I Live Again by Ileana, Princess of Romania
AT ABOUT this time Bodnaras said he thought I should make the acquaintance of the rest of the government, and would I accept an invitation to a dinner party at his house? I thought it over and saw that it had its advantages. Since the King had accepted the compromise urged upon him at the Moscow Conference and there was now a political relationship between him and the government, there was no real reason to say no. I accepted the invitation, and when I arrived at the house, there they all were! It was the first time I had met Groza, who had a cheerful manner and certainly knew how to get a party going, with his loud laugh and his far from conventionally refined jokes. Sitta once told me that of course one could always be grateful at these gatherings for his complete insensibility to atmosphere which allowed him to fill all gaps in the conversation noisily and with entire self-satisfaction. There was Ghiorghiu Dej, the former railway mechanic, big, burly, and not unpleasant looking; Maurer, whose appearance was perhaps more well bred than that of anyone else in the group; Lucretiu Patrascanu, the Minister of Justice, with his beautiful, talented wife—the only smartly dressed woman present; and there was the small, unpleasant Theohari Gheorghescu, Minister of the Interior, who did not even pretend to be amiable.
Last, but most certainly not least, there was Ana Pauker. A big, stout woman, with short, untidy, gray hair, fierce blue eyes under lowering eyebrows, and a fascinating smile which was not spoiled by the fact that her upper lip hung over her lower one, she made one know that here was a real personality. I have always felt when I was with her that she was like a boa constrictor which has just been fed, and therefore is not going to eat you—at the moment! Heavy and sluggish as she seemed, she had all that is repellent and yet horridly fascinating in a snake. I could well imagine, simply from watching her, that she had denounced her own husband, who in consequence was shot; and my further acquaintance with her showed me the cold and dehumanized brilliance by which she had reached the powerful position she occupied.
On that first evening we talked but little. It was at a later time, when I was trying to ease in some way the terrible treatment of those in prison, that I conceived the plan of inviting her to dine with me and the children in Bucarest. Somewhat to my astonishment, she accepted. All the children were present, and as usual before sitting down to our food the youngest one said grace—and there was our atheist standing up respectfully with the rest of us. She was quite charming in her manner of speaking with the children about their studies and schools, and after they had gone to bed we sat down to a most interesting talk which lasted almost three hours. At the end I was surprised and a little amused to have her say:
"Now should you dismiss me, or should I leave? I have enjoyed this charming conversation so much that I have forgotten just what the protocol is!"
It was not a conversation in which I distinguished myself, for I was no match for her brilliant array of half-truths and slightly distorted facts, which she used dexterously in meeting arguments. Sometimes she answered questions frankly, with such an open lack of all we mean by the term "humanity" that she reminded me of those first Russian soldiers I had seen in Bran.
I remember asking her to explain some of the Communist principles and methods; why, for example, they used so much violence, when violence never convinced anyone.
"It is not intended to convince," she replied calmly, "but to frighten. When one replants, one first destroys everything that grows, root and branch. Then one levels the earth. It is only after wards that one can plant successfully."
She was quite frank about the reason for their treatment of the people. She said that it was not possible, unfortunately, to destroy a whole generation and have only the young left to train. A certain amount of physical work had to be done—road work, agricultural work, industrial work—to support the children in their youth. It was for this that the older generation had to be left alive, but they must be too frightened to dare to interfere with the Communist training of the children. Moral and physical threats of every possible variety were used to produce this condition, and in doing so it was not necessary to have any regard for human life. There would be enough of the "expendable" generation, too old to train, for purposes of labor, no matter how prodigally they were used and destroyed.
Finally we got around to the subject of prisons, and she told me of her own imprisonments, amounting to nine years in all. "And did you change?" I asked her.
"No," she said, "but I have already told you that we are not seeking to change people in prison. They are too old to be convinced; their habits are too strong. We are only getting evil out of the way when we jail them."
"But why not kill outright those whom you intend to punish most severely?" I asked her.
Again there was the feeling of utter, ruthless, impersonal in humanity. "Simple death would be too good and too easy," she said. "And it would not frighten the others sufficiently."
Once for a moment I did manage to put her in a corner, but it was only for a moment. We were still talking of conditions in the prisons, and she assured me good-humoredly that many things were exaggerated; that actually they were not so bad as I thought. I said that I wished I could believe her.
