I Live Again by Ileana, Princess of Romania
THE VILLAGE of Bran lies in the very narrow valley of the Turcu River. Where the river curves there is a rocky promontory, and on this the Teutonic Knights built in the twelfth century a castle to defend the fertile high plateau, Tzara Barsei, against the hordes of Eastern invaders. They built the Castle of Bran out of rock and brick and rubble, and planned it according to the shape of the rocky outcropping. In places the lower walls are nine feet thick, but nearer the top of the castle the thickness decreases to four feet and finally to two.
There are three kinds of openings in these walls. On the lower levels there are the apertures that begin on the inner side of the wall as windowlike spaces large enough for a man to stand in, but narrow toward the center so that only long slits, just wide enough for the use of a bow and arrow, are left in the outer wall; and there are the oblong openings, near the floor, which can be closed by great beams of oak that swivel around on a central pivot, so that when the "window" is "open" the beam sticks out into the room on the inside, and beyond the castle wall on the outside. On higher levels of the castle, where the missiles of any attacking forces could not reach them, are windows of ordinary size, but all are set into walls so thick that window seats have been built, not below the window sills, but along both sides of the window embrasures. Besides these openings there are two in the tower room over the entrance which resemble nothing so much as the magnified ventilating "hoods" sometimes put over kitchen stoves. These are built into the wall at a convenient height so that the castle defenders could remain comfortably protected within the room, while a curved, masonry "hood" formed a sort of small bay, open at the bottom. Through this opening melted lead, boiling oil, and other oddments could be dropped on the heads of the besiegers storming the entrance.
Since the castle was not built for comfort, but for defense, no regard was given to the regularity of rooms. These cling to the rock wherever the natural formation made it easier to locate them, so that they meander up and down at various levels, connected by steps, by long, crooked passages, by archways and balconies, and by frequent irregular stairways, some built inside the very walls themselves. One side of the castle is a thick wall enclosing a small, oddly shaped courtyard in which my mother planted a little, perfect garden, upon which one comes unexpectedly. The towers are built where the rock itself is highest, and the views are magnificent. One side looks down upon the narrow valley of the Turcu and upon most of the village, while the opposite side overlooks the plateau, the Tzara Barsei, with the long, dusty road leading to Brasov, and the eastern Carpathians standing on the far horizon. I used to love to sit in one of the tower windows, watching for the dust cloud on the road that would announce the approach of some awaited guest, and feeling like Sister Anne in the Bluebeard story watching to see her brothers come. As a girl sometimes, waiting for my mother, I took delight in the fact that from the cloud announcing her arrival there came now and then dazzling flashes of light, where the sun touched the bright metal work on the bonnet of the specially designed Rolls-Royce she liked so much.
The town of Brasov presented the castle of Bran to my mother shortly after World War I. She took delight in restoring it, and in her hands it became an enchanting, fairy-tale castle, full of flowers, standing "on the rock where the four winds meet." Because I loved it as she did, she left it to me when she died, and it had for me an importance which had nothing to do with the actual days I was able to spend there physically. As a matter of fact, because of the difficulty of heating it and of keeping the water from freezing, we considered it habitable for only about four months of the year. It took the Russian occupation to teach us that actually a man might live there the year around—if he was sufficiently in desperate fear for his life; but that story comes later.
In the spring of 1944, because the weather was still cold, I had installed the younger children in a pleasant building at the foot of the castle hill. This had once been a customhouse, because Bran was almost on what had been the old frontier between Romania and Austria-Hungary. It was actually two old, one-story houses, joined together by a wide passageway which we used as a dining room. The walls were thick, the ceilings low, the floors made of wide, dark boards, and the whole interior was whitewashed, as are the walls of most Romanian houses. All the windows had flower boxes full of nasturtiums, and the whole place was very pleasant for what we thought of as entirely temporary headquarters.
At each end, this "house" which was really two houses was continued by tall walls. On one end these enclosed a farmlike courtyard, in which we kept a few hens and geese as well as the children's pets—rabbits, including one white Angora rabbit, lambs, a red Angora kitten, and a tiny, orphaned fawn. At the other end the walls enclosed the garage and a guardhouse, for as in all royal residences there was always a small guard for us, with a sentry at each gate. In my mother's days this whole building had been the quarters for the entourage—aide-de-camp, secretary, post officer, etc.—that came with her, and it also provided guest rooms for people who were not intimate friends, but to whom she wished to offer a vacation in the good mountain air. Now, although we did not know it, it was to be our home for nearly four years, except for the short periods when the summer permitted us to move up into the castle.
After the week in May that I spent in Austria, and which I have already described (the week which I did not then know would be my last in Sonnberg), the Red Cross hospital in Brasov had to be made ready with a rush. I had to give up my work at the station canteen almost entirely except for emergency calls, but my collaboration with Mrs. Podgoreanu never came to an end as long as I was in Romania. She often had cases from the trains which needed hospital care, and which I could follow up for her, and I frequently went to her for help and advice in regard to my problems. During the second bombardment of Brasov, on May 6, enough damage was done to make the military hospital inadequate. We had to take an overflow of cases to the Red Cross hospital, even though it was not officially open and we still lacked a number of supplies. However, on May Tenth—our National Day, which is like your Fourth of July—it was officially opened with the traditional service of blessing and with all due ceremony, and given the designation "Z.I. 161." (The "Z.I." indicated that it was in the "zone interior," and the number showed that it was the one hundred sixty-first emergency hospital to be established. Field hospitals, which were set up back of the lines and designed to be as mobile as possible, were designated only by numbers.) The local authorities, both military and civilian, took part in the exercises, everything went well, and we were all truly proud of our combined efforts. To add to the joy of the occasion for the whole community, the King's mother attended the opening and afterwards made a tour of inspection and spoke personally to each patient. She also consented to go with me to the station canteen, which gave Mrs. Podgoreanu and the staff there a real and well-deserved pleasure.
May 21, my saint's day and Alexandra's ninth birthday, brought me another new experience. We were having a quiet family celebration of the occasion at Bran when word came that a transport of over two hundred wounded soldiers straight from the front were arriving in Brasov, and all hands were needed. I drove to the Red Cross hospital as quickly as possible, anxious not only to help but to learn how such a problem was taken care of. Simone Cantacuzino, the head nurse I have mentioned, was a wonderful leader. She not only quietly and efficiently set up her organization, but deftly instructed the rest of us as we went along, for few of her staff had had this particular experience.
The men were first put in the charge of an officer, who took their papers and filed them. Their clothes were then taken off and marked, and their personal possessions were put into separate bags, each tagged with the number that had been put on the clothing. In groups the men were brought to the big shower room just below the former high school gymnasium, which was now our largest ward, and here they were washed, shaved, and disinfected. It was a damp and messy job. We had to be most careful of their wounds, which we protected with oiled silk, pieces of plastic, and every bit of waterproof material we had. Some of the men had to be carried, others could stand, but only a few were able to wash themselves. The odors of hot water and soap, steam, dirty humanity, and festering wounds soon made the atmosphere unbelievably difficult to breathe. We ourselves became sodden. Our starched caps went soft and sloppy, our hacks ached, our feet swelled—and still the men came, naked and dirty and miserable. It was an indescribable satisfaction to send them, clean and robed, first to the dispensary for bandaging and treatment, and finally to bed, where they were fed. This was my first, but by no means my last, experience of "deparasitare," or delousing.
Except for special work of this kind, the regular hospital routine was soon well established, and the round of bandaging, operations, and treatments continued. I worked in the wards because, in spite of the experience I had had thrust upon me after every bombing raid, I still could not endure the sight of blood during operations. It took me a long time to overcome this feeling, and I assure you that in 1944 no one could have made me believe that in later emergencies I would assist with the surgery itself. I did not, however, feel that I was shirking by remaining in the wards, because that was where our greatest need was at this time. Wardroom nursing is unromantic and exacting, having to do largely with basins and bedpans, with endless miles of steps to be taken, and with the resentful aching of a back which bends and lifts and strains during much of the time spent on duty. Such jobs did not please those members of the volunteer group who had pictured themselves as white ministering angels floating between the beds of heroes and dispensing flowers and smiles to men who miraculously never vomited into basins or called for bedpans—or who sometimes were not able to call for either one in time. These women were much happier helping in the dispensary or in the operating theater, where there was less monotony and uniforms could be kept much neater.
I do not mean here to belittle any of the volunteers who gave time and energy unstintingly, but I confess that I formed certain prejudices against women who would not accept humble jobs because they thought that "a lady" was above an "ordinary nurse." No hospital, military or civilian, can be run without a great deal of work which is in itself highly disagreeable, and which can be happily performed only if one looks firmly not only at what is under one's nose but also at the object for which one is working—the comfort and healing of mankind. Our real "ladies" accepted tasks as they came, and among such true aristocracy there were women from many classes. I remember especially one girl who sold tickets in a movie theater to earn her living, and who spent all her free time helping cheerfully with the most menial jobs, even the difficult one of carrying stretcher cases down into the cellars and up again when bombardments made this necessary.
The two sisters at the head of the hospital were delightful to work with, as well as truly efficient, and our head doctor, Dr. Dogariu, was an able man and one easy to get on with. Our greatest problem continued to be that of alarms and bombardments, since we had no really safe bomb shelter and since there were always cases who could not be moved in any event. These last we put all together in one ward, and we took it in turns to sit with them during the hours of danger. It was a most harrowing experience, because there was nothing to do except to wait. Whether or not bombs fell near us, these hours were hard for helpless men to endure. I cannot properly describe how cheerful and pleasant they were; how they joked the hours away, telling stories from the front or anecdotes of their homes and childhood. It was only by the drawn expression of their faces and by the occasional unguarded and haunted look in their eyes that they betrayed the fear in all our hearts. We nurses were very proud of the fact that the feminine members of the hospital staff were quicker to volunteer for the duty of "waiting it out" than were the men; but these gentlemen assured us that prudence was the better part of valor. The medical staff also took the lofty position that it was their duty to go to safety, for what would we do when the "All clear" sounded if there was no one to care for our wounds! That, of course, was one way of looking at it, but their philosophy did them little good when one day a surprise inspection was made during a raid, and the visiting General found not a single man on duty anywhere.
Alarms and air raids came with such frequency that finally we received an order to prepare in a more sheltered locality an annex to the hospital, where at least part of the more seriously wounded cases could be moved for convalescence. This meant that we were again out searching high and low, far and wide, for available space, but all big buildings had long since been requisitioned by other institutions. Whether they were actually using it at the time or not, the "owners" of such space were most unwilling to surrender it, and they were often so extremely disagreeable about our request that I became furiously indignant on one or two occasions. When we were refused the use of a village hospital which was almost empty, I remember saying bitterly to the doctor, "I suppose you are waiting for the Russians to come and teach you to appreciate Romanian soldiers!" It is terrible now to think how very right I was.
Once more I was to learn that every apparently blind alley can actually lead to new possibilities, for it was then that I first thought desperately to myself, If no one will give us help, I'll get on- without it! I'll build my own hospital!
I owned one piece of ground at Bran which was suitable, but it had been lent to others for raising a potato crop. Nevertheless, I began thinking of ways and means for a project which at first seemed madness, but at the same time I did not cease my efforts to locate space for immediate use. I suddenly remembered the Orthodox priest in Bran Poarta, a part of the village of Bran which lay in a little gorge branching out of the main valley. He had once offered me for refugees the use of a schoolhouse belonging to the village church, but I had not then needed it. Now when I went to him he readily agreed that we might use it for a hospital annex.
The building was not very big, but it could house about forty wounded. It was low, one-storied and whitewashed, built in an L shape. It had a gushing mountain brook on one side, and the lovely old village church on the other, while as a background stood the Bucegi, one of the loveliest of the Carpathian ranges. Nearly eight thousand feet above us these mountains seemed to stand as a protection and a promise of peace and of things eternal. Often as I looked up to them I felt how small and unimportant before eternity were our troubles, no matter how great they seemed to me at the time. Again and again I found comfort in gazing at them, for to me God's smile is reflected by mountains as it is by the sea, and I felt that here was a lovely place for suffering and frightened men to come.
It happened that among the refugees from Moldavia was a friend of mine with her children. Since her father had been court physician and a friend of my father's, and she and I were only twelve days apart in age, we had been friends as long as we could remember. She had always been called Noelle because her birthday was on Christmas Day. The few possessions she had been able to bring from her lovely home had been standing in one of the freight cars in the railroad yard at Brasov during the first bombardment, on Easter Sunday. Fortunately that car had not been hit, and she had been able to set up housekeeping with her children in a little garden house of mine. Since I knew how capable and active she had always been in her own estates, and how interested in looking after the welfare of the peasants and their children, I asked her to take over the organization of our hospital annex.
—Perhaps it would be of interest to you to know that later, to help Noelle and her husband make a new life after they had lost everything in the war, I "sold" them—at the lowest price that would make the title a legal document—a piece of land. Actually, of course, no money passed between us. She and her husband, by putting together everything they had and by incredible efforts of their own, built there a house where they could live, and where they could also take summer boarders in the season and run a skiing school in the winter. Through others I have learned that after I was forced to leave Romania in 1948 the Communists passed another new and convenient law which decreed that any contract made by any member of the royal family during the past ten years was invalid. Noelle was among those who suffered from this. Her house was confiscated, with no compensation, and she was again stripped of everything she had worked for. One of the most bitter things in the world is to discover that one's friendship is a danger to those one loves.
To help the hospital in its emergency, Noelle found among the other refugees in Bran women who were willing and capable, including two trained nurses; and the "staff" she assembled proved to be excellent. They began by thoroughly cleaning and freshly whitewashing the former schoolhouse, doing all the work themselves and putting in long hours to get it ready as soon as possible. We rounded up beds, mattresses, and cooking utensils that could be spared from the big hospital or were donated, and in an astonishingly short time we were ready to move in.
This, too, proved to be quite an achievement, since transport difficulties were great. We had no ambulance of our own, and before I had rounded up transportation for our forty wounded I had fairly exhausted the telephone operators and had thoroughly annoyed a great many people. Romania had no lack of gasoline and oil, although it was rationed, but automobile parts and tires were in short supply. No one wanted to make the fifty-mile round trip over the bad roads between Brasov and Bran if he could possibly avoid it. A few people in Brasov even suggested that I had gone as far away as Bran in setting up an annex only because I wanted to be nearer home myself, but I was happy to ask them at once to find us a place we could use in Brasov. Naturally they could not. Their attitude was really only a reflection of the extreme nervous strain under which one lives when one's community is a target for frequent and unexpected bombing raids, but I do not want you to think that what we were doing was simple or easy, or went along as quickly as you can read about it. I have never found that anything worth doing can be accomplished without considerable effort, and transporting forty wounded was no exception. In the end I had to go as far as Bucarest, and even to beg the use of the Queen's private ambulance, before all our soldiers were installed in their new quarters.
Since we had only two orderlies, who unfortunately did not arrive until after most of the wounded had come, we carried many of the stretchers ourselves. The peasants, encouraged by the good priest, had brought in provisions of fresh eggs, vegetables, and fruit, and had made the hospital rooms gay with marigolds from the cottage gardens. It was an excellent and a happy beginning, and the little annex kept that feeling of being set apart and safe even during the most terrible times. Yet it was too small to be adequate, and very primitive in its arrangements; all water, for example, had to be carried in by hand. It could be used only after the patients were operated on, since it had no facilities for surgery, so that in Brasov our "Ward of Terror" still existed during raids, even though there were fewer men who must "wait it out" there.
This realization of how much more we actually needed intensified my thought of trying to build a hospital myself, and I returned to the thought of my potato field. Perhaps I could buy off the people who had planted the crop, but when it came to a building—and then I suddenly thought of the wooden barracks buildings occasionally dismantled and sold by the army. I began making inquiries, and finally located one which could be bought, but I did not have the money. A part of my property from which I received the greatest income had been in the section of Romania taken by the Russians, and other holdings had been seriously damaged by the war. While I did not know how great my loss in Austria was to be, I had already realized that in the future I must plan on receiving very little of my former income. I got out a bracelet I thought I might be able to sell to start the needed fund, but here my friend, General Tataranu, heard what I was doing and appeared on the scene.
