly as possible to face the difficulties that pressed in on every side. As is so often the case, once I had overcome my own fears and depressions, help proved to be at hand. The headmaster of the village school said that he had received no order against accepting my children as pupils, and as long as he knew nothing of the situation officially, why not let him have them? This took care of Niki, and of Minola, Alexandra, and Magi, for of course Elisabeth was not yet of school age. Since Stefan was too far advanced for the village school, a solution was found for him by enrolling him unofficially in the Saguna, the school in whose building the Brasov Red Cross hospital was lodged. Teachers from there were scattered about in Bran, and one of the local priests was an ex-schoolmaster, so that Stefan could study at home and take his exams in the summer when the other boys did. This was a great weight off my mind, and it confirmed my trust in the love of the people themselves.
We had heard that the Russians would not take the road through Bran, because the bridges along that route were bad, but suddenly parts of their army began arriving. Word ran before them of the way they "lived on the country" as they advanced; of their raping and stealing. Women, livestock, cars, and watches seemed to have the most attraction for them, we heard. The peasants drove their animals into the mountains, hid their wives and daughters, and waited. There was no protection to be obtained anywhere. Since our garage stood directly on the highroad itself, it offered no hiding for the cars that were so necessary to us. We had not only those used for our family—for transporting farm produce, getting supplies, and doing necessary business in a village without public transportation—but we also had the truck and station wagon that were necessary for the hospital work. Finally we took the best cars into the garden and covered them with branches and straw to make them look like piles of compost, and to our relief they escaped the Russian eye. For the hospital no concealment was possible. It was reached from the main road by crossing the river on a bridge that ended in the courtyard of the hospital itself. We therefore trusted in the invaders' respect for wounded, but it was not until later we realized how wrong we were to believe this existed. It was nothing short of a miracle that saved the situation: the Russians simply never crossed the bridge.
Can you think what it is like to sit waiting for brigands, knowing that you are at their mercy, that there is no law or order to which you can appeal? It is a condition which American civilization has forgotten about since the days of its frontier. The Soviet army was not like anything which had been seen since the days of Genghis Khan's Tartar hordes. Soldiers arrived on foot, in carts, on horseback, in haphazard groups. Sometimes there were many, sometimes few, but they were all armed to the teeth with the most modern weapons. They did not worry about food or anything else. With frightening and unhuman simplicity they took what they wanted at the point of a gun, and they shot at people with that complete lack of feeling which a normal man has when he shoots at a cardboard target.
The villagers soon discovered that it was best to put at their disposal a certain amount of food and livestock: an expensive arrangement, but one that was safer in the end, even though it began the disruption of the economic system of a community which made it easier for the Party to "take over" later. The problem of the women was a more serious one, and there were terrible, unbelievable scenes of which I cannot write. Not even old women were spared. The terrifying part was the methodical brutality with which everything was done. The Russians did not seem to enjoy either their power or their sins. Slowly I began to see the horrible tragedy of these people, who had been robbed of their very souls, so that their reactions were not even animal but purely functional. I finally understood, also, what had at first seemed so surprising to me: that they robbed rich and poor alike. They had no standards by which to distinguish between one person and another. In Russia everything belongs to the state; the individual has no personal property apart from the minimum of bare necessities. To the Russians, even the poorest peasant had in his home possessions which seemed luxurious to them, and they took ruthlessly whatever they walked past.
It became dangerous to go even to Bran Poarta, and since of course I could not get to Brasov at all, it was fortunate that I could keep in contact with the hospital there by telephone. Their great trouble at first was that they had some German wounded who were prisoners, and that they also had as patients some of the Tudor Vladimirescu. This was an organization of Romanian prisoners who had been in slavery in Russia since the early days of the war, completely cut off from their homes and families and given entirely false information by their captors about what was happening in their country. Both pressure and eloquence were used upon them to induce them to become the leaders in a "new Romania"—which, Ana Pauker and other gifted Communists assured them, had the complete backing of both Great Britain and the United States. Eventually Lieutenant Colonel Nicolae Cambrea, who had always opposed the alliance with Nazi Germany and had himself been captured at Stalingrad, was persuaded to assume the leadership of a group to be called "Tudor Vladimirescu," a name in the heroic Romanian tradition which had the atmosphere for our people that a "Lincoln Division" or a "Nathan Hale Division" or a "Rodger Young Division" might have for you, and which certainly had no association with Communist aims. Since at this time Stalin had been successful in deceiving the representatives of both Great Britain and the United States as to his intentions, it does not seem remarkable that these hopelessly starved, exhausted, and oppressed soldiers could also be deceived. In fact, as I learned more about it, it was a source of pride to me that so many of the hundreds of thousands of mistreated, hopeless, homesick Romanian prisoner-slaves resisted both punishment and persuasion, and refused to make any sort of terms with their ancient enemy.