"Why," she said, "you could see for yourself, if you just went through one or two jails, that really it is not so bad!"
I took her up promptly. "Then let us go now, at once!" I said. "I will be glad to have you show me that I am mistaken!"
She hesitated for a moment, obviously taken aback, but re covered quickly. "Oh, but, my dear," she said smilingly, "what would people say—your people and my people—if they should see us going through the prisons together!"
Perhaps I do not need to add that my pleas for the relief of the dreadful suffering and torture were useless.
We talked also of America. As I was to notice many times, the hatred of the Communists for the United States was of a deadly bitterness which exceeded their hatred for anything else. Ana Pauker, like other Communists with whom I talked, was specific about their plans in regard to this country. Actually I was not so much impressed at the time as I have been since I came to the United States, for my own knowledge of conditions here was relatively slight. It is only now that I begin to appreciate the careful and detailed information and appraisals with which the Communists were so familiar. Since at the time Romanians still thought of this country as a powerful rescuer who might at any time end the Russian occupation if it wished to, I was shocked by Ana Pauker's calm disregard of this as a possibility.
She explained to me quite brilliantly and—so far as I have been able to determine from newspapers and magazines I have now read here—quite correctly, the industrial setup of the United States, and I remember that she stressed particularly its dependence on electric power. She had figures and statistics to prove that if electric power were destroyed, the entire country would be so completely disorganized that it could not possibly recover before the government was taken over by those prepared to do so. An other easy method of attack, she explained, was offered by the kind of water system on which a high percentage of the population depended, and which could be destroyed or polluted simply and easily. She explained that these and other similar possibilities existed not only because an urban population had forgotten the basic fundamentals of food raising and food preparation and conservation, but it was also because the system of food distribution itself was such that it could be seriously disarranged by only a slight effort, and completely destroyed by a little more. Experiments along this line had already been carried out on a small scale in the United States, she assured me, so that information on over all methods had been checked and made extremely accurate. Small and strategic strikes, she thought, might make atomic bombs un necessary; but only a few properly placed bombs would do the work if that seemed a better method. For good measure she explained casually just why this was impossible in Russia, where an entirely different organization was in operation.
Was she correct? How can anyone tell that now? As I have said, she was a brilliant talker, utterly and unhumanly a weapon of a force which is the very essence of evil. The venom of communism is as impersonally malignant as that of a striking snake. Certainly the facts she presented seemed correct, and the conclusions she drew seemed at least one of the possibilities of the situation. She had, of course, left God completely out of the picture, and I cannot do that because I have seen His power. Yet I do not think it is in accordance with His will or His plan that we trust in our own ignorance to protect us. I believe that it is His will that we trust in a Love and Wisdom which today do not seem manifested often enough in the lives of men. I have, after all, seen Nazism take over one country, and communism another. One country is not yet wholly free, the other is still in total slavery. This perhaps makes me more conscious of possibilities, and of the need of intelligent recognition of them and defense against them, than I might otherwise be.—But this is forgetting my story!
In the summer of 1946 I at last got a holiday, for I seemed completely exhausted and it was felt that I badly needed a change. I had tried to arrange my days so that I could spend a regular time with the children and Anton, for it was sometimes hard for them to remember that the work I was doing was not only for others but for them as well. My activities protected them. Our whole life, even to the seventy acres of farmland I owned, would have been under much severer control if the hospital, serving a demonstrable use to the country, had not been a part of that life. From small privileges up to the greater one of the children's education, I was allowed certain freedoms because even the Communists recognized that my life was indisputably a hard-working one.
In general I tried to stick to a daily pattern which began at 6:30. I was in the hospital at 7:00, home for breakfast at 8:00, and walked with the little ones to their school, which stood directly across from the hospital, at 8:3.0. Dr. Puscariu came at 8:45, and we made the rounds; then we had outpatients and operations until about 1:00, when I went home for lunch. I tried then to take a half hour's rest, and to spend the afternoon with my family, but it was often necessary to combine this with some of my work. Sometimes, for example, I took the children for a walk so that I could visit some patient, and I tried to interest them in my activities. I would delegate errands to them or ask them to follow up the progress of some child dismissed from the hospital, and one summer my two older daughters, under the supervision of Gretl, ran the children's ward while the nurse was on her vacation. At 4:30 we had our tea, usually in the garden in the summertime, and from 5:00 until 7:00 I was back at the hospital. At 7:30 we had dinner, after which there were games with the family. Monopoly was the favorite, but sometimes I would read aloud to the younger children while Anton played bridge with Frau Koller, Gretl, and one of the older girls if they were at home from school. I tried to be in bed by 9:00, and on days that had been very strenuous I had supper in bed.
This program was often varied, sometimes by an afternoon picnic or a swim in our pool, which the hospital staff were always invited to use. At other times it was varied by the fact that I had to spend all day and a good part of the night at the hospital during some emergency. Also, I occasionally departed from the usual program so that I arrived at unexpected hours for inspection, to see that everyone was at his or her post during the slack hours of the afternoon and night.
Now it seemed that I must get away for a few days, for my visits to Bucarest were anything but relaxing even though they provided a change from the hospital routine. I accepted an invitation from a friend and took the three older children with me. I had not at first wanted to go because of the fact that Anton was still not allowed to leave Bran, but he insisted that I needed the rest and must take this opportunity. Cella, who had also been a friend of my mother, had a country place in Oltania, a beautiful part of Romania which is enclosed between the Carpathians, the Danube, and the Olt. The Olt is a large river which winds through Transylvania to join the Danube, and which is supposed to have carried the tears of the Romanians enslaved there to their brothers south of the mountains, who were more free.
Unfortunately, the drought that had begun the year before still continued, and it was a sad sight to see the parched land and meager fields. Conditions were bad in Oltania, and I could hardly believe it when I saw that the great Olt had become almost a puny stream. Normally it is one of our largest and swiftest rivers, winding its way through magnificent gorges and entrancing meadows, and sweeping past the feet of lovely old monasteries. Yet in spite of the drought I was delighted to find myself in this part of the country, which historically is the cradle of Romania. It was up the Olt that the Romans had come to attack Sarmisegetuza, the strong hold of the Dacians. It was here also that the first Romanian voevod, or prince, lifted his standard in the thirteenth century. The city of Curtea de Arges, not far away, was Wallachia's first capital, and it is there, where her first rulers were buried, that my parents also were laid to rest. It is an extraordinarily beautiful part of the country, which seems to present a picture wherever you look. The peasant costumes here are the most lovely and varied of all those Romania offers: every valley seems to have one of its own. Although I have never lived there, something about Oltania pulls quite specially at my heartstrings. When I think of the Romanian soil, it is there I feel my roots go deepest.
My mother also loved this part of the country. She had a special tenderness for these villages; for the simple, frugal people so proud of their past; for the convents and monasteries always built on the most lovely mountain slopes, with the white walls of the fortified buildings standing foursquare against the green forest, and guarding in their centers the exquisitely painted churches. The beauty, dignity, and peace of these places—monuments which have withstood the vicissitudes of countless wars and occupations—had always enchanted both of us.
It was in one of these convents, that of Hurezu, that I trained and started my first company of Girl Scouts. I remember the last day of our camp, and how my mother came to take our pledges. I still see the square formed by the blue-uniformed girls in the white-walled courtyard with the lovely old church behind them, their outstretched arms and clear young voices carried on the clean mountain air while they made their pledge to their queen, as she stood on the old, carved stone gallery above. That evening we had a campfire around which we all sat, with my mother in the lovely dress of the region telling us stories of her girlhood. The night descended and gathered beneath the forest trees, and slowly closed around our circle about the fire. The flame died down and we became silent. We needed no more tales, we were living such a lovely one ourselves. It was out of deeply grateful and happy hearts that we sang the evening prayer of thanksgiving, and as we wound our way back through the trees to our dwelling, each carried something precious, something I think we all carry to this day in a world which has destroyed so much of what we lived for. —Of the thirty-two of us there that night, I alone have escaped to freedom. You cannot know what it is to endure such a thought!—
I was happy to be able to show my children all these places I had loved so dearly when I was young. Cella's house was not beautiful, but it had large, cool, whitewashed walls and a view that was deeply satisfying. There was an untidy garden, full of flowers in spite of the drought, and corn- and wheatfields running down to a road bordered by large old willows. In the evening I loved to walk down this straight and dusty road under the trees, and to see the carts drawn by the big, patient gray oxen slowly creak their way back from work in the fields. Then we would leave the road to walk through a cornfield and come out upon the banks of the Olt, which was here less broad and turbulent, though still swift. Cella and I would sit under a tree and let the children go swimming—something which would have been dangerous in normal times because of the current. Even now they were often swiftly carried away on the brown waters, but there were plenty of sand banks to stop their passage.