"What are you thinking of?" he said. "Have you not six children to support? And if you can save a jewel to leave to them, so much the better. Why not consult me? This is nothing you are doing for yourself! I will let you have an army barracks—not a very grand one, but not so bad! In fact, you can have two of them!"
I could hardly believe it. Then, to my delight those who had planted potatoes on the chosen plot refused to take money for their crop loss, saying that they also wished to make an offering. The next thing was the matter of furniture, utensils, and such things, and for the furniture I appealed to Colonel Serbu, the director of an ammunition factory in Tohan, one of the neighboring villages. He was a former army officer, and at first sight not a very prepossessing man. His manners were gruff, and I felt he was decidedly annoyed at having to obey my summons, but still I liked him: he looked capable and enterprising. I told him that it had been suggested we might get cupboards, tables, and benches at cost from his workshop, but instead of leaving it at that, I surprised myself by going on to explain all I really wanted to do. My dreams got the better of me, and I shared with him what I had confided to no one else: my whole vision of what could be done also in a time of peace with a hospital out here in the mountains, where a whole countryside lacked the medical services they should have. I was astounded to hear myself talking so freely of all I inwardly hoped for, but I was still more astonished to see his eaglelike glance soften, as he looked with me at the accomplishments my words were striving to picture. He caught fire, and his enthusiasm outstripped mine. He made suggestions. We must make it permanent, of course.
"But," he suddenly said, "you can't do that if you begin with a horrible old army barracks!"
"Oh, but I can!" I told him. "Why, at first I had only a piece of ground, and even the crop that grew on it was not mine!"
He still objected. "But I will give you an almost new barracks if you can arrange for the General to give me one of his old horrors instead," he finally offered.
This seemed too good to be true, but it was true, and it began a chapter in my life which continued to seem too wonderful to believe. When I look back at that time and at the four years that followed, when I think of the wonderful way the hospital was established, of how it never ran out of provisions, how it was protected in moments of greatest danger, how it grew when all else failed, I feel truly that I lived in a continual miracle. I would like one day to tell the whole story, but here I want to spend most of the time on the events that led to my country's loss of freedom; on the resistance put up by my people; on their great suffering and their great courage. Yet since it was the hospital that gave me an insight into what was happening, that broke down many barriers, that provided a common meeting ground for such an unlikely and antagonistic combination as a princess and the Communists, it must come to some extent into this story as well. Dearly beloved hospital, how precious you are to me, and how grateful I am to you!
The excitement of feeling that my dreams could come true had only one consideration that sobered it. How could I possibly manage to spend the time in Romania which the hospital and my other work would require if I continued my work with the wounded in Austria? This question was solved for me quite quickly and finally. I had been expecting Anton to come for a furlough when I suddenly received word that he was leaving the army and coming to Romania to stay. Hitler had decreed that the "propaganda" of princes dying for their country must cease!
This may sound an odd rule to you, but it was made in all seriousness. During the war many of the descendants of former royal families and of former nobility had played a gallant part, and many had been killed or seriously wounded. To the funerals of these young officers, whose family names were deeply engraved in the history of their countries, came large numbers of all classes of people. Hitler apparently began to feel uneasily that an undue emphasis was being put upon paying respect to men whose friends and families represented a threat to the continued existence of his regime. He therefore decreed that commissions must be surrendered by all officers descended from families who had formerly reigned, and by all officers married to foreigners. In this way, Hitler decided, the "propaganda dying" of princes would be stopped.
The decree had been announced some months before, but it had been protested against strongly by Goering, who did not want to lose his "princes" who were officers in the air force. In any case it could not be accomplished overnight, since the commissioned officers had • to be replaced before they could resign, and we had come to feel that perhaps no more would be heard from it, and that Anton would be allowed to remain. Quite suddenly, however, he also had been forced to give up his commission, and must make plans for a new life. He decided to come to Romania first, but he too left Sonnberg with no warning that it would be more than two years before we had even a message from our home there, and that it would be four years before he could get permission to return to Austria even to look at the empty shell it had become.
