An intelligent and spirited little girl
Marie-José's childhood was overshadowed by the First World War. At the age of 8, she saw her country invaded by Germany; she and her brothers were sent to safety in England, and placed in the care of Lord Curzon. Leopold was enrolled at Eton, Charles at Winchester, and Marie-José at an Ursuline convent school in Brentwood.
The war must have been a very traumatic period for Marie-José. She surely suffered severe anxieties for her parents, who remained in Belgium, near the front lines, exposed to all the dangers of war. Marie-José's eldest brother, Leopold, was also in danger - at the age of 13, he insisted on returning to Belgium to join the army. Throughout the war, he divided his time between school at Eton and "vacations" with his regiment.
On April 8, 1915, King Albert's birthday, Queen Elisabeth arranged for a surprise visit of Marie-José to La Panne, where the royal couple were living. In her old age, Marie-José continued to keep, as a precious souvenir, an album of drawings she had given her father on this occasion. The album was dedicated as follows: À mon papa chéri. Marie-José. La Panne, le 8 avril 1915. It contained a whole series of drawings representing the war, often using animal characters. The Belgian and British soldiers appeared as rabbits and frogs, with innocent, kind expressions; the Germans, by contrast, as devils! Her brothers were shown as heroic figures, carrying the Belgian standard, weapons in hand. King Albert was the noble "Lion of Flanders," with a huge crown. Beside him, Marie-José had placed his allies, the King of England and the Tsar, with the caption: Vive papa, vive la Belgique.
During her visits to La Panne, Marie-José assisted the staff at the Océan field hospital, where her mother worked as a nurse. For instance, during the final Allied offensive, in 1918, the 12-year-old princess prepared bandages for the surgeons. She would later recall these experiences, in poignant terms:
All' Océan l'atmosfera era davvero pesante, dappertutto risuonavano urle di dolore. Eppure non provavo orrore, ero convinta di rendermi utile in qualche modo al mio paese. Ci fu però un giorno particolarmente difficile. Cercavo invano...un ferito in gravi condizioni a cui, da una settimana, portavo un pò di brodo. Il suo letto era vuoto. Un altro paziente, che era disteso lì accanto, mi avvertì: "Altezza, non c'è più. E morto. Posso io avere la sua razione?" La crudele realtà che c'era dietro la sua domanda mi fece perdere il controllo e dovetti allontanarmi in tutta fretta, trattenendo a stento le lacrime.
At the Océan, the atmosphere was truly heavy, there were screams of pain on all sides. Yet I did not feel horror, I was convinced that I was making myself useful, in some way, to my country. There was, however, a particularly difficult day. I was looking, in vain... for a wounded man in serious condition to whom, for a week, I had been bringing a bit of broth. His bed was empty. Another patient, who was lying nearby, warned me: