I Live Again by Ileana, Princess of Romania
THE WHOLE project of the American food ship was an immense success, and it did more to restore a faith in the friendship of the American people than anything else could have done—except, of course, an implemented effort to assist the Romanians in regaining their freedom. However, even the good impression made by this gift of food could not but annoy the Communists, and they turned almost at once to increasingly open disapproval of the outside relief agencies in Romania. The Romanian Red Cross itself was one of the first to suffer, both the organization and its individual officers and members being attacked. The government first arrested the General Secretary for dishonesty, a charge which they were never able to prove, and which was particularly cruel because he was very ill at the time. I visited him regularly, and realized how seriously such an undeserved accusation had affected him, both mentally and physically. Some‑ what later the government arrested the Honorary President, Mrs. Irina Sturdza, a woman of such integrity of character that the injustice of the act was apparent to everyone. With her to prison went her husband, her two sons, and a daughter-in-law. Since the Honorary President in the Romanian Red Cross had an important role in the organization, this arrest struck deep, The Queen was in Sinaia at the time, and sent hurriedly for me to go to Bucarest and do what I could to liberate Mrs. Sturdza and her family.
I was more than happy to do so, not only for the Red Cross but also for Sitta, and I did not encounter too much opposition in my efforts. Almost at once I was able to have Mrs. Sturdza, one son, and the daughter-in-law released, and later her husband was freed, but it was six months before the other son was out of prison—partly because I had great difficulty in finding where he had been taken. It is a feature of the Communist system to make those arrested simply disappear, so that one not only knows nothing of the charges but has no idea whether the victim has been killed, sent to Russia, or is around the next corner being secretly tortured.
In making inquiries about the Sturdzas I discovered that the general feeling was an unquiet one and that radical changes in the entire Red Cross were being demanded by the government. I suddenly found myself in the position of mediator in the matter, a position which absorbed a great part of my time and energy. I had endless discussions with Bodnaras, the Ministry of Health, and Ana Pauker. I arranged interviews between these government officials and the leading Red Cross representatives, taking care not to be present myself at any of the meetings in order to remain as impersonal a go-between as possible. Colonel Sigerist, who had been in Geneva for a time, now returned in the interests of the deposits left by the American Red Cross, since these were in danger of being sent to help the Communist Marko in Greece. To my surprise I found myself also mediating in the American interests, which showed once more how little the Communists cared what Americans said or did. The hatred and disdain that the Communists nourish for all things connected with the United States, and that amount to an obsession, were once more clearly in evidence, but I was happy to be able to bring about a successful interview between Colonel Sigerist and Bodnaras. It was now the summer of 1947, and I had hoped to go to the sea for two weeks with my family. Everything had been arranged: a friend had lent us a house on an isolated beach south of Constantza, with the delightful name of Manjapunar, and we were all looking forward to the expedition. However, the fight for the survival of the Romanian Red Cross in a form acceptable to the international organization dragged on and on, so that finally I decided to send Anton and the children on ahead. I saw them off, wondering if I would really ever manage to get there. It was hot and dry in Bucarest, my back troubled me increasingly, and the discussions continued endlessly. At long last things seemed to be settled in a possible fashion, and I also could leave—but my rest was short-lived.
Only a few mornings later I came downstairs to find a messenger from Bucarest literally sitting on the doorstep. He brought word of a new law being passed which would arbitrarily change and thus destroy the entire Red Cross, but it had not yet been signed. Could I not return to Bucarest and try once more? A ten hours' drive over impossible dusty roads by day, or a night on a train with no sleeping accommodations! I felt an overwhelming exhaustion at the thought of facing either possibility. Then a brilliant idea came to me. Ghiorghiu Dej, Minister of Communications and one of the supreme heads of the Party, was taking a vacation in a smart residence nearby, at what had formerly been a fashionable summer resort. I walked to the next village, which had a telephone, and to the enormous astonishment of the operator I asked for Comrade Minister Dej. And who dared such a thing? Domnitza Ileana? Not possible! But at last I did get put through to this great "representative of the people," and he graciously agreed to sacrifice one or two of his remaining hours of rest to see me, for he was about to leave for Bucarest.