Understanding what had happened to them, however, made the Tudor Vladimirescu no less difficult to get along with, especially when they first returned with the Russians. It was some time before they fully realized how completely they had been deceived about conditions at home, and before they understood that they had been used simply as gullible tools of the Russians, thrown into the war against the Germans and killed in large numbers, so that at first only those who were wounded were allowed to be sent home. These men were arrogant and demanding to begin with, so that in the Red Cross hospital in Brasov, for example, they had "ordered" that all the German wounded must be thrown out of the place at once! They were made no less difficult to deal with by discovering that the Romanian wounded regarded them as traitors and fought to avoid even being in the same ward with them. The initials of their organization, "T.V.," were embroidered on their uniforms as part of their insignia, and the other Romanians promptly took the position that these initials stood for "T'ai vandut"—You have sold yourself—a taunt which of course infuriated the Tudor Vladimirescu.
Conditions became so difficult that I finally determined I must somehow get to Brasov, and I got help from the workmen at my hospital, where some last construction was still going on. A group of them going to town in a truck offered to take me with them. It was a most amusing drive, with the truck crowded with all sorts of people, all determined to seem cheerful and show the Russians that they were not going to get the better of us; we could still govern our lives to some extent, and get from Bran to Brasov when it was necessary! They found it great fun to have me with them, and when we had arrived safely in Brasov they deposited me at the hospital door, promising to stop for me again in the evening. It was a sweet illusion for both of us!
I was received with open arms and decided relief, and when I did the rounds we all behaved as if I had been away for ages, so much had happened since we last saw one another. It was sad for me to find among the new arrivals some of the boys whose feet I had washed on that day when they marched through Bran! My contact with the Tudor Vladimirescu was strange. I could see their old feelings fighting with the new, and leaving them uncertain how one should behave to a princess-nurse in the "new" Romania; therefore, I treated them just as I did the others—as wounded men who, because of their wounds, had a claim on my care and love. As time went on I found that this was the right way to handle them, and in fact as I heard their stories and realized how their pain and hunger and their despair of ever seeing their homes and families again had been played upon, and how they had been deceived as to the purpose of the Russians, I came not to blame them so much. At the same time, however, my admiration for the great majority of our officers and soldiers, who had resisted this pressure and who, therefore, had remained in slavery, became almost a reverence for their courage and endurance.
We finally installed our German prisoners in an attic on the top floor, where we made them as comfortable as possible and put them in charge of their own doctors. The entire hospital staff behaved wonderfully in this difficult situation and met it efficiently and calmly. Simone and Nadeje were excellent, as usual, and when the T.V.'s still showed signs of being difficult, Simone proposed that they and the German prisoners should exchange wards if they really thought the attic more pleasant—which settled matters for the time being.
It is a painful moment when one has to choose between two demands and two loyalties. I felt that I ought to stay at the Brasov hospital for a time, but I did not feel at this point that it was at all safe for me to leave my family. Therefore, when toward evening I received word that the Russians had taken the workmen's truck (so much for the Rights of the Workers! ) and that I was stranded, I was anxious. Suddenly I thought of my friends, the firemen at the barracks, and they were quite happy to send me back on a fire engine, the one car the Russians never offered to take! Since most of us have felt the urge to ride on a fire engine, you can understand that it was an amusing occasion for me in spite of everything, even though the springs were not ideal and the road even less so.
The passing of Russian troops through Bran gradually decreased, and for a time dwindled almost entirely away. Most of the summer visitors managed to return to their homes in one way or another, which left me practically without nurses. Noelle had been obliged to move to other quarters for the winter, since the house of mine that she was using could not be heated. Although she remained in Bran she took up the work of buttermaking in order to earn a living for her family until her husband could find a position, and this meant that she could give little time to the hospital. The same situations began to occur in Brasov, so that the hospital there could let me have only one nurse, who did night duty for me. For the day there were the hospital cook's daughter and a girl who came from the village in the morning, besides me, but since only about ten of our cases were critical ones we were able to manage even though my two "assistants" were untrained and inexperienced. They were both willing and obedient, and then, too, soldiers are always good about making their own beds and helping one another when they are able to. We had a resident student-doctor who was very proficient, and one of the surgeons from Brasov visited us regularly.
