I Live Again by Ileana, Princess of Romania
AFTER MY five days in Oltania, I came back to the work at the hospital with renewed vigor. It was about this time that I bought a small but pleasant house in Bucarest, for it became necessary not only for me to have a house of my own to go to but also to have a place for Minola and Alexandra to come on their free afternoons and weekends. It was not only complicated to get them to Bran for short periods—a distance of about a hundred eighty miles through the mountains—but it was also not a little dangerous. I had had several unpleasant experiences myself, one of which occurred when I was driving to Bucarest with Noelle and her husband in the car.
When the Russians "thumb a ride" they do not do it as it is done in this country. They stand in the middle of the road with a machine gun pointed at you, so that of course you stop. Then, if you are lucky, the charming cavalier sits beside you and with grunts indicates the way he expects you to take. If you are not so lucky, he kicks you out—if no more—and takes the car himself. In this case I was lucky. My unwelcome companion got in beside me, after waving Noelle and her husband to the back seat. To leave no doubt as to his intentions if I disobeyed orders, he jammed the muzzle of a gun into my ribs and indicated that I was to drive on. I did. After about twenty miles he grunted and indicated that I should stop. I did that also, wondering what next. To my great relief he grinned at me, expressed some sort of thanks for the ride, and waved us on; but this kind of experience was always a harrowing one.
On another evening we were coming home from Bucarest–Bittermann driving and the car full of people, as always, for transportation was so difficult that always someone wanted a ride—when on one of the numerous curves in the Timis valley we passed part of a Russian column. They chose to take offense at this, and shouted and sent a few bullets after us. We rushed down the hill, afraid to stop within range. At the bottom there was a control barrier for both Russians and Romanians. Would they let us through quickly enough? One more curve and there was the barrier—shut! But as we desperately approached, it lifted. The guard had formerly been one of our guard in Bran, and since he recognized the car he let us through, and shut the gate behind us. We did not pause to look back, and when Bittermann asked me laughingly if I had felt cold about the back of my neck, I quite unashamedly admitted I had.
Such experiences made me increasingly uneasy about having the children on the road, and what happened to Stefan and Niki, when they went one day to Brasov in the car with the-caretaker of the castle, did not encourage me. The man left the two boys in the car, and a group of Russians approached to take it. Whether they recognized my children or not I do not know, but the market women did! With angry cries they collected a crowd, and brought pails of hot water to fight off the Russians. There was a great row, with the police being called by the Russians, but unexpectedly (at least to the Russians) taking the side of the children! In the end, the boys were forced to take eight of the Russians into the car and deliver them somewhere, but it was agreed by the Russians that they would not harm the children or take the car.
All this made me feel that it would be better if the older girls stayed in Bucarest during the school year, except for the long vacations. Arranging the new little house was great fun, and I felt that it would be an advantage to be able to meet both foes and friends freely, without compromising any of the friends. It also gave me another place to deposit things, for I was being helped more and more generously, as I shall explain later, with supplies which I could pass on unofficially or to the underground, and it was best not to have everything in one place.
During one of my discussions with Bodnaras, when I was trying to get permission for political prisoners to receive parcels from their families regularly, he asked me if I did not find Anton's prolonged "arrest" in Bran hard. I said that it was indeed not easy, especially because Anton himself was worried about conditions in Austria and longed to get back to see for himself what had happened.
"You have never asked anything for yourself," Bodnaras re minded me. "I think it is time you did. Better still, I will ask it for you. Your husband must be set free."
In spite of his good will on this subject, it took a long time before the order was put through. The King also was kind about the matter, and spoke of it repeatedly to Tatarescu, Minister of Foreign Affairs. This man had played a doubtful part in Romanian politics, and I never felt in any of my contacts with him that he was running a straight course for anyone. Although with me he was full of words and promises, nothing happened. However, once I had been encouraged to ask for Anton's freedom, I fought for it with all my might, and at last the longed-for release came, near the end of 1946, with a Romanian passport so that he could go abroad. He left for Switzerland, and remained there until the spring, trying in vain for permission to enter Austria. All he could do was to have long talks at the barrier with Colonel Zwilling, the administrator of my estate in Austria. Colonel Zwilling had only unhappy news to tell of the wanton destruction at Sonnberg by the Russians and the damage done to the property of other friends and members of Anton's family under the continuing Russian occupation; but it was a relief for both of them to be in touch with each other.