Up I drove in my car to a grand and extremely well-guarded residence. Certainly these days, I thought, the "representatives of the people" leave nothing to chance nor to the "love" of the people they are supposed to represent! Dej himself I had always found quite a nice man. He was simple and childlike in his enjoyment of the situation which had made a workman "top dog," and he could not help boasting about it every second minute—a bit of human behavior which made him somehow pathetic, until one reflected on the ruin that had been brought on the country by using such well-meaning but stupid people as the tools of intelligently evil forces. I once more pleaded the cause of the Red Cross, and he promised that he would not sign the decree: a promise he kept, although eventually it had no restraining influence on the course of events.
—I may as well finish the story now by telling you that eventually a general assembly was forced upon the Red Cross, in an attempt to make the desired changes appear to be brought about legally. When this move was blocked, the meeting was stormed by ruffians and a real fight took place in which several women were severely injured, among them two nurses who had served at the front. The disturbance was promptly blamed on the Red Cross by the government, and a new executive committee was named, a so-called provisional one. Some of the former workers were kept on, but there was a divergence of opinion as to whether one should try to work with the new organization or express disapproval of it by withdrawing. I personally felt that as long as no Red Cross law of procedure was broken and the members made no political moves, they should try to remain long enough to save for Romania whatever materials they could by large and rapid distribution, for once more there loomed up the danger of everything being sent to Marko's forces in Greece.
Eventually this policy was adopted, but too late to save much. I remember that when the Communist guard came to supervise my leaving Bran I still had a whole roomful of former Red Cross supplies which had been desperately distributed at the last minute but which I had not had time to send along to the underground. The guards were Communists, but they were also Romanians and knew the suffering of their own people. Rather than confiscate the packages for foreign Party members, they allowed them to be sent over to my hospital, where they could continue to serve Romanians. But this is getting ahead of my story. The fight to keep the Red Cross of Romania a part of the International Red Cross was finally lost. Other organizations, including that of CARE, likewise went down to defeat. Swedish Relief, including a special "Save the Children" fund, which had fed 60,000 children daily for six months, was forced to withdraw in 1948. Monsignor John C. Kirk, Secretary of the Nunciature, had been in full charge of the Catholic War Relief services in Romania since the spring of 1947, when the government had refused permission for the return of Mr. Thomas Fox, who had opened the service a few weeks before. I have already spoken of the vast area these services had covered, but the difficulties of operating them increased constantly until in the fall of 1948 Monsignor Kirk was finally forced by the government to terminate this Relief.
My own vacation at Constantza had been cut short, as I have explained, but even the time I spent there was complicated by a number of difficulties which ranged from the serious to the somewhat amusing. By this time the entire country was in a state of nerves, and people hardly dared trust anyone. The most absurd stories were avidly picked up and circulated, and all sorts of improbable rumors were seized upon by the secret police in an effort to prove to the Party headquarters how alert and active their representatives were. An unfortunate family out on a rubber raft one afternoon had incautiously waved gaily to friends on shore and called "Good-bye! We're going to America!" They had promptly been arrested, and the raft impounded by the police. Anton, not knowing any of this background, tried to arrange to borrow the "detained" raft, and at once the rumor spread that we also were going to escape to America in that inadequate and unlucky craft. When I came down from Bucarest and the Red Cross meetings there, Bodnaras had told me that if it was necessary for me to get back quickly he would send his plane for me, and I mentioned to someone the fact that I might be leaving by air. My remark was at once added to the "escape" story, and later Bodnaras showed me with considerable amusement the detailed report of all this, made to him by the local Communist police. He found it extremely funny that it was his plane for which the vigilant guards watched, in order to prevent my leaving for America in it.
