I Live Again by Ileana, Princess of Romania
KING MICHAEL and his mother, Queen Helen, had gone to the wedding of Princess Elizabeth of England. Everyone was delighted at this—even the government, who of course hoped the King would not have the courage to return. His family and his people hoped that he would find a bride, and soon whispers began creeping back that he had done so. Everyone was happy for him, and eagerly waited for the public announcement. It was rumored that the government was considering the matter, and it was taken for granted that everything was awaiting the King's return, which had been set for December 20, 1947.
I was in Bucarest that day with Stefan, and we had been asked to go to hear a new Christmas Oratorio to be given that morning by the Opera Choir and the Philharmonic Orchestra. I did not say that I could come until the last moment, in order to avoid any kind of demonstration, but we did as usual sit in the royal box, I in my Red Cross uniform and Stefan in the military uniform of his school. It was a beautiful concert, deeply moving and inspiring, but I felt that I must leave during the second intermission in order to be on time to receive Michael. Therefore, at the end of the last chorus in that part, I rose from my seat, and, as the custom was, bowed to the performers to indicate my thanks and appreciation. They rose as one man, and the entire hall rose with them, and there I received the greatest ovation of my life. It is true that whenever I had gone to a public hall, however informally, I had always received a cheer—especially during the last two years. But this was something quite different. There was an agony in it. It was the expressed emotion of a people in distress calling to one of their royal house to understand. I stood at that moment not for myself as an individual, but for the institution of which I was a part. Their shouts and cheers were an expression of almost anguished love for all that was being destroyed, of bruised and dying hope for the salvation of a country. I felt this to the very marrow of-my bones. I tried to leave, but again and again I was forced to return, the cries mounting ever more strongly and engulfing me in a volume of almost unbearable sound and echoes.
At last I was able to tear myself away, deeply shaken. Stefan and I drove along the empty streets, guarded so that no one could approach the station where the King was to arrive. There I found the representatives of the government looking glum and silent. Only Groza, Bodnaras, and Ana Pauker came to talk with me, Ana commenting affably on how Stefan had grown. After the hall I had just left, coming into this gathering was like falling into ice water, in which I must smilingly go on swimming.
The train drew in, and there stood Michael in uniform, tall, good-looking, and with a smile of inner content which even the frigid, formal reception did not succeed in wholly destroying. Sitta, too, looked decidedly better for the change, and it did my heart good to see them. As I drove with them to the palace I tried to convey to them something of the real love and fidelity of the people, who were unable to reach them to express it. For not only were all the streets that gave access to the station closed and guarded, giving a strange and unnatural air of desertion as we drove along, but the exact time of the King's arrival had been kept secret.
They on their part had more pleasant things to talk about. In the first place, there was Anne. Her photographs were taken out, and Michael's beaming face showed his happiness. He and Sitta were full of plans about how things would be arranged; about how they would transform the Foisor—Michael's residence at Sinaia. Then there was all the news of our English cousins and the other relatives and friends, and it was wonderful to listen to it. It was like a breath of air from another climate. I returned to my own house much happier, although the two contrasting events of the day had worried me. What would the outcome be? I knew in my heart what was inevitable, but I refused to accept it.
Christmas at Bran was a pleasant one for the children. Anton arrived just in time with surprises and gifts bought in Switzerland, and also with unobtainable necessities for the hospital which he had been able to find for me. There were the usual celebrations, and for the very last time I wore my beautiful sapphire and diamond diadem. Perhaps because it was the last Christmas in Romania, that day stands out clearly to me, not for any special event, but because every minute since then has made it dearer to me. The snow was deep and crunched underfoot; the sky was full of stars; the songs of the children were clear and joyful; all faces seemed to smile and love one another; the gifts had been made with care and forethought. It was one of those times which warm the heart and make it content.
The next days also were peaceful and uneventful. We drove over to Sinaia to see Michael and his mother, and found them well and full of their plans. When I was alone with Sitta, however, she confessed to a deep uneasiness. The government had not yet given its formal consent to Michael's engagement. Why were they holding off? But still we tried to cheer each other into believing that soon the thing would be settled. My family and I drove back to Bran, with no feeling that it was their last visit to Sinaia.