It was this shorthanded condition of the hospital which started me on a phase of nursing which I had avoided up to this time. As the result of an accident, the toe of a workman from one of the nearby factories had to be amputated. The surgeon came, but the student-doctor happened to be ill, and there was no one else to assist. I offered my services, and since there was nothing else to be done the surgeon accepted them and instructed me briefly. We washed and put on sterile clothes and gloves, the man was brought in, a local anesthetic was given, and the operation started. I was more than nervous, and full of fear that I would not do the right thing, but all went well until I had to hold the flesh apart while he began hacking at the bone. I felt weak all over; perspiration ran down my back; a terrible nausea and faintness began to come over me.
"You must stand it now!" the surgeon said sternly, and by a great effort of will I did, but it was quite dreadful. From that day forward I decided there was to be an end of this weakness. I began to concentrate upon the operating theater. Slowly and painfully I overcame my sickness and abhorrence, until finally I could watch intelligently and understand what was being done. I read textbooks and made drawings, and at last I became a proficient assistant, able to do surgery myself in later emergencies—but this came about slowly and with the development of the hospital.
One morning I had another urgent call from Brasov. They were in great trouble, and I must come. I decided to "unbury" my car and risk the drive, since actually nothing was safe anyway, and I did get to Brasov without difficulty. What I found was appalling. The Russians were moving into the town in great numbers and with their wounded, and they had decided to take over the Red Cross hospital. We had to move out within three hours, and whatever was left behind at the end of that time would belong to the Russians. It was a stupefying situation. Even though the German prisoners had been moved a few days before to a prison camp, there were still more than three hundred fifty patients in the hospital, besides all our equipment.
My first instinct was one of revolt and refusal, but I was overruled. In fact, the moving was already under way, since a place had been found in a Hungarian Catholic convent. It was a horrid old, dark building, the inmates of which were anything but glad to see us. This was understandable from their point of view, but nevertheless infuriating from ours. Fortunately, the Saguna stood on a big square and public garden, and with the help of all the neighbors and any of the wounded able to walk, we carried out the seriously wounded in their beds to the garden, and heaped all our possessions next to them as quickly as possible. In this way the building was actually emptied of nearly everything in less than three hours, but it still left us with the problem of moving to our new headquarters. Since we had only one ramshackle ambulance and one truck, this was difficult, but we finally got help from the regiments near us and from one of the factories. We worked so far into the night that I spent the rest of it with friends and did not return to Bran until the next morning; something which made me anxious about my family because of this new approach of the Russians.
Simone and Nadeje were wonderful in setting up the hospital in the new location, but they now had to return to Bucarest to their own families. The Brasov chapter of the Red Cross had to take over the hospital, and I felt anxious because I did not feel that any of the women were really experienced enough to do this. So it proved, and eventually a fine woman was sent out from Bucarest; a nurse, who, having lost her only son in Russia, had no interest in life except to help the wounded. I myself was continually bound more and more to Bran, since the hospital there continued to grow and demanded my whole attention, and my visits to Brasov became rarer and even more irregular. Usually they were to smooth out difficulties arising in times of such stress, for to keep peace between the doctors, the nurses, the Red Cross workers, the nuns, and the wounded was not always easy. Everyone suffered from the cramped quarters, the enormous difficulties of getting provisions, the continual danger from the Russians, and the growing arrogance of the newly developing "Communist Party." Its membership was composed of various malcontents with their own axes to grind, few of whom had, a few months before, given so much as a thought to the Party.
More and more serious cases were in the meantime being sent to Bran, so that a resident doctor was necessary. At first we suffered from the impractical plan of a rotating system of different doctors. Hardly had we got used to one before he was changed for another, and while some were good, others were not. Since I felt that in the work of healing one should put forward one's best efforts, I had a few misunderstandings with one or two of our visiting staff who took their work a little casually, and I am quite sure there were those who disliked me intensely. It became more and more difficult to work this way, and finally—thanks to an inspection visit of the Commanding General, Vasiliu Rascanu—I obtained permission to have Dr. Dragomir, second surgeon from the Z.I. 161, the Brasov hospital, detached permanently and assigned to Bran.