But none of this seemed really humorous to me, for it spoke sadly of the wreckage of what had been a happy, growing country. All about me were other examples of this destruction. I love the sea, and Constantza had been the dream place of my childhood holidays. The Romanian navy was small but good, and because our mother had been the daughter of a sailor—her father had been commander first of the British Mediterranean Fleet and then of the Home Fleet—we children were brought up to know and love all that had to do with the sea and ships. From childhood I had known all our ships, both those of the Royal Navy and the commercial vessels. Later, as a young girl, my love for the sea and sailing led me to take up the study of navigation. Then, because I found that no one thought I was serious or knew what I was talking about, I took my Master's examination at the Royal School for Navigation in Constantza, and passed with quite a good average for a girl, especially one who had had to do her studying at odd times.—Later my son Stefan, filling out an application blank for his admission to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was to be quite cheered when he remembered this, since it enabled him to fill in the blank for schools from which his, mother had graduated!—
Constantza meant much to me, and I wanted to show it properly to the children, and to arrange a sail for them. I was therefore bitterly disappointed not only to find the town terribly damaged by the war, but to be forbidden by a Russian guard to enter the port. Finally the Romanian Admiral turned up and intervened. He had when young once been out sailing with me and five others on a memorable occasion when we were caught in a storm, and driven before the wind for a good part of the night. How long ago that seemed! And now we met again, arguing with our Russian oppressors. I told him that I had wanted to see our ships, or at least those the Russians had deigned to return to us—for in 1944 they had quite unjustly seized our shipping. His eyes filled with tears.
"They are in a terrible condition," he told me. "And no one can go on board without permission from Bucarest."
I turned away, heartsick for both him and myself but feeling still more bitterly sorry for our country. It was finally arranged that the family could all visit the big sailing training ship, Mircea, and have a sail on one of its boats, but it was not like the old days. We were received on board with royal honors, for the officers and men had insisted on this, once our visit was known to be permitted. The children were pleased and amused to find themselves "piped over the side" by the bosun as they came on board, and to learn that this was a relic of the old days, when honored visitors were hauled on board in a basket, and the bosun's whistle was the signal to pull it up. The sailors formed ranks, the officers formally presented themselves, and a guard of honor stood at attention, but the spirit was dead even though we tried to pretend that it was a happy reunion and that we did not feel the presence of spies and traitors among us. For on the Mircea there was one who had returned with the Tudor Vladimirescu, and who wore the hated sign on his arm. This boy had belonged to an aristocratic family with a proud tradition of service to their country, and he was the only son. When he returned he went at once to his home, but his father looked at him without recognition.
"But do you not know me, Father?" the young man asked. "I am your son!"
"No, I do not know you," the old gentleman had answered. "I once had a son, but he died in Russia!"
Knowing the story, I looked at him as he stood this day in the group with the rest of us, and I felt sorry for him, for though he was not openly excluded from the others, there was a wall between him and them which he could not pass.
I made one more attempt to bring back the past for my children. We paid a visit to the magnificent beach of Mamaia, upon which my parents had built a lovely Italian villa. There as a young girl I had occasionally given dances on August 15, our Navy Day. At first I could not find the spot, so many houses had grown up around it. They were all ruined now, and as we walked about among them I suddenly recognized the villa by its shape. It, too, was a ruin. Wiring and piping had been wrenched out of the walls, the fireplaces were broken to bits, and out of the floors over which our dancing feet once trod so lightly weeds were growing. Why had I tried to go back? I thought. What sad pictures the children would carry of these places, once green and gracious. My vision of what had been was not strong enough to be transmitted to them. One should never try to revisit the past.
But I must not be ungrateful. Manjapunar held for me no memories, and there the sea and the sand and the open spaces brought their healing and gave me strength to return to what lay ahead. I thought much, however, during those days by the sea, of my children and of their lives. In a way my attempt and my failure to re-create for them my own small part of the past in Constantza was a picture of the inevitable failure I felt I was facing in trying to re-create for them the past of my country: a past which had held freedom and a brotherhood of striving for the common goal of our Romania Mare.