Anton arrived in Bran on a beautiful morning in July, 1944, after we had moved up to the castle for the summer months. The hospital construction was proceeding well. Some of Colonel Serbu's engineers were in charge of building a pontoon bridge across the river and making plans for the installation of water and electricity, and soldiers from General Tataranu's command were working with Russian prisoners of war in putting up the dismantled barracks, which had arrived by wagon and lorry. The work in the Brasov hospital and in the annex at Bran Poarta was going wonderfully well, the station canteen had been rebuilt after the last bombardment, and the work there was for the moment less strenuous because of a lull in the influx of refugees. In honor of Anton's arrival I had laid aside my uniform and decided to take a holiday, and he and I and the children were all laughing and talking at once with excitement when suddenly the hated sound of the alarm cut in upon our laughter, and was followed by the droning of planes and the dreaded noise of explosions.
As quickly as possible I rushed to change into my uniform, get my first-aid kit, take a hurried leave of the family, and start for Brasov. I made such haste that I arrived before the raid was over, and therefore spent some time lying in a gravel pit at the edge of town, regretting that I could not have foreseen I would be able to spend another hour with Anton and the children. Finally the planes were gone, and thanks to the royal flag on my car I did not have to wait until the "All clear" was given before going to the Red Cross hospital.
There I found everything in good order, since no bombs had fallen on the immediate surroundings, so with Nadeje Soutzo, assistant to the head nurse at the Red Cross hospital, I went to the station. Once more it had been leveled to the ground, once more the canteen had gone up in blue smoke, and for the first and last time I saw Mrs. Podgoreanu with her calm shattered. The small air-raid shelter, which had been so crowded that it was finally difficult to breathe in it, had received three direct hits. They had not penetrated, but they had left all who were inside badly shaken. By a miracle the dispensary had again been spared, so that Nadeje and I could set to work at once with the injured.
The condition of many of them was so serious that I felt a mounting irritation because the station doctor was quite evidently not at his post. Since there was a shortage of army doctors, a new system had put local civilian doctors on a sort of "limited draft." Theoretically one or another of these doctors was assigned to the station at all times, so that someone would be there in case of need, but actually not all of them were conscientious enough about keeping their assignments. They felt they had neglected their own patients and lost money for no good purpose when they had to sit long hours in the station without being called on, and as a result there had been times when a sudden need developed and no doctor was available. In the case of a raid it was the duty of the doctor stationed at the canteen to take shelter at once, so that he would be safe and ready to help the injured, which made the breach of regulations obvious in this case. I allowed myself to relieve some of the pressure of my own horror and pity by nursing anger against the absent doctor, and for doing so I received a lesson I hope I have never forgotten.
When Nadeje and I had done all we could we packed some of the injured into the car and drove to the military hospital, where a scene of even greater tragedy met us. I will not try to describe in detail things which cannot possibly be imagined. Perhaps it will be enough to say that we helped to dig out sixty-two dead and injured from the very trench where I had taken shelter during the first bombardment. No one can tell what this is like who has not been forced to handle torn and bleeding arms and legs with tender care, in order to discover almost by touch in the mass of mangled flesh whether they are still attached to a living body or not. We were, of course, soaked in blood ourselves almost immediately, and while in some miraculous way I always seemed able in these emergencies to overcome my sick faintness at the sight or touch of blood, it was never easy for me. That is my only excuse for my thoughtless and cruel answer to the elderly man who approached me as I worked, and asked me if anything was known of the doctor at the station.
"No! He left his post of duty!" I replied curtly—only to see him draw himself erect with a pitiful expression. of mingled grief and pride.
"My son would never do that!" was all he said, but it made my cheeks flush with shame, as they do today when I remember my angry and inconsiderate remark. It has made me try humbly ever since not to speak quickly any words which may hurt someone unnecessarily. Nothing was ever found of the young doctor except his cap on a hill not far away from the station, where a direct hit killed nearly a dozen people and left literally nothing except shreds of unidentifiable flesh. No one will ever know what happened; whether his nerves failed him, or whether he rushed to help someone. But no good was accomplished by my sharp answer, which could not be wiped out by all my explanations to the father.
The only bright spot in that unhappy afternoon and evening was a sudden, brief, informal visit made by King Michael, who drove into Brasov accompanied only by his aide-de-camp and his big police dog. His appearing so soon after the disaster did much to encourage the people, and to strengthen the bonds between him and them, and it did my heart good to hear them cheer him as he drove away.