As we sat there, a peasant or a passing gypsy would come and talk with us, and I found it moving that so many remembered my mother's visits. We would speak together of those happy days in the past, when we were allowed to do as we wished with our "poverty." Once the family of Cella's husband had been owners of almost the whole region. Now they had hardly anything left, and that little was being reduced still more by the new agrarian re form; yet in many ways things had not changed. The peasants still came to the boyar—the lord of the manor—with their troubles and needs; with their misunderstandings to be settled and their ills to be cured.
We would return through the gathering dark to a country meal of chickens cooked on a spit out in the courtyard, served with vegetables and fresh cheese made of sheep's milk. We ate by the light of oil lamps, and afterwards Cella would play a Chopin prelude or a nocturne. Then we would retire, each to his room, with our candles, and find at our bedsides a jug of iced water and a spoon of "dulceatza"; the thick Romanian jam that is served on all occasions with a glass of water. I loved to blow out my candle and look at the moon-silvered world of fields and trees and little white peasant cottages gleaming white among the shrubs. There was a haze of smoke from the cooking fires still floating over the whole in the quiet air, and giving it a dreamlike look. I would climb between the cool sheets and fall peacefully and restfully to sleep, listening to the distant barking of dogs and to the song of the nightingale, both part of the Romanian night.—Forgive me if I have taken too long to describe what is so dear to me, but the thought of it rests me even now in this strange, new life I am beginning.—
After those too few and short days I felt greatly rested, and on our way back to Bran we stopped at Curtea de Arges to visit the graves of my parents, which my children had never seen. The drive there through the hills was beautiful, even though the drought had done great harm here too, and not only were the roads bad but we had to make quite a detour to keep out of the way of the Russians. Curtea de Arges lies in the southern hills of the Carpathians, in the valley of the Arges, which is another one of our largest rivers. As I have told you, it was once the capital, and it still shows the ruins and foundations of the old palace of the voevods, or princes. The old church still stands, and careful restorations and excavations have brought to light the beautiful old frescoes, and the grave of Neagoe Bassarab, a prince of the sixteenth century.
It is not within the old church that my great-uncle and aunt and my parents are buried, but in another church which my uncle had restored according to the fashion of his time, when they literally rebuilt the entire church, although following in every thing the old plans and painting. This stood in a great park, with a big brick palace in the background. Half of this building was used by the resident bishop, and half was reserved for the royal family, and it was comfortable even though it is to be regretted that it did not at all harmonize with the jewel of a church, all white and blue and gold. With beating heart I drove the car to the church and walked up the steps—to find the door locked. A monk soon appeared and opened it for us. His eyes filled with tears when he saw me.
"We are not permitted to keep it open. Too many people come . . ."
We stepped within the cool interior, with its frescoes and dim light. To the right as one enters are the graves of King Carol I and Queen Elisabeth (Carmen Sylva) and of their four-year-old daughter and only child, Maria. Beautifully carved and slightly raised marble slabs cover them; and to the left, under a window behind arching columns, other similar stones cover the graves of my father and mother. Here I knelt first in silent prayer, thanking God that they were at rest and could no more be hurt by all the sorrow that had befallen their land and their children. I could weep for ourselves, but not for them. Then I knelt by the other three graves, and after going up to the altar to pray there too, and reverently kiss the icon on the right, as is our custom, I turned sadly and wordlessly away. I felt like a ghost from the past visiting the past. Had I known that it was for the last time I came there, how could I have borne it? God is merciful in that we do not know what awaits us.
I have heard that these graves are among those destroyed by the Communists; the bodies dug up and burned; their ashes scattered. Not so easily can a spirit be destroyed!