On the evening of December 30 I went over to Noelle's house for a cup of tea. Another friend was there, and we sat around the fire in the lovely living room of the house Noelle and her husband had built with such effort, and where they were so happily and courageously carrying on their new life. Outside there was a blizzard, and I felt I must not stay too long or the roads would become impassable even for my "jeep." As I drove into our courtyard, the headlights of my car fell on the white and terrified face of the caretaker.
"Domnitza!" he cried to me in anguish, "Domnitza! We have no more king! We are lost!" I can still see him clenching and unclenching his hands. "We are lost! It is the end! No king!" he repeated.
I ran indoors, and found all the family sitting around the radio in the children's room. There was the message. The king, seeing he could now no longer serve his people but was only an impediment to their advance, had freely abdicated and wished his people well. Slowly the room filled with the doctors, the nurses, and other friends who had heard the news. No one of us spoke for a long time. The end had come.
Later that night my administrator from Bucarest called to say that Groza wished to speak to me: would I come in to town at once? The King, he told me, was in Bucarest but was returning to Sinaia. Naturally I could ask no further questions over the telephone.
Early the next morning I drove off with Stefan, Bittermann, and Badillo. It was snowing slowly and relentlessly. The world was still. I parted from Anton and the younger children with a great fear in my heart, but still I felt that I had to go, for the safety of all of us. Besides, I must find Sitta and Michael and speak with them. We met little traffic on the way, and those who recognized. us only bowed sadly and silently. At Sinaia I decided to take the risk of delaying the journey a little, and to drive up to the. Foisor. When I came to the gate I found the two guards standing there, but as I looked more closely I saw that they were unarmed. I stopped and talked to an officer standing near, and with a voice choked and hoarse with emotion he explained.
"They disarmed us by force last night. The Tudor Vladimirescu have taken over. We obtained permission to stand this one last guard, to welcome his Majesty for the last time. He is still in town—pray God they will not harm him. We mean to greet him this time with 'Sa ne revenutzi, Majestate!' "—May you return to us, your Majesty!—"and then they can shoot us!"
I drove on up the hill, past the dignified castle of the Peles, past the beloved old Pelisor, happy home of my childhood, to the Foisor to wait for Sitta and Michael. The servants were sad and anxious. None of us talked much—what had one to say? After two hours I decided to risk a telephone call to Bucarest, and surprisingly enough, I was permitted to speak to the Queen. They had been delayed, but were on the point of leaving. It would be best if I, too, would leave and take the road for Bucarest, so that we could meet on the way.
The snow continued to fall. Sinaia was wrapped in whiteness. There was something not quite real about it all; the whole drive was a long drawn-out nightmare of white confusion. In Campina we met the royal party, and we stopped so that I could get into Michael's car and drive out of town, where we could more easily talk. He and Sitta told me how they had been called to Bucarest, and had gone, thinking it was about the question of Michael's engagement. Immediately upon their entering the palace they had been separated from their suites. There were strange guards at the doors. Then Groza and Ghiorghiu Dej had laid the abdication before Michael, informing him that guns were trained on the city and that they would fire on the people if he refused to sign. It was as if a revolver had been held to his head: there was nothing for him to do but sign.
Now they were returning to Sinaia to pack, and were being sent to Switzerland as soon as possible. Michael had asked about his two aunts, my sister Elisabeta and myself, and had been told that we could remain, if we wished, as private individuals. What, I asked him, did he wish me to do? He said that he thought I should try to stay, but that he could express no outright opinion because he did not want to ask me to risk my life and the lives of the children further. I should see and judge for myself.
This conversation went on in low, controlled voices, with no show of emotion on the part of any of us. None of us could have borne the expression of emotion then! So we parted there on the roadside, not knowing what would come next, or when we should meet again, or how.—When we did meet it was at Lausanne in Switzerland. We were all alive and well, but we had lost too much for it to be an occasion of rejoicing. We felt nothing more than a bare gratitude for life.