An intellectual plague was slowly creeping over us, which was far more serious and fatal than the epidemic of typhoid had been. Slowly but surely Communist doctrines were being instilled into all the schools. History was being changed to suit the Party line. In one of the schools attended by my older daughters this was done quite simply and openly. The teachers collected the history textbooks and carried them to the courtyard, where they put them ceremonially on a fire around which the entire school stood in a circle. In this way the girls could clearly appreciate the lesson that the past and everything taught about it had been wrong and false, and must be destroyed. In other schools the old textbooks were confiscated and others were substituted. It was forbidden to mention any historical event not listed in the text, or to supplement the Communist account and interpretation of these events. I had been shocked to discover that in these new histories the reign of King Carol I was mentioned only in connection with the revolt of the peasants in 1907. Nothing else in his reign of thirty-three years was referred to, although he had freed Romania from the Turks and made it an independent country. The reign of my father—thirteen years in which Romania Mare had been established and had prospered in its development—was referred to once only, where it was said that "the uprising of 1919" took place under his rule.
Needless to say, the truth of the "uprising" was not told, and because I remembered it well the implications of this new history text seemed unbelievably flagrant in their lies. In Bucarest in 1919 there had been indeed a small riot, lasting less than a day, which had been fostered by the Communists but which had died down at once. I remembered how, when my father heard of it, he and the very popular Prime Minister, Marshal Avarescu, had got into the car—after a small altercation as to which one should drive, won by my father—and had gone to the square with no thought of guards or weapons to protect them. There they found a mild fight being carried on between the only troops then in town and the workmen who had been stirred up. It ended almost at once in colossal cheers for the King, who then made arrangements to adjust whatever grievance of the postwar conditions it was that had been used to get up a crowd.
In the same arbitrary way in which history was rewritten, many poets and writers were "purged" from our literature. They no longer existed: they had never been. Pictures of Romanian kings and queens, of heroes and statesmen, were taken out of the schoolbooks and those of Stalin and Groza were substituted. In Stefan's school the infiltration was more subtle and gradual. Textbooks were abandoned rather than solemnly burned, but the students and teachers were not allowed to have them in their possession. "Lectures" were substituted for texts in all classes except mathematics, where it was permitted to use printed problems. The indoctrination in Communist theory was introduced as a course in "general education," said to "supplement and round out" the formal courses. Like the camel in the tent of the Arab, this course gradually absorbed more and more of the students' time and became more and more specifically directed. The method of instruction used deserves more time than I can give it here, but in general it cleverly directed the students so that they believed they were drawing their own "impartial" conclusions, when actually they were being driven blindly along in the desired direction. It is a method characteristic of the Communists, and it has been used on a smaller scale by individual instructors who are Party members and hold positions in schools and colleges in many countries.
Eventually this course in "general education" not only used time and energy, but the grade in it counted fifty per cent of the total grade for the year. All other courses of study, all grades in military drill and in conduct, were averaged together, but counted only fifty per cent of the mark. This put the Party representative in the school in absolute control of the student body, since failure in the "education" course meant failure for the school year, and there was no possibility of re-examination or of appeal. Besides the disruptive effect of this policy on the other studies, the morale of the school was destroyed by the gradual setting up of a spy system, so that each boy knew he was being spied upon by some of his fellow students. Rarely did he know who was doing it, of course, although Stefan was warned by one of his "watchers" because of the real and deep friendship they had always had. A pressure system was used to enforce this spy system, which in a few rare cases attempted to work by rewards, but which because of the high moral caliber of the boys finally depended on blackmail and threats involving the safety of some member of the boys' families.
In the village school still attended by my younger children there had originally been a less noticeable effect because of the age of the group and because the teachers were at first left in comparative freedom. After all, it took a little time for the Party to "get around" to everyone! The children were forced to attend Soviet propaganda films and to learn songs and recite pledges of love and loyalty to the Communist government, but even in the primary schools there was resistance to the process. When the pictures of the King were taken down from the walls and those of Stalin and Groza substituted, all the children wore little "buttonhole" badges made out of stamps that bore the King's head on them. Soon all badges were forbidden, to stop this, and then the children wore them under their lapels. For a time the teachers were able secretly to teach some of the truths that had been eliminated from texts and courses of study, but as the spy system was built up these teachers were found out and removed. Once more the truth could be taught only at home, as in the very old days, around the family fireside at night—and then only until the children's minds should be so warped that they would spy on and betray their own parents.
In the little village school at Bran we, too, were forced to "celebrate" all the holidays commemorating our unity, political and "cultural," with our dear big brother Russia. There we all stood respectfully for the Russian Anthem and for the Internationale, which my children sang lustily and uncomprehendingly with the rest while I squirmed! Not too much, of course, was ever understood by these younger children. I remember one incident which is amusing enough now, but which at the time made my heart stop beating for a second. It was on the occasion of one of these Russian celebrations, when many songs and much oratory about the grand and glorious union of Romania and Russia had been produced. (The oratory was prepared by the Party, and handed to the luckless "speaker of the evening" just before he took his place on the platform; a fact which everyone soon learned, and which kept us from blaming any of the orators for the sentiments expressed.) An artificial atmosphere of cheers and smiles was kept alive under the watchful eyes of the local Communists, so that to a casual glance the event would have seemed a most joyful one. But at the end my small Magi said to me, in a too audible whisper:
"Mamma! I don't quite understand! Are we all rejoicing because the Russians are leaving at last?"
Reported in the right place, her remark could have sent all of her family to labor camps in Russia, and I admit that I was terrified. When nothing happened, I realized that those who had overheard her felt that she spoke for them too, but it was not a pleasant situation. It was encouraging to know that the teachers were not being very active and thorough in their Communist "instruction" to the children, but I could see that things were becoming steadily more dangerous. How does a mother warn a seven-year-old daughter so that she will not innocently condemn her family to death or slavery? How can she happily choose for a fourteen-year-old son between the truth that may cost him his life and the lie that may destroy more than his body?
All these things I thought of there on the beach at Manjapunar, while the children played in the sun, and I looked at the horizon wistfully. Perhaps it would be better to embark in the rubber raft, after all! But to try to escape with my own family from the oppression to which my people were condemned could never be the right solution of the problem for me. It was my duty to stay with the country that had given me life and held my heart, and not to desert it in a time of stress. I was not simply an individual, a mother who had only her own children to think of. I was also a symbol, a member of a royal family which had stood for service to its people. For that very reason I and my family could perhaps do more than other families to help strengthen and keep alive a small secret flame of hope for a Romania Mare of the future. I resolved to try harder and more courageously. I returned with the family to Bran, carrying this resolution in my heart and not knowing that soon all decision would be taken out of my hands.
When we arrived at the castle we found that Anton's long-awaited permission to enter Austria had come. He was eager to get off in order to have plenty of time to go and come back before Christmas, and Frau Koller was to go with him. She had been a dear and faithful companion to me for more than eight years; she had lived through many difficult times with us, and I had often found solace in the presence and friendship of this older woman who had helped us through hard and rough moments. She had been good and kind to the children and had patiently borne a country life which could not have been easy for one brought up in Vienna. I could not believe that now we were really parting, and I was saddened also by the reason for her leaving. Her daughter, an actress in Dresden, had escaped the Russian occupation unharmed but had died a year later in tragic circumstances, leaving a young son. Frau Koller was now going to him, after endless difficulties in getting her papers.
It was hard to see her leave, and I knew that Gretl also must soon return home because her mother was ill. I wondered what I would do then, but this problem also solved itself. Gretl left Romania when we did, and on our way to Switzerland she remained in Vienna. Then, although I was ill, I was free of other duties and could care for my own children without help.
But I did not foresee this in the fall of 1947. I was astonishingly free of any premonition of the end of my life in Romania. I went on planning for the future. Thanks to the generosity of a rich industrialist, I began building a small chapel, exactly resembling that built by my mother in Balcic, which should stand in the center of the hospital courtyard. There I planned to place my mother's heart, so that it should remain always in Spitalul Inima Reginei, which had been dedicated to her memory. I found a talented painter to design the frescoes for the walls. I even began to build in the garden a log house for winter use, which would substitute for the house in the village, and would give my big family each a room of his own. Our winter home I planned to transform into a dormitory for the School of Nursing I wished to found.
