I Live Again by Ileana, Princess of Romania
IN THE summer of 1945 the building for women and children was started at the hospital, but because Colonel Serbu was not there to see things through the whole thing went much more slowly and less pleasantly. It was not ready for use until the spring of 1946, but because it was roofed over by October 29, my mother's birthday, I used this occasion to have it blessed. The day also served as a reason for entertaining our benefactors and the authorities who were over us and gave us a chance to thank them and to show them what we had accomplished in a year and what the plans for the future were. It was a most successful day, which made those who had aided us feel that it had been worth while and that the hospital was a successful project they could be proud of having helped. It also inspired others who had held back a little, until they saw how it all came out, to come forward and offer their services! As it should be unnecessary to say to anyone who has put through a project of any size, there had been many difficulties in getting people to work together, but this display of our actual accomplishment did a great deal to end this. I was especially glad of it because there had been some difficulty with the Red Cross, a thing I regretted deeply. From now on there was no more of this, and we worked together and fought all major battles side by side. It was not long before the Communists attacked the Red Cross in a dastardly manner—but of that I shall speak later. Besides restoring and cementing friendly relations, the celebration inspired the army administration to pass on to me a mechanical laundry, which was surplus and would soon be taken by the Russians if it was not installed somewhere. It was arranged that it should be put into the old barracks-storeroom that General Tataranu had originally given me, but that project, too, was not finished until spring.
With the three years' drought that began in 1945 there came a terrible epidemic of typhoid, closely followed by typhus, diphtheria. and other scourges. Bran was not immune, but we did our best to combat the infections, and we were so successful that the ministry decided to put the local civilian hospital also under my administration, to he used as a contagious disease hospital subsidized by them. This was renovated and ready for use by the fall of 1946. You can see by these few items, out of what is in itself a long and varied story, that the hospital grew from sheer necessity, and from the growing trust of the people and the authorities in the seriousness and honesty of our work.
Soon the American Red Cross also became interested in us, and were most generous. Colonel Sigerist paid us a visit, with happy results for us, and through my much loved and admired cousin, the late Count Bernadotte, the head of the Swedish Red Cross, that organization also sent us considerable help. The Swiss Red Cross sent condensed milk, and the American Catholic War Relief also was most generous. As I have said, a part of all that I had available I used to help those to whom no official relief could be given. That, too, is a story in itself, and only small items of it can yet be told because I must protect others still at the mercy of the Russians. I can give one example here of those other activities of mine which extended beyond the work of the hospital. I had been helping the Y.W.C.A. with their camp in Bran, but I also helped with a parallel camp run by former Y.W.C.A. secretaries and housed in the village school and neighboring homes that were available. This second camp was for Bessarabian girls who were refugees, high school and university students. It soon needed a great deal of both financial and moral support, for I have seldom seen such poverty and distress. These girls were nearly all orphans who knew their parents had been killed—many times they had been eyewitnesses—or who had seen their parents deported during the annexation of Bessarabia in 1941. They had originally been under the protection of the Romanian Ministries of Education and Labor, and were studying on scholarships, but now they were in continual danger of being claimed by the Russians as Soviet citizens, and "repatriated"—to labor camps or worse. The best we could hope for them was that they might be forgotten as far as possible by the authorities, and so we never dared insist too much on official help for them but must take care of them as privately and quietly as we could.
When we had them settled in camp we found that hardly any of them had a change of underwear and some had none at all. As many as ten would share one comb among them. In this country where personal toilet necessities are so freely advertised, perhaps I may mention frankly that it is difficult for those who have never suffered as refugees and fugitives, or who have never worked to help them, to imagine the physical discomforts these girls endured. One comb for ten girls; toothbrushes, towels and washcloths luxuries long since forgotten; and for their monthly periods only discarded newspapers to use as sanitary napkins. These are some of the small items that add to the miseries of existence for those whose home is the concentration camp, the labor camp, and the refugee camp. The girls lacked shoes and stockings; many of them lacked sufficient clothing to cover them from the weather; most of all they lacked the love and comfort of feeling that someone cared about them.
The leader at the head of the camp was one of the most loving and understanding, yet energetic, efficient, and self-forgetful women I know. She was an old friend; I had served my apprenticeship under her as quite a young girl when I was a Girl Reserve. I did all in my power for them, by getting provisions, clothes, and medical assistance from the hospital, by giving what I could from my own supplies, and by helping to beg and importune others to do the same. We did our best, also, to provide them with intellectual and spiritual food by organizing lectures and discussion groups, and by bringing in good speakers, both secular and religious. We met in my garden twice a day for these occasions when the weather made it possible, and often some stray holiday visitor would come in and add interest to the group. Yet always, whatever we did, there was the hopeless realization that for these girls who had lost parents and home, country and future, we were doing only small things even when we did all we could.