Except for the fact that Anton could not be with us, the Christmas of 1946 was a happy one. When I say "happy" I mean it in the modified sense we were becoming accustomed to. We had no critical cases at the hospital at the time, no major disaster over took us, and the winter was not so severe as the one we had had the year before. The Turku Canal, which supplied our electric current, lacked water, so that we were often reduced to oil lamps. I rather liked this at home, but it was a serious problem in the hospital.
Far more serious than the problem of light, however, was the specter of hunger looming large everywhere, about which I shall have more to say in another chapter. Even in the preceding year children had been taken from their starving families in Moldavia and sent to regions where there was more food. This was badly organized, however, and I shudder to think of what many of those children suffered and how few of them ever found their way home; especially those who were taken out of the country and given over to the care of Big Brother Russia. Some of the children, of course, were more fortunate and found good and loving homes.
Eventually I had taken two of them, although at first I had felt unable to do this because I was already responsible for a number of stray children who had in some way or another been left to the hospital. The first one, a tiny baby whose mother had died of hemorrhage after being brought to the hospital when she was already beyond hope, I had taken into my own nursery, and the children and Gretl tried hard to save our poor little Ilie. He had not been strong enough to survive the hard winter, however, and he died. Later we had Suzi, whose suddenly widowed father brought her to us one day; then a woman came with her starving son, Gheorghitza; then a grandmother brought a deformed granddaughter—and always the parents or those responsible seemed to disappear, and the child remained with me. There were also the women who could not find work because they had young children, and to help them I finally found myself with quite a collection of half-orphans to care for, so that a nursery was started.
When this was done, I added to these so-called "resident children" the healthy children under three of mothers who needed hospital treatment. I had found that many women would not, and in fact could not, come to the hospital because they had no one with whom to leave their small children. Now we took them into our nursery free of charge while their mothers were being treated, and I found this one of the most useful things I ever instituted. More women came to us in time, and could be saved before their ailments became too serious. The peasant conviction that a hospital was a place where one came to die was gradually altered as they saw that one could be cured there. As one patient recommended the hospital to another, confidence in us grew, and our death rate became very low.
We had one most happy event in our immediate circle. Our dear blind officer, Sandu, while studying in Vienna, had fallen in love with a Romanian girl studying medicine there. She was lovely to look at, and—more important still—she had an utterly lovable nature. The war had trapped her in Austria, and we had had absolutely no news of what had happened to her; a circumstance which would have been dreadful for any young man in love, but which seemed even sadder because of Sandu's blindness. We all tried to keep him from being depressed. He was studying for his Ph.D. in philosophy, and I had organized several willing friends to help him with his reading.
It happened that he was in Bucarest when I received a telegram from his fiancée, whose name was also Ileana, that she had arrived at the frontier and was on her way to Bran. She knew that I would know where Sandu was, and was coming straight to me! It was perhaps one of the most happy telephone messages I was ever able to give, and at this time of suffering and despair, when everyone braced himself to expect that any news would be bad, it brought me inexpressible joy to be able to transmit good news.
They planned to be married at once, for they felt their one long and anxious parting had been enough, and as soon as she had gone to Constantza to see her parents, the wedding was arranged to take place at Bran. We had only Ileana's parents and Sandu's father and sister to stay with us, for the other guests—his brother officers and a few close friends—came only for the day. To save the expense of a wedding dress, Ileana wore one of my most beautiful national costumes, and she looked truly lovely. I wished more than ever that Sandu could see her. When I brought his bride to him, I tried to explain what she looked like. He went up to her and gently passed his hands over her, finally kneeling so that he could better picture her skirt and shoes. Never will I forget that scene: his kneeling there in front of her, "seeing" with his hands, and she with a happy smile looking down on him. I turned away and tears smarted in my eyes. I felt that I had intruded on some thing that was not for me to see.
A year later a son was born to them in my hospital, and be came my godson. They made their home not far away with Sandu's father, who came to live with them. They ran a small farm as well as a tobacco shop in Brasov, which made it possible for me to visit them often and see how they were getting along. Ileana was so beautiful that I had sometimes feared for Sandu, but I was wrong. A more happy and harmonious couple could hardly be imagined, but the fight for mere existence was a terribly hard one. Sandu had won the highest war medal, which gave him certain awards, but he had won the medal and lost his sight outside of Odessa, on "sacred" Russian soil, so that it was nearly impossible to get any of his "rights and privileges" from the Communist government.—My heart contracts painfully when I think of them today. I heard once through a third person that they had had a little girl and had lost their farm, but even that news is now old.
One of my best friends during this time was General Aldea, who in the first days of the armistice had been so good to me. After he fell from power he did not cease to be active for his country, and soon he was the head of one part of the increasingly widespread underground movements. For a relatively long time he was suspected but not caught, and was fairly free in his movements. I saw him often, although Bodnaras warned me against him and drew my attention to the fact that in his circles my association with Aldea was looked upon with disfavor. I replied that I had never let others choose my friends for me. If I had, I reminded him, I would certainly not have him for one of them! He laughed at this, but continued to disapprove. For my part, I saw to it that I never inquired too deeply into all General Aldea did, but helped where I could, asked for help when it was needed for someone, or passed messages along. I felt that the less I knew the better, since what I did not know I could not repeat—willingly or unwillingly.
One evening I had met the General at the house of a third person in Bucarest, and an amusing evening I remember it to have been. There were some exceptionally clever people there, and the conversation was full of sparkle. As we were about to break up, one of the party came back to report that there was a high-powered car waiting just behind the General's car, and evidently on the watch for him. Aldea confessed that he had been followed for some days by Ana Pauker's men, but that he thought he had given them the slip. This, I am afraid, was his great fault: he was brave, daring, and determined, but he was not wary enough, and so he was finally caught and dragged many down with him.
On that evening, however, we devised a method to get him out. I was to drive off as usual and go around the block; he would be on the watch, and on my return I would slow up, he would make a dash for my car, and we would try to run for it. Our little strategy worked well, and we got a fairly good start on the other car. I shall never forget that mad ride; up streets and down, through traffic lights, around corners on two wheels! It had all the thrills of living in an adventure movie, I assure you. When we felt we had pretty certainly lost our pursuers, I left the General at a corner not too far from his secret dwelling. It was amusing a little later to find the heavy car once more hot on my trail, and to lead my pursuers for another mad chase up streets and around corners before slowing down and driving sedately up to my own door! I am afraid I found that great fun.
Finally General Aldea was caught red-handed, and imprisoned. With him went the lady in whose house we had met, and another friend. For these two women I was able to be of real help, and to have them released, but for the General there was nothing I could do, although I tried in every way I knew. His organization was too widespread and effective for the Communists to let him go. All I could do now was to send his wife vitamins and some drugs which he was badly in need of, and here my original plea for parcels to the condemned now served my friend. With him to the prison went others I had been fond of, or had known when I was young, and the discovery of his activities brought me into serious danger as well.
One evening Mr. and Mrs. Bodnaras had dinner with me, and as we sat out on the terrace of my house after the meal, Bodnaras asked to have a few words with me alone.
"I have always warned you against your friendship with Aldea," he said, "and see now what he has told of your share in his underground work!" Taking a paper out of his pocket, he leaned forward to catch a ray of light coming from the house, and read me a part of Aldea's "confession." Every word was true! It was a stunning surprise.
I thanked God for the semi-obscurity, and kept my face in the shadow. I was also grateful for the long royal training that taught us to keep our feelings to ourselves. Even for the Gestapo and their "housesearchings" in Sonnberg I spared a grateful thought, as I quietly and firmly denied everything. I hated myself for finding prudence the better part of valor, and for dissociating myself from my friend. I would have preferred to stand up beside him, but this would have been of no use to him and would have betrayed others who were concerned as well, and who had a right to my protection. I lied smoothly and logically, and so far as I know I was never found out, nor were two other people closely concerned in his activities.
But the imprisonment of Aldea was a great sorrow to me. I was genuinely fond of the man Mr. Markham called "the distinguished and fiery General Aurel Aldea." His counsel had always been good, and his courage and valor an inspiration. What could they have done to him to make him talk? I wondered. In those days the methods of Communists for extracting "confessions" were not so generally known as they are now. It was the only lapse I ever heard of; everything else was to his credit and showed not only his own personal bravery but his ability to keep courage alive in others. I was in Argentina when I heard from someone that Mrs. Aldea had been to Aiud, the big state prison of horrible repute, to get her husband's body. God rest his soul—"in a place of light; in a place of greenness; in a place of rest."