The moment I entered Bucarest I knew I could not endure to remain under such a regime. There were the red flags, the posters with insults to my family, and—which seemed worst of all—the guards standing sloppily in their places, leaning carelessly against the palace walls smoking, with the red flag waving above them and hosannas to the Russian masters written over the walls. This first feeling of mine had been wholly instinctive, but I soon found that facts supported it. My administrator was waiting at my house to tell me that all my properties had been confiscated: the castle, the woods in Poeni Moldavia, and my little farms. Soon Anton called to say that the household had been cut off from the hospital, where immediately the family portraits had been removed and pictures of Stalin put up instead. The castle had been sealed and was under guard, our house guard had been doubled by the addition of Communists, and no one was allowed to go out of the grounds. It is in this way, I thought, that I am to be treated as a private individual.
Groza had asked to see me, but I was not able to reach him in any way. His secretary told me that the Prime Minister, he thought, had only wanted to assure me that I had nothing to worry about. I felt this was a little ironic under the circumstances, and I resolved that, since Groza had said he wanted to see me, see me he would! I knew that he always took a morning walk, so Bittermann and Badillo set a watch the next day—for, astonishingly enough, my house was not put under any strict surveillance. When they saw him leaving his house, which was about ten blocks from mine, I rushed into the car with Stefan and drove up to a side street. There we got out and sauntered down as if we also were taking our morning walk, and had quite by chance met the Minister.
Groza greeted me most affably and remarked on what a lovely day it was. I agreed, but I did not let it go at that. I told him all that had happened to me, and when he looked surprised I insisted on things being put right, which he promised to do. I cannot say that he was not pleasant to me, and when I cornered him, which I repeatedly did, he carried out a series of minor improvements, if such they could be called. For example, in Bran the family were allowed to go about freely and to communicate with the hospital staff. Finally I talked with Bodnaras by telephone, but by this time the course of events was so plain that I told him I feared my job was over, and that it might be best for me to go away, too. He said he felt with regret that this was the right thing to do for the time being, but that he was sure conditions would settle down so that I would be able to return. He asked permission for himself and his wife to come to say good-bye to me—something which of course they did not do. Groza I continued to see, and it was through him that the final arrangements for our departure were made.
The government agreed to give us a train in which Elisabeta should travel too. She was then still at her place in the country, but was coming up to town. We were permitted to take only personal belongings—that is to say, clothes, linen, and silver for the use of eight people—but no works of art, as these were "the property of the people," no carpets, and no jewels except those which were indisputably "family jewels" not acquired in recent years. A Control Commission came to watch us carefully so that we should "steal" none of our property—two men in Bucarest and eighteen men in Bran. These men were with us continually, so that there was no question of privacy, even for discussion. They were still to some extent human, so that at my pleading they did make an occasional exception: it is for that reason the statue of St. Benedict stands today in my bedroom, after having been smuggled out "by permission" in window draperies.
It was to me terrible to have these guards always present to witness my parting from friends, a succession of moments which were unbelievably difficult to endure. With each it was the same pain, the same desperate last embrace, the same agony, repeated endlessly throughout the long days. More and more gathered in my house; old and young, high and low. I wept so much that finally I had no more tears left. I felt drained of all feeling except one of immense pain, and only the need to get the children away kept me going, and forced me cold-bloodedly and mechanically to make the necessary arrangements. Had I been alone, I came to realize, I would never have left Romania.
On January 6, 1948, all was at last ready for me to go to Bran and collect the children and our luggage there. If it had not been for the kindness of Archbishop O'Hara, who lent me from the Catholic War Relief a truck which the husband of one of my best friends volunteered to drive, I would not have been able to transport to Bucarest what we were to be permitted to take. I was given two days to go to Bran and return, although actually we did not leave Bucarest for Switzerland until January 12, and this arrangement gave me approximately twenty-four hours in Bran. Groza sent with me a secret service man, to "protect" me, although I told the young man that I did not feel my life was in danger except from his own colleagues! I went out of my way, however, to try to win his sympathy, and I succeeded. He was as kind as his difficult position permitted him to be.
