I Live Again by Ileana, Princess of Romania
THE QUESTION of "war criminals" now came up in a terrible way. There was a so-called "People's Tribunal" set up, which certainly had little to do with the Romanian people. It reminded one uncomfortably in its procedures of similar tribunals in the French Revolution. The difference was that this was an imposed way of doing things, regarded with disfavor and mistrust by the great majority of the people themselves, instead of being something which had sprung more or less spontaneously into being because of real public feeling. Like the other "demonstrations," which were reported as being the expression of the national feeling, it was artificially induced and supported, and the threat that gave it existence was the simple one of death to those who protested. Many did, and many therefore died; but there were of course always some who saved their skins by lending their names and presence to the Communist plans.
The first victims to come before the People's Tribunal were a number of generals who had fought in Bessarabia and in Russia, and who had been in punitive actions in the military campaigns there. It was interesting to note that even while the "trials" for such actions in time of war were taking place, Russians were doing much worse things in Romania in what was supposed to be a time of peace. The chief crime of the generals was actually that of their having executed orders, but it was those who had fought on "sacred" Russian soil who were singled out for punishment. Soon the horrible news arrived that they were condemned to death.
Now, the death penalty is against the Romanian Constitution, as well as against the religious principles of Romanians. It existed only on the front, in time of war, for spies and traitors. Since this sentence of the so-called People's Tribunal was therefore breaking one of the fundamental laws of the country, the point at issue immediately ceased to be whether or not the generals were guilty as charged. It became the question whether or not Romanian generals were to be condemned to a penalty contrary to the Constitution, in a court contrary to law (since officers can be judged only by a military tribunal), and by persons we did not count as Romanians. The indignation aroused everywhere was great, and all spoke openly about it but no one seemed really to be doing anything about it. Indignation was voiced, but no protest was really addressed to the authorities.
I was as indignant as everybody else. I stormed and raged and asked why no one protested. Then I thought to myself, After all, I am just as bad as everyone else. I am doing nothing at all. Why do I not go and protest? I thought it over from every angle, and decided that nothing could be gained without risking something: of the possible loss I refused to think. I would go and talk to Bodnaras.
This was not so easy to arrange, for I knew that this I could not write about, and that no one should know what I was planning to do. Finally, on the pretense that I had to go to Bucarest in the interests of the hospital, I arrived unannounced at the home of my friend, and was given the usual warm welcome. The next thing was to confide in someone who would be willing to cover my steps by accounting for my time. I could not use my hostess for this, since I did not want to have my actions compromise her if I failed, but I did confide in a friend not far away, who was both responsible enough and adventurous enough to be trusted with such information. Next I contacted a person who could carry to Bodnaras the message that I wished to talk with him. The answer came back that I could, but that it must be at night at his home and that no one must know where I was. Since it was at my request, I had to agree to the terms, and my adventurous friend agreed to say—if need arose—that I had been paying a visit there during the time I would be away from my hostess.
As I write this I have the same incredulous feeling I had at the time: a feeling of unbelief that a situation so like one of my father's and my favorite Bulldog Drummond stories should really exist in our Romania and that I should be playing a part in it. At the same time, I had now seen enough of what the Russians were like to have a most uncomfortable feeling of reality about the danger of the whole plan. I started out on my venture by going to say a prayer in a small, old church that stood quite near the house where I was staying, and I lit a candle for those whose battle I was going to fight.
The city was still under blackout regulations, so that it was in total darkness that I first stopped to inform my friend that I had begun my journey and then walked down the street to the agreed-upon corner, where a car was to meet me. It came; I recognized it by the number, and got in. There were two men, one driving and one sitting beside him, and although they proved to be quite harmless, they seemed most sinister to my imagination. Silently we drove through the darkened town, and soon we left the vicinity I knew. As I had no idea where I was going, my apprehension increased in spite of all I could do. I tried to keep count of the number of right and left turns, but in my excitement I was not able to remember them.
After what seemed to me a long time, during which I continued to think of various detective stories I had read, we drew up in front of a nice-looking villa with a garden. I was handed out politely, and there on the doorstep stood Bodnaras and his charming young wife. They led me into a pleasant room in which a fire was burning upon the open hearth; an anticlimax which of course made me feel that I had been a complete fool to be afraid. Later I grew to know that part of the city very well, since it was one of the most modern residential sections, built up shortly before the war while I was living in Austria, and therefore unfamiliar to me. Eventually it lost for me the terrifying aspect it had had on that first drive in the dark toward the unknown.
Mrs. Bodnaras served us some excellent coffee—a great treat for me, because it was a long time since I had had coffee—and after a pleasant conversation she left us. Now the great moment was upon me. Help me, God, not to make a mistake now! I prayed, and I plunged into the subject. At first Bodnaras looked both pained and horrified, and I had to sit quiet through a long tirade about all the crimes these generals had committed. I offered no protest, but my mind tried quickly to find a right approach. Finally I saw that the only hope was to point out what harm it would do the Communists if they began governing with such blood on their hands. But crime must not go unpunished! he responded. We argued for well over two hours, until at long last he said:
"Well, if the King decides not to sign the death warrant, I promise that we will uphold his point of view."
"You know quite well," I told him, "that the King will never of his free will sign such an unconstitutional document. If he does, it will be laid at your door, and before the whole nation your government will bear the blame. Surely you do not wish this additional handicap at this moment!"
He gave me no definite answer, but we parted amiably. What part my intervention played I do not, of course, have any idea, but the sentences were commuted to life imprisonment. If this was really better in the end or not, who can say? As long as there is life there is hope, one says, but that is a proverb which I am afraid does not hold true in the lands where Soviet Russia rules. At the time, however, I felt that at least I had stood up for what I thought was right and that in so doing I was fighting the battle of my world—a world that was fast being destroyed. Perhaps somewhere where lost battles are recorded and counted, this one may stand to my credit.
I was taken back to the street corner in the same mysterious fashion, and although I was much less nervous this time, I was glad when I stood on the doorstep of my confidante and could report the result of my interview. After that I returned to my hostess, who kindly did not inquire too far into my long absence. Later, when I felt it was safe, I told her the truth about what I had been doing.
The following day I saw Mr. Malaxa and his architect, and they showed me the plans for the women's and children's wing, a grand structure indeed, with two stories. It seemed to me an expensive project, and one that would not at all harmonize with the rest of the hospital. Trying not to hurt anyone's feelings, I pointed out that the barracks they already had at the factory would do very well if we divided it more efficiently inside, and that it would cost less and look more appropriate. The architect was not especially pleased, but Mr. Malaxa laughed and said I was the first woman he had met who thought of spending less instead of more. Of course new plans would have to be made, but the time wasted that way would he made up by doing something simpler than the original design.
When I returned to Bran other changes were waiting for me. The Z.I. 161 in Brasov was being disbanded, but the Spitalul Inima Reginei was to pass over to the military hospital. This was a great advantage, as well as a compliment to the service my hospital was doing, since instead of being under the protection of a Red Cross hospital which was under the protection of the military hospital, we were now directly associated with the military one, and therefore sponsored by the Ministry of War. We could get supplies and doctors which, as a less carefully inspected private hospital, we could not have obtained at all in such difficult times. Less good news was the fact that Dr. Dragomir was being discharged from the army and wanted to return to the University of Jassy for further training. General Vasiliu Rascanu, who happened to be his uncle, was now minister of war and quite kindly disposed to his nephew, so Dragomir asked me whom I would like to have as a replacement for him. He felt that he could then ask the General to have that doctor detached and sent to me without my having officially asked for him myself. The appointment would be imposed upon me, so to speak, and I could then disclaim any part in it in case there was anything in his record which the Communists might later find they objected to, something always possible under the Russian regime. This, I felt, was most kind and thoughtful, for it avoided at least one possibility of future trouble for the hospital.
I inquired in various places and found that a good doctor would be Dr. Radu Puscariu, who was then still on the German front. His father, a native of Bran, was one of the greatest authorities on the Romanian language and a member of the Romanian Academy. The father was now living in Bran, but in ill-health because of a stroke he had had recently suffered, which had occurred shortly after the death of his wife. I knew it would be a great comfort to the family to have the doctor with them. The "family" consisted of the doctor's wife, their two delightful little daughters, and the doctor's sister, the wife of an engineer who had disappeared when the German troops retreated. She was a most charming friend, and had a daughter who was about the age of my Magi.
They were, all of them, most cultivated and intellectual people, although like so many of our Romanians they were only a generation removed from the peasant and had quite a number of "illiterate" relations. This is a situation which I find is often misunderstood by many Americans and Europeans, and I think it is because the history of Romania is not generally known. Our "peasants" are not the dregs of the population, who have gradually sunk down to the bottom of society because they had neither ability nor ambition to achieve an education. The Romanian peasant class does include such people, who exist in every country, but it also includes the most able, keen witted, and intelligent of people as well! At no time in her history has literacy been in Romania a test of brains, ability, or ambition. It is never unusual to find that a leading statesman, writer, military man, or artist has illiterate parents or is from a humble, peasant home to which he often returns for sympathy and encouragement.