Another great sadness awaited us in the spring of 1946. Prince Stirbey's health had been failing for some time. His wife had been for many years almost completely an invalid, and he had cared for her with touching love and devotion. Only duty ever took him from her side, and now it seemed incredible to see him ill and unable to answer her calls. I can see them in my memory now, both of them in the Princess' delightful green boudoir in Buftea, the lovely spacious home in the English-looking park; the one place that had remained completely unchanged since my childhood. It was not far from Bucarest, and I loved going to visit them when ever I could.
Although Prince Stirbey had completely retired from active political life after the unhappy armistice and "peace," he was deeply concerned over events and followed them with the burning interest of a great patriot. I had always connected him with all that was stately and fine; he preserved his dignity in the most difficult situations. Always near my parents, as their chief friend and adviser he had helped them through all the years of their successful life. As I visited him at Buftea I felt I was watching the end of the last life that bound me to the past I had loved so dearly. His advice was always something to lean upon, and his reproaches so logical and kindly that one could not be hurt by them—at least I never was. I treasure among my dearest memories those last visits I had with "Good Man," as I had named him in my childhood. His death was a shock because no one had expected it quite so soon—yet how much better it is for those who have gone. "Wherefore I praised the dead which are already dead more than the living which are yet alive" (Ecclesiastes 4:2).
His funeral was turned into a national expression of mourning even though this was frowned upon by the government. "Father" Stalin had chosen a few days earlier in a public address to insult the Prince. Nevertheless, high and low filled the church in Bucarest where the memorial service was held, but what touched me most was the ceremony in Buftea, where the peasants and the workmen from the factories on his estates followed the coffin to the family crypt. I was also deeply impressed by the dignified sorrow of the widowed Princess.
"I have been so blessed for over fifty years," she told me, "that it is now my turn to suffer." And she who spoke of her blessedness had not walked for twenty years. Three months later her youngest daughter died in Switzerland. Today, driven out of her home, Princess Stirbey is still alive but so poor that she cannot afford stamps to write to her daughter in America, the daughter who is unable to free her mother. Yet Nadeje Stirbey is one of those who never had anything but kindness for all in her heart.
One by one the representatives of the life we had known were passing away. Death and prison claimed them, and with each one died a little of our hope. We struggled valiantly against the depression and sadness, against increasing despair. We would not give in! A miracle would happen! Our friends from the West would come and help us! Surely they must by this time realize that the tide sweeping over us would not stop at the Romanian border!
Then came the news that Antonescu was again in Romania. "They" had brought him to Bucarest. No one had really known what became, of him except that shortly after his arrest on the night of August 23, 1944, he had disappeared into Russia. Now he was back, to be judged by the mockery of the so-called "People's Tribunal." He was tried and condemned, not because of any mistakes he had made in governing his own country (for such mistakes could only have been judged by his own countrymen), but because he had expressed by fighting against Russia his undying conviction that Russia was Romania's enemy. It was not the voice of .any "people" that spoke through that travesty of justice, but the voice of the Soviet; harsh and metallic as the mechanically magnified sound of the loudspeakers that picked up the artificial "demands" for Antonescu's death from Communist sympathizers—as I myself witnessed—and broadcast them. It was strange that I should happen to drive through University Square that day and so be able to see how this "demonstration" of the "popular will" was staged.
The square had for me many associations with the past. Every year, as far back as I could remember, I had seen the parade pass through here on our National Day, the Tenth of May. Here my father had reviewed the troops, my mother riding past him in her uniform of honorary colonel of the 4th Rosiori Regiment. Now, on this summer day so many years later, a small, uneasy crowd had assembled, and I stopped to see what they were doing. Trucks, with armed Russian soldiers on each one, were bringing loads of workingmen and -women from nearby factories, putting them out in the square, and then returning empty for more loads of the "people." Still more armed Russian soldiers presided over this "enthusiastic" assemblage, but in spite of their presence men and women were constantly slipping off down side streets and alleys, and between the houses. For this reason the "crowd" never in creased, even though the trucks continued to bring their unhappy loads to the square. Through the crowd went Party members, trying to incite and stir up cries of "Death to Antonescu! Death!" They had small success, but the voices of these artificial leaders were picked up by microphone and rebroadcast out over the square, as they were broadcast to the world, and to the courtroom where Antonescu was—no, not on trial for his life, but merely waiting the sentence of the Russians. The harsh, unnatural, inhuman sound of the amplifiers "Death! Death!" rang in my ears for a long time afterwards.