I was not always present at their meetings because I did have my program at the hospital, which grew always more exacting as I advanced in my knowledge and understanding of medical science. Besides, I often had to rush off to Bucarest in answer to some call for help, for there were many demands of all sorts finding their way to me as people heard that I was able to get a hearing from those in the government. Perhaps the thing that was hardest to bear was the criticism of those who blamed me bitterly for this contact and said—more often to others than to me, of course—that it, would have been far more "suitable" had I sat aloof in proud dignity and ignored the Communist interlopers! To this I could only reply that I would give more weight to this criticism if those who made it were not always so quick to run to me at their first difficulty, and to ask my help to get news of their dear ones or to try to get some member of their family out of jail or prison camp. On the day that no one asks my help, I once said bitterly, I will have time to be aloof and proud—but that day never came.
They were most unexpected and curious requests. The most usual, of course, were to find out where someone was imprisoned, or how to get food and medicine delivered to someone in camp or prison, or to get someone out of trouble with the ever-vigilant police, but there were many others. To stop the destruction of acres of rice fields, the water for which had been shut off to spite the proprietor because he had been a general; to get someone into a hospital; to spirit away some Bessarabian or Bucovinian who was on the verge of being repatriated; to save some deposit of food or clothing belonging to an institution from being confiscated for the use of the Party; to arrange for the transportation of provisions—and so on and on, endlessly.
Perhaps I should here give you an example of an incident of this kind which happened the following summer, when I was still more accustomed to a variety of appeals and had learned even more ways of "getting around" a situation. It was, you can understand, quite contrary to the Russian policies to have relief or help sent into Romania. Not only did such action draw the attention of outsiders to the miserable condition of the country, but it made the Romanians feel that they had friends "outside" interested in helping them, and this would never do! A constantly increasing succession of difficulties was put in the way of the foreign organizations trying to help Romanian organizations, and individual efforts to help individuals were, by 1946, pretty well taken care of by putting a large and prohibitive duty on packages of food or clothing, including CARE parcels, sent from abroad to Romania. Since no one could afford to pay the duty, no one benefited by this attempted help; and eventually the CARE organization simply closed its depots in Romania.
One day I was appealed to by the Romanian Seventh-Day Adventists. Members of their church in the United States had collected and shipped seven railway cars full of used clothing, and these cars had now arrived in the freightyard at Bucarest. However, the duty put on them was not only more than the clothing was worth but far more than the church could afford to pay. Could I not try to have the duty waived, since none of the clothing was new and it was all for charitable uses? I realized that this was a hopeless idea, for the Communists knew all this. An idea struck me, however. I told the church group that they must make me, personally, a present of the seven carloads of clothing! Since members of the royal family were still privileged to receive gifts duty free, I thought that if we moved fast the scheme might work.
Everyone did certainly move fast. The church members made the necessary arrangements to "present" me with the clothes; I got permission from the Queen to have the freight cars moved to the private station within the palace walls; and in less than a week, working with every imaginable kind of transportation and a great deal of manpower, church members had unloaded the cars into the palace, and then quietly and efficiently taken the clothing away and distributed it. To show their gratitude they gave me some of the clothing to distribute from my hospital, for which I was deeply grateful. And to do the Communists at least this much credit, I never suffered for this particular evasion on my part. In fact, the Minister of Health was quite good humored about it when next he saw me, and said only:
"Well! You certainly fooled us that time!"
However, there was little humor in most of the requests for help, and there was always a certain amount of danger in putting myself forward in these matters, as I was always being warned even by the Communists themselves. To be criticized for doing this, then, was hard; but at least it saved me from any possibility of feeling proud or self-satisfied! Instead, I was constantly forced to re-examine my motives and to redecide whether or not I was acting according to my highest intelligence—a mental state which made the whole thing harder.
When we had left Romania in 1948, and I was beginning to feel at the very end of my endurance, I remember being challenged a little patronizingly by a person who had herself begged and insisted that I use my connections in an important matter. What had I really got out of it in the end? she wanted to know now. Was I not in the same position as all the others; an exile, condemned as an "enemy of the state" to the loss of my citizenship and my property? I could only remind her of a discussion we had had while still at home, when she had once somewhat more kindly drawn my attention to the risk I was running.
"You will remember what I said then," I told her. "I would say the same thing if it were all to do over again: 'There is little hope for us, and the end is coming whatever I can do. My activity makes no difference to that end result. Yet in the small daily accounts it does make a difference, for everyday that I can keep someone out of jail, or keep strength in those who are in jail, is a day gained in the ultimate appraisal. It is a blow struck for our side, which may encourage someone else to strike another blow; and such an endless chain of small efforts may eventually affect the larger issues. Therefore, if I am going to lose my head, at least as long as it is still on my shoulders I am going to use it to the best of my lights!'"
Well, miraculously my head is still on my shoulders, and I am still using it as well as I can to serve the same cause, and to fight for the same liberty.
Do I need to tell you how tired I often was? How sick of heart and weary and discouraged? Often I got to the point of not being able to sleep at all—a condition which became quite serious for a time after I was finally forced to leave Romania. I seemed eternally to see before me all the suffering, both physical and mental, that I had witnessed during the day. Even worse than this was the heartache for those I had been unable to help; whose misery I had not been able to alleviate that day. Before me was the thought of the tortures many of my people, many personally known to me, were enduring in the camps; their punishments, their hunger, thirst, cold, or heat. The continual pressure being brought to bear in this way on families and friends to make them come to heel—all this oppressed me endlessly, even though eventually I realized that this was something which could break down my resistance as well.
There are so many cases I can never forget, cases which are perhaps only stories to you but to me are living memories of crucified flesh and blood, minds and hearts. I cannot, of course, tell you of many of my successful efforts, for to do so would endanger many people still in Romania. It is safer to tell you of my failures! There was, for example, the charming young girl studying medicine who one day was stricken with polio of the lungs. Her adoring mother and father and her friends kept her alive for thirty-five days by giving her artificial respiration, not stopping for a single moment, until an iron lung was flown to her by the American Mission. A present from the Red Cross, sent all the way across the ocean! When this precious instrument arrived all hopes grew bright, and she began to show marked signs of improvement.
Just at this moment the Communists found that her father had been a technical adviser in the Antonescu government for three months, and was therefore a criminal. He was arrested under the very eyes of his suffering daughter and taken to jail, to be condemned to hard labor. The family's house could now be confiscated at any moment; their modest income was in jeopardy. An aunt came all the way to Bran to appeal to me for help, and as soon as I could I went to visit the poor girl and her mother. It was my first sight of an iron lung, which is sad enough without such further tragedy and loss as that which was hanging over the family. I said all the encouraging and hopeful things I could think of, while I turned over in my mind what I could do.
I invited Mr. and Mrs. Bodnaras to dinner—they could now come openly to see me at times, since apparently Ana Pauker had given permission. I had a photograph of the girl laid casually on a table, and eventually Bodnaras' eye fell upon it. I told him the sad story of her disease without saying who she was, or what had happened to her father, and his sympathy was immediately aroused.
"But a monument should be erected to such a mother!" he said.
"The best tribute to her would be to let her husband share in the care of their child," I answered.
"What do you mean?" he asked quickly.
When I told him, he looked upset and worried. "That is not at all easy," he objected, but I insisted that he try. Yet after weeks of effort, and even after I had taken Mrs. Bodnaras, under an assumed name, to see the girl for herself, I could obtain nothing except the assurance that the family would be allowed to keep their house and money. In the end the girl got influenza, and it was clear that she could not live. Everyone—the King, the head of the American Mission, General Schuyler, who had arranged for the iron lung in the first place—everyone used pressure to get permission for the unfortunate father to come and see his daughter before the end, but it was useless. The child died, calling in vain for her father. This man's worst crime was that of serving his country in a minor capacity when called upon by the heads of his state. The only concession made was to allow him to come to the funeral under a heavy guard, and to grasp briefly the hand of his wife, without speaking to her.
I did not go to that tragic funeral nor did I ever visit that home again. I had failed, and I could not bear facing the bereaved mother. Now I often reproach myself for my lack of courage.
There was another instance when I had not the courage to give bad news. A famous professional man came to ask me to find his son, who had been an officer and attached to a foreign mission because he had studied abroad in that country. One day this young man disappeared without a trace. I used all the channels I knew of, and found there was no doubt that he had been taken to Russia. For this I knew nothing could be done, and I thought, Perhaps it is better for them to go on hoping, and to think that I have not really tried to find out or that I was not able to learn anything, rather than to know the horrible truth. But was I right?
It was cases such as these; it was the information—"accidentally" allowed to leak out—that this night a person was being tortured to make him confess; it was such things that drove away sleep. It is, of course, part of the system of terror to allow such news to leak out, and later to allow people to verify the fact that such apparent "slips" are often accurate. Then every rumor adds to the despair and distress of those who are for the moment left in physical freedom. The victim himself, if he returns alive, will never speak of his treatment. It is only his body—seen in secret; seen in a hospital—or his deadened expression that testifies to the truth. In this way fear spreads, while its cause is "officially" denied by authorities and victims alike.