One must always bear in mind that a comparatively few generations ago we were a Turkish colony; that since then the fight for freedom and for independence from other countries has been almost continuous, and not always successful. Under none of her foreign rulers was adequate education for Romanians provided in Romania, and there was a constant, though unavailing, attempt to stamp out the Romanian language, culture, and religion. Against this attempt Romanians still struggled to establish and maintain schools, but obviously the benefits of this kind of education under difficulties could not extend far. In Transylvania under the Hungarians, for example, there was almost no higher education for the Romanian unless he went to Budapest or Vienna, which few had the training or the money to do. The wonderful thing about this to me is that this contact with the Magyar and German worlds did not influence the national feelings of those few Romanians who achieved higher education, except to intensify their will for freedom. The only one I think of who did not remain a stanch patriot is Petru Groza, who lived to be a "front" for the Russian exploiters of his country.
Looking back upon our turbulent history, I feel that it was remarkable how much was done with education in a short time. I think few societies were more cultured, or had a more complete education and variety of interests, than the Romanian intellectual class, from whom teachers and professors were drawn to extend education to the remoter parts of the country. When Romania Mare began, in 1919, the serious work of extending education on an equal basis to eighteen million citizens, it was of course obvious that there would be a limit to the speed with which so many schools could be built and so many teachers provided. Yet in the short lapse of eighteen years, from 1919 to 1937, the rate of illiteracy became negligible in the generation then growing up. The number of students at the four Romanian universities averaged about 30,000 a year, with an average of 6,000 graduating every year. There were few countries in Europe where it was easier for the poorest student to get a university education, if he had sufficient ability, because tuition was entirely free and—by 1937—the government was paying all expenses of board and lodging for about 15,000 university students and nearly 30,000 high school students. It had never been a lack of ability or of ambition that kept the Romanian peasant from getting a formal education, as this one generation of opportunity vividly showed.
It was not at all easy to hold one's own in the Bucarest salons I knew during those same years. To speak French, English, and German as well as Romanian was considered quite natural; one was expected to be well versed in world history and literature and to be able to appreciate Romanian music as one phase of general musical development. Even in Bran and during the winter when we were cut off from the rest of the world, we had quite an active intellectual life, stimulated always at the holidays when the students were home from the universities for their vacations, for most families—as I have indicated—made the effort to send a son or daughter to one of the university towns.
At the hospital we instituted a series of lectures and discussions for doctors and nurses; there was a glee club, which I enjoyed even though my lack of musical talent prevented me from joining it, and which formed itself also into a church choir for special occasions. A literary club, which had functioned for many years in the village, owned and managed a lending library, which added much to our discussion groups. We had also a sports club, and although during the winter there was only the hospital team and the village team to play volley ball matches, in the summer we added the Y.W.C.A. and Telephone Company teams to our competitions. In the winter we also managed to arrange skiing contests with neighboring teams.
Besides all of these, there was that delightful habit of the peasants which extends far back into bygone centuries, the sezatoare. By this custom families met at this or that man's house to spin, or to take grain from the cob, or to do whatever work could be done collectively. The master of the house provided the food and entertainment, such as music for songs and dances. Young and old gathered to do the work and also to have a good time, and at these meetings the older men and women related the old tales and the legends that have for generations kept Romanian culture alive.
It was this which made the sezatoare more important than similar gatherings which exist for a time on the frontier of a new nation and die out when the need for them is past. In Romania it was not merely a matter of combining work which needed many hands with a social gathering for which there might not be any other time available. It was more than that. It was a means of preserving the individuality of a whole people. Thus through the centuries national history and literature and music have passed by word of mouth from generation to generation, and without books both language and faith have been kept alive. History has not come to the Romanian by way of study in the classroom, but at the fireside of his humble dwelling, as he listened in the evening by candlelight, in an atmosphere of good will and intimacy, to the respected voice of some loved one. History to him is not something he has studied but is part of his most intimate life, a conscious heritage. In the small, isolated dwellings in the remote mountains of my country, may this still be true! For the schools set up in the towns and villages in the days of Romania Mare have been made Judas weapons by the invaders, to betray our children and to destroy their heritage.
In the winter of 1944-45 the troubled outside world intensified our pleasure in this side of life in Bran, where we felt somewhat like an island, blessed and peaceful in a stormy sea. Each departure of one of our members and each arrival of a new one were of great importance to the rest of us. It was with real regret that we finally said good-bye to Dr. Dragomir, and our best wishes went with him. I was personally deeply grateful to him for all he had done for the hospital and the people of Bran, and for all he had taught me; for he had given me many hours of instruction in anatomy and other medical subjects, besides training me well as an assistant to the surgeon. I think that he, too, found it not easy to leave. Conditions in Jassy were hard and difficult after all the various occupations, both German and Russian, but for his career it was necessary that he take the further training. We shared many a memory and many a fight for the life of men, women, and children; and we had after hours of struggle many times looked into each other's eyes and found that response of joy and relief at winning a battle against death.
Some little time before Dr. Dragomir left, we had had a pleasant addition to our community: a young medical student who had reason to pass under an assumed name and to leave the field hospital where he had worked under one of our best surgeons, and where a friend of mine was head nurse. He came upon me one afternoon when I was alone and handed me a crumpled note, upon which in a few hurried lines my friend and the doctor had recommended the boy to me and had asked for my help. He was a nice-looking young man in a soldier's uniform, and he had a friendly, open expression, now showing considerable anxiety. It so happened that the student who had been with us had had to return to his studies, and therefore the doctor and I had been looking for an assistant.
"You are a godsend!" I told him. His anxious expression relaxed, and he took off his cap and threw it on the ground with delight. "That," I told him sternly, "was not a soldierly gesture!" —at which he laughed heartily and we became friends on the spot. For three years we worked side by side. He entered with passionate enthusiasm into all the hospital activities, and his energies never flagged. The children all came to he very fond of him, and finally Badillo—as we called him—fell in love with Gretl, the children's nurse. After we left Romania he married her, and he later got his doctor's degree in Austria, since he was among those I was able to take with me when I left.
The most important addition to our little community group, however, was Dr. Dragomir's successor, Dr. Puscariu, whom I have already mentioned. Since he had originally come from Bran, perhaps he felt it was we who were the additions, but he had been away so long that he was new to community life as it was then organized. He was a surgeon of wide experience from the University of Cluj, and because he had also studied in France, Germany, and Austria we gained greatly from his arrival, and the whole hospital was put on a higher level of techniques and efficiency. He was a real master of his art, so that as we collected the necessary instruments there was hardly any operation we were not able to perform. He brought forward a series of proposals for improvements, which I was delighted to carry through as far as it was possible for me to do. He was a musician, draftsman, and sculptor as well, and he had a delightful talent for telling stories, of which he seemed to possess an endless number. He was most pleasant to work with, and my only objection to him as a colleague was that he had no executive drive, and left all the unpleasant parts of the administration to me, even to keeping the ever-growing staff up to the mark.— I have said so much because I feel it is fair to pay tribute to his real abilities, and because it was only gradually that a certain lack of personal integrity became evident. In the end, however, his behavior when the Communists took over the hospital was a surprise to everyone, and I can only feel in his defense that because he had been a victim of shell shock, it may be that he was not entirely himself.
The staff was growing considerably, too. I had to have an administrator, or business manager, because we had various sums from different sources to deal with, supplies to account for, and similar bookkeeping to do. For example, we had military rations for the soldiers; Dr. Puscariu, one student, and three nurses were paid by the army; the social insurance paid a small and insufficient quota for the workmen (and I was forever in the middle of arguments and discussions with them); the Ministry of Health later subsidized two doctors and three more nurses. The rest of the money came from other patients, from donations, and from my own pocket.
This financial support of the hospital was an eternal worry, from which I was never relieved. I got many donations in the way of medical supplies and even of food, but to be sure that I had the actual cash for salaries and running expenses remained a continual nightmare, especially now that my own personal resources were so much reduced and so undependable. Our reputation reached ever farther, and patients came from regions far beyond our own thirteen villages, so that there always seemed a little more demanded than we could quite give.
In the end I had Dr. Puscariu and two students; Dr. Lazarescu, intern, and his wife, who assisted him in running the laboratory; Dr. Herman, apothecary; and seven nurses besides the head nurse. This last appointment was finally necessary, because as time went on I had so much to do with general administration, getting provisions, and carrying on other activities that there had to be someone to whom the responsibility for nursing could be delegated while I was away. Besides this medical and nursing staff, there was the administrator and his assistant, a head for the linen room and laundry, two orderlies, four servant girls, and one gardener. These made up the hospital staff at the time we had reached the size of one hundred twenty beds.
It was for this that my small dispensary in Sonnberg and my first work with the wounded in Austria had begun to prepare me. Perhaps it was as well that I had not been able to look so far ahead, and to puzzle over how I could ever cope with such an organization—especially in a country first at war, and then under the rule of a foreign tyrant.