Another coincidence which I did not know about until later was that on the day Antonescu's death warrant was brought to the King, who was forced to sign it, a great feeling of inquietude was in my heart. I was still in Bucarest, and I suddenly felt that I should try to see Antonescu's old mother. I did so, leaving my car on a side street and starting off on foot from a friend's house. The elder Madame Antonescu was nearly blind, but extraordinarily active and alert. Her composure and her pride in her son were inspiring to witness. We talked long of many things, and she showed me the food parcels she had prepared to take to him that very afternoon. "For," she said joyfully, "they are at last letting me see him!"
She was allowed to see him, and he did not tell her that he would not need her loving offering, since he had only a few more hours to live. He played his part in their conversation as if there still was hope, and his mother belongs with the great mothers of tradition. When given the news she took it with calm pride and dignity. The last glimpse I had of her was some days after her son's death. She was sitting on the balcony of her house, dressed in black, the tears running slowly from her sightless eyes. I saw her from the street, but I felt there are sorrows one may not intrude upon, so I bowed my head and went on. When later someone criticized the King to her, because he had signed the death warrant, she spoke quickly and decisively.
"He had to do so, to save the country from something worse," she said. "Do you not know that if my son had had to choose between me and his country, he would not have hesitated to have had me shot?"
In her there is a picture of a Romanian mother long ago, whose words have become a part of our national heritage of pride. When her son, Stefan Cel Mare—Stephan the Great—returned, wounded and at night, from a battle in which his armies had been defeated, she spoke to him from a window of her locked and barred castle, and her words sent him back to victory.
"No son of mine would be returning alive unless he was victorious!" she told him. "Go back! You have a right to make Moldavia a nation of graves, but you have no right to leave it a nation of slaves!"
The news that Antonescu's death warrant had been signed came to me while I was walking up from the hospital to the castle. "Our death warrant has been signed, too," I said. Even now not enough facts have been told to enable history to make a judgment of Antonescu as a statesman and soldier, and I have attempted no such judgment—then or now. In my heart I have wept for the Antonescu who was my friend.
It would not be safe to tell you now how I was able to see Marshal Antonescu's widow, who had also been imprisoned in Russia, for it was a difficult arrangement involving several other people, and it was a dangerous thing for all of us. I found a sad, white-haired woman with a face almost as white as her hair, dressed in a simple, neat, black dress which was darned at the el bows and at other spots where it had evidently become threadbare. It was almost unbearable to see how she had changed. I took her in my arms and she sobbed with the dreadful hopelessness of a child in utter despair.
It was some time before she could find words to tell me about herself. Finally in a monotonous voice she began telling me of how she had been taken to Russia; of how she was changed eleven times from one prison to another, but always at night, so that she had never known where she was; of some of the tortures she had undergone; of how for a year she was kept in utter silence, and never heard the sound of a human voice; how the guards made only signals to her, and whistled when it was necessary to communicate with one another where she could hear them, so that when she was spoken to after that year she could hardly bear the pain of the unaccustomed sound. She told me how in desperation she had tried unsuccessfully to cut her veins; of how she was forced to lie with her arms outside the blanket, and that if she fell asleep and drew her arms under the folds because of the cold, she would be rudely awakened. She had had pneumonia and typhoid, and yet she did not die.
"Why?" she kept asking me desperately, tonelessly. "Why had I to live?"
What impressed me most dreadfully of all at this meeting was the moment when one of those who had made my visit possible came to warn her that she must go. Terror, stark and inhuman, leaped into her eyes. Wordlessly, wringing the hands clasped in front of her, she turned to scurry away like a beaten dog. I jumped up and once more embraced her, but I felt that she was out of reach of any human sympathy.
She had been separated from her husband on August 23, 1944. She was permitted to see him once before he was killed. The Russians thought of an additional refinement of cruelty: Marshal Antonescu was made to tell her that he had been condemned to death but was not allowed to tell her the day and hour, so that for many, many days she was kept in suspense, wondering if he had yet been shot. It was a long time before she heard the story of that death; of his final courageous statement; of how the men ordered to shoot her husband missed their mark again and again; of how an officer finally finished off the wounded man with his revolver.
Later Madame Antonescu was allowed out o prison so that she could live with her ailing mother, but they were given no ration cards and so were forced to live on the bounty of others. They were guarded constantly. Madame was permitted one hour's walk every week, still under guard. One could visit them—not, of course, without risk, since a list of their visitors was sent to the government. I am glad to say that there were many who were glad to take this risk, and that even some who were more fearful at least sent supplies by the hands of the braver ones. She was one of the last people I saw before I left Bucarest for the last time. She was also one of the people who had begged that I would get through the hospital a poison she could take to avoid another imprisonment in Russia.—How is it possible for you who live safely to understand a life so twisted that the kindest gift one can give a friend is a deadly poison?
Mr. Iuliu Maniu, the great leader of the National Peasant Party, was the next focus for the destroying forces of communism. His was a fine, upstanding character. Cold and reserved, he did not attract the affection of others, but all respected his integrity, whether or not they agreed with his politics. I had known him since the first days of Transylvania's union with the Greater Ro mania, and I grew to know him better during the government in the time of the Regency, from 1927 to 1930, when the baby Michael was king because of his father's renouncement of the throne.
Mr. Maniu had behaved with great nobility throughout the German ascendancy and the Russian occupation. As I have said in an earlier chapter, he worked constantly for an accord between Romania and the Allies, even when Romania was forced to fight on the side of Germany. During the Antonescu trial he was called to give evidence, and when he left the stand he stopped to shake hands with the already condemned man. This, Maniu told a friend later, he felt was simply the act of a man and a Christian, which he would have been a coward not to do; but it added to the Russians' hatred of him. Posters of his "crime" in shaking hands with a "criminal" were immediately pasted up everywhere by the Communists, but they only added to Maniu's already enormous popularity and to the conviction that Antonescu had been unjustly tried and condemned. Next to the King, Maniu was undoubtedly the most popular man in the country. He and his party came to stand for everything that was lost: freedom, equality, democracy, justice.
The elections of 1946, which followed the "compromise" of the Moscow Conference, when King Michael had been forced to accept a discredited government supported only by Russia, were supposed to be "free." They were instead carefully organized by the Communists to be anything except free, after a systematic reign of terror at gatherings throughout the country, designed to show -Romanians that it was not safe to oppose the Communist government. To make sure that the Communist Party received a convincing majority, a large number of the electorate were deprived of their votes: for example, all known non-Communists, all men who had fought on Russian soil (and their families), and all those who had held any office between 1940 and 1945. To make up for this, all foreigners who had entered the country within the past three months (especially Russians) were given a vote, and those felt to be "dependable" were given five to seven votes.
Nevertheless even these precautions did no good. One of the "dependable" women said laughingly to me, "I'll vote one for them, because I have to or I would be caught, but six of my votes go to Maniu!" To the surprise and fury of the Russians, the vote went eighty per cent against the Communists, and nothing was left for them to do but to suppress all facts about the election, and simply announce the lie that the Communist Party had received over eighty per cent of the votes cast! The fraud was so flagrant that official notes protesting the election were sent by Great Britain and the United States. No attention was paid to these notes by the Soviet government.
The fact that the people almost to a man had voted for Maniu added heavily to the counts against him, but he was permitted to live out of prison until the summer of 1947. Then Romania was invited to join the Marshall plan, and the Groza government, under pressure from Russia, refused. Maniu's paper, Dreptatea (Justice), wished to publish this fact, but it was of course a piece of news immediately censored. Dreptatea then went to press with the resulting empty spaces filled by quotations from the American Declaration of Independence. A few days later Maniu and his chief follower, Mihalache, were arrested, and the paper forbidden to be published. The National Peasant Party was liquidated and outlawed in July, 1947, and Maniu was condemned to life imprisonment on November 11, 1947, after another travesty of a trial.
In Romania it was as if one stood on an island of sand, the sides of which were constantly falling in great chunks into the sea, leaving the space on which one was standing ever smaller.