—It was of course a miracle, and one which I have had more leisure to appreciate since I left Romania, that not only was I able to win Communist permission for much of my work, but that my person .was respected and my life spared. There were occasions when to protect others I interfered with the activities of Russian soldiers, with nothing to implement my words except a great and burning indignation, and they retreated. There was little time to be wasted in being afraid, and on only one or two occasions did I actually feel fear for myself. Yet I was not blind to the possibilities. I knew that my secret activities were always in danger of discovery, and could not help but bring swift punishment. I carried with me a poison, and I saw to it that I had enough for the children in case it should be decided that they were to be taken from me and sent to Russia. Would I have used it? How can I know? It seems to me a sufficient comment on conditions that a mother should be forced to think of the possibility of having to make such a decision.
That morning in January my guard and I drove back with Stefan and Badillo, stopping in Brasov to see Mrs. Podgoreanu and Sandu and his wife, but the grief of those partings is quite beyond what I can even now mention.
In Bran I found everyone in a strained state of nerves. No packing had been permitted until I came, and the castle was still locked and sealed, but now the Communist guards opened it. I walked about the rooms, followed always by one or another of our guards, taking farewell of this beloved abode of my mother's and mine. Each object I picked up was immediately pounced upon to see if I was "stealing" something. I tried to see myself in the past, and in this way to wipe out the horror of the present from my mind . . . I do not want to dwell on how I saw Bran for the last time.
There was in the castle a small vaulted chapel my mother had had decorated and blessed long ago. When in 1940 an earthquake had damaged the lovely church in Cotroceni, I had obtained permission to remove from his grave there, and to bring to the chapel in Bran, the remains of Mircea, my youngest brother. He was not quite four years old, and the great love of my heart, when he died in October, 1916, one of the first victims of typhoid in the epidemics during the war. Very soon afterwards the German advance had forced the government to retreat to Jassy, so that the body of Mircea had remained in enemy-occupied country. Now I knelt down in the little chapel and read again the inscription my mother had had carved for his grave when the war was over and we had returned to Bucarest. Translated, it reads:
Once more Mircea has remained to guard our home. But this time his mother's heart, in the rock across the narrow valley, keeps him company. I had wanted to take it with us, but the marble sarcophagus was so firmly cemented into the rock that we could neither open nor remove it. Then I thought that, after all, it must be my mother's wish that her heart should remain with her people, in the Romanian rocks and soil. Though all the rest of us must go, something of her and of her youngest son would remain; a symbol of the love and faith that I believe no earthly power can destroy.
Anton, the children, and I knelt for the last time at the shrine of the heart, praying deeply and silently. Within myself I promised solemnly that wherever I went I would try to continue my work; that since in my heart Romania's image was engraved, my life would as ever be dedicated to her. From one of the tables in the castle I had taken a lovely old metal box, and pushing aside the snow with my hands, I filled it with Romanian soil. This, of all I carried away with me, is the most precious thing I have here in my home in New England.
The most heartbreaking parting of all was the parting from the hospital. I was only able to go there as it was growing dark, and the children came with me. First we gathered in the staff dining room, and I spoke my last message, choked by tears. Then I went around the wards, where each patient in his or her way gave vent to sorrow and despair. Each parting was like an actual wound in my heart, especially when I came to the soldiers, for at first they would try to look manly and behave with correct fortitude, but they could not continue so. One even fell at my feet, and burying his face in my apron he sobbed hopelessly. Then there were the children, the small orphans gathered in my nursery. They did not understand what was happening, and when I knelt down to take them into my arms they made designs on my face with my tears. At last I broke away from them. I gave one last look into the operating room, which seemed in its gleaming whiteness to stand for all the love and service I had given to the hospital. Was it possible that I would never work there again? Never?
Nothing now remained but the simple act of saying good-bye and parting from my co-workers and my friends. We knelt down and said a prayer for God's blessing upon the continuance of the work, and upon one another in this hour of parting. Other words were useless. I opened the door and crossed the beloved threshold for the last time, and the dark night swallowed me up.