My arrangements for paying for these things had been given a terrible blow because of a financial move by the Communist government in August, 1947. Everyone in the country, excepting the top Party members and the Communist propaganda institutions, who were naturally exempt, was compelled to take part in an operation which, our leaders assured us, would stop the serious inflation in the country and restore normal conditions. It was simple. Everyone had to surrender all sums of money he owned, including his savings, and in return everyone received 125 lei, or about three dollars and a half in United States money. Whoever had actual gold or other valuables could deposit these at the national bank and get the new kind of paper currency, but those who did not have their money in such a form could start a new life with three dollars and a half. This move hit the peasants hardest of all, which was a planned step in the economic enslavement of the country, but it was something that might have seemed a little surprising to anyone who took the Communists' word that theirs was the people's party. I myself was left with my farms and my woodlands, which although greatly destroyed and restricted could still, with careful management, bring in a little income; so I had gone on planning and working.
At this time I was also busily engaged with a new project for coming to the aid of the intellectuals, the families of political prisoners, and other people whom one could not help openly. I had found that quite a number of people at that time were still left in possession of their houses.
—This number has since greatly decreased. One room is sufficient for a family. And if, in the bedroom where a man and his wife and a few children and an old mother must all sleep, there should be hung a curtain to give some semblance of privacy, that room has been divided into two rooms by the curtain, and another family is put into one of the "rooms." It is things like this that make me understand the anguish in a letter recently smuggled out of Romania to me: a letter in which a friend writes: "We no longer ask for freedom. We ask only for the decencies of existence."
In 1947, as I have said, I found that many of these families still left in their homes were willing and anxious to help those less fortunate, but food was so scarce that this was increasingly difficult for them to do. I thought of setting up a plan to help people to help others by giving them the necessary provisions to do so. Each of these homes, therefore, became a supply depot, to which, apparently quite casually but actually according to a carefully planned schedule, "friends" were invited in for a meal—at regular intervals.
In this activity Archbishop O'Hara co-operated, and he became one of my regular sources of provisions, which of course had all to be delivered as secretly as possible. The Seventh-Day Adventists, who had once, you may remember, "presented" me with seven carloads of used clothing, also helped in this, as well as the Missions from the Norwegian and the Danish Red Cross. The Queen, too, became enthusiastic about the plan, and shared her extra provisions and donations with me to use in this way. In spite of the informality of the arrangements, and the necessity of keeping it entirely secret and undercover, the number of families and students we were able to help ran up into the hundreds, and the plan was only well started when I left.
By numerous and devious means, which I cannot describe now because too many others were involved, we prepared and distributed parcels of food and clothes to families of political prisoners and others who must be helped secretly. I had a wonderful band of co-workers who labored long hours by day and by night. Why the activity in the basement of my Bucarest house did not attract unfavorable attention I have no idea, except that perhaps the policeman at my door felt that he had better let well enough alone. After all, I had always received a great many people, and did not the ministers of the government and other highly important Communists come in and out? I confess that it gave me an exquisite joy to entertain these people while my friends worked down below! Once I even blandly showed the workroom to a group of highly placed officials, and explained that here we were making parcels for the village children of Bran. I am afraid I am still not ashamed of that lie, which I hoped would protect our work from investigation if any rumor of the activity got out. And of course, truthfully, the village children of Bran were not forgotten, for thanks to the Red Cross of Switzerland I had set up a milk canteen to run all through the winter.
Have I succeeded in making you realize how many of my activities were in their beginnings, as well as how many were being carried on intensively? Then perhaps you can understand the shock of an end to all these things coming, not naturally, but as if a knife had rudely cut through a whole life in a moment. It condemned me, not to death, but to a living death.
It was the end of 1947. A strange, bitter winter had begun. We had thunderstorms when lightning mingled with the snow, and there were icy winds of such force that I have seen great snowballs, as large as cartwheels, driven along the plains at a furious rate. Nature itself seemed to be in revolt.