He was a young but earnest surgeon, and we worked wonderfully well together. He entered wholeheartedly into my plans of coming to the assistance of the population around us in the mountains, even though this represented enormous work; for the hills were steep and the houses far apart. We spent nearly all our afternoons on these "rounds," for while we could take civilian men patients, we had no women's ward.
I well remember getting a telephone call one evening from a neighboring village where a woman was bleeding to death after a miscarriage. We rushed into the car and drove off into the night. It was dark and cold; a misty sleet was falling, warning us of the coming winter. After a little difficulty we found the house, far up in a narrow alley. We entered the badly lighted room where the woman lay on a bed which had been tilted up in the hope of stopping the flow of blood. Around her stood all the family and many of the neighbors; the noise was deafening, the air stale and bad smelling. The first thing to do was to clear the room of people, and then to get hot water and as much light as possible. Working chiefly with the help of my flashlight reflected from a mirror, and using the few instruments at our disposal, we gave her the necessary injections. While we worked, I made up my mind that we must plan to have emergency kits with the necessary instruments and dressings ready, and that somehow I must manage to have room for women in the hospital.
We managed to leave our patient fairly comfortable, and the next day we brought a specialist out for her. She was operated upon in my hospital, but had to be cared for in the civilian hospital in Bran, an inadequate building run by the village doctor, who had lorded it over everyone for years but had taken little trouble in practising his art. He had long since lost contact with modern methods, since he was much more interested in politics than in medicine, and I could not approve of most of the things he permitted in his hospital.
At another time we had a call about a woman far away up a distant valley to which we could get only on foot. We found her suffering from meningitis and beyond any help except what comfort good care could bring her. We rigged up a stretcher, as I had learned to do in my Girl Scout days, out of a rug and two stout poles, and in this way we got her as far as the car, and then to the civilian hospital. Once again I found much to be displeased with in the way she was cared for, but in her case it did not make any difference in the result, because death was inevitable.
The next woman patient I had was dying of a terrible tubercular abscess of the thigh, and since I could not bear the thought of sending her to the other hospital, I arranged a bed for her in the laundry at Spitalul Inima Reginei. When we saw her end was near we sent her home, since I knew how strongly the peasant wishes to die in his own home, among his own family. The doctor, the student, and I climbed the mountain every third day to change her dressings and to give her a few hours' rest with morphine. She died on Christmas Day, and our last visit to her was on Christmas Eve. I shall always remember that walk, which took us two hours because of the snow. It was a beautiful climb: the snow so sparkling, the sky so blue, the air so clean and clear! One felt that all should be well in a world so beautiful. Then in a moment there was the dark little house, with the poor girl on her bed of suffering. She knew that she was dying, and took a loving farewell of me, throwing herself into my arms and then blessing me—as is our habit—by making the sign of the cross on my forehead. Then I laid her down on the bed and blessed her in my turn, and no one's eyes were dry.
In November we had had to leave the castle and settle down for the winter in the house at the foot of the hill. This was quite a problem because it had not been intended to accommodate so many, and none of us had ever dreamed of spending the whole year in Bran. There were the six children, Anton and I, Frau Koller, Gretl, and Bittermann. In addition to these, I had with me Sandu, the blind officer I had first met in Austria, with his faithful batman, and the seeing-eye dog we had got him in Vienna. I had invited him to spend the summer with us, and now that he had no place to go he of course remained with us—we all liked having him, and the children enjoyed helping to care for him. The housing and feeding of all these people, however, was a problem, and there were also the doctor, the medical student, and two nurses who had to have living quarters provided for them. It was now two nurses instead of one because, by the greatest good fortune, a Red Cross nurse had almost literally turned up on my doorstep one day. She was strong, energetic, and capable, and the best night nurse I ever had. Her husband had disappeared, and she did not know whether he had been taken by the Russians or the Germans, so she begged me to take her in and let her help me and it proved a blessing to all of us. It was two years before she heard from her husband, who had managed to reach France, and later she was able to follow him there.
In spite of everything, our Christmas in 1944 was a blessed one, and included the visit to the mountain home I have mentioned. We had a tree in our small room, and even though not many people could get in at any one time, I kept to the tradition of having everyone invited. The village children sang carols under our windows, and we gave them cozonac, hot tea, and a few pennies. For the wounded I had a separate tree, which also was lovely; and of course there was a tree in Brasov at the Z.I. 161 as well as at the military hospital and at still another hospital which I visited whenever I could. At both these latter hospitals there were wounded German prisoners to whom I could speak in their own language—remembering how the year before I had visited the Romanian wounded in Austria—and I found among them the wounded Austrian from Bran.
I managed also to visit the prison hospital and to see there the son of one of our village priests, who was detained for political activity even though he was ill of tuberculosis of the bone. The Communists were beginning their drive against anyone suspected of being against them, and this boy at the age of eighteen had been given a sentence of twenty-six years in prison. I used every influence I could think of to get him out, but I did not succeed until much later—when it was too late for him, except that he could at least die in comfort in our hospital. However, thanks to my permission to see him, I was able to visit all the other sufferers, both the political ones and the ordinary delinquents, and to bring them a little Christmas cheer. This visit had no bad consequences for me, but I was never allowed to visit the prison again.
We had a heavy winter, with deep snow and tremendous drifts. The hospital proved easy to heat, and slowly it was getting more organized. We straightened out small difficulties, and we had regularly fifty or sixty patients—soldiers, factory workmen, and at one time three children who had been operated on for bone trouble in their feet. They were from a very poor quarter of Brasov, and the excellent bone specialist who operated on them asked us to take them because they needed special care. I had to put them with the soldiers, and while this worked out quite well, I realized that there must someday be a children's ward in our hospital.
One afternoon in January, feeling very tired and as if I were getting a chill, I had taken a bath and was getting ready for bed when one of my nurses, who was also a midwife, came to tell me there was a woman in the civilian hospital who was dying in childbirth. Nothing could be done for her in Bran; she must be taken to a specialist in Brasov as the only possible hope. I was appalled. For three days no car or cart had managed to break through the snowdrifts, and of course, since we had been "liberated" by the Russians, there were no such things as snowplows to clear the roads to unimportant villages like ours. Anton came in while we were discussing it.
"Why not try to get through?" he said. "Whether she dies here or on the way will not make much difference to her, and if you get through you may save her!"
With this encouragement I got up and dressed, although I fear not willingly because I felt so ill and the whole project seemed so hopeless. But Anton insisted that we try, and got the permission of the guard to come with us part of the way to help us through the worst of the snow. We went in two cars: I in one with the woman and her husband, the nurse, and Bittermann; and Anton and two gendarmes in the other. We crossed fields to dodge drifts; we got stuck and dug ourselves out again. The wind howled and cut through our wraps like a knife whenever we had to get out and dig in the snow, and it grew steadily darker. When at last we got to where a road was partly cleared, and Anton and his guards parted from us, the woman was moaning but at least still alive.
After what seemed another eternity we entered the darkened streets of Brasov, empty of course of all civilians, since no one dared go abroad after dark. The Russians robbed and murdered with absolute freedom whenever they felt inclined, and there was a death penalty for any man who defended himself from them. Only Russians were to be seen, and occasional shots were heard from all quarters of the compass. This last, by the way, is a specialty of Russian occupation; they seem always to be shooting, although the questions "At what?" and "Why?" remain gruesomely unanswered.
On this night no one stopped us, and we arrived at the hospital, where they had been warned by telephone to expect us. The woman was rushed to the operating room and put under anesthesia, while she hung on to my hand, crying my name, until she was mercifully asleep. This was the first confinement I had attended as a nurse, and it was such an unnatural one that it seemed to me miraculous that it could be accomplished. The child lived; the woman was saved; and I should have liked to kneel down there and give thanks.
After I had helped get the woman to bed I spent the rest of the night with a friend, and I found when I had time to think of it that I had entirely recovered from my own threatened illness! The next morning I went back to the hospital, after finding with difficulty some small presents to take to the new baby and to the other babies there, and I remained to stand as godmother at the christening. Later in the day we returned home safely, although not without getting stuck a few times. However, since we were not racing with death, none of us minded it as much as we had the night before.
The whole experience made me feel that, whatever happened, I must make a ward for women. The only space at the moment was a little cottage just across the road from the hospital, which my mother had built for summer guests. It was not equipped for winter use, so that I had to wait for warmer weather to open it officially, but I began collecting supplies at once. In the spring, I thought, Spitalul Inima Reginei would have a women's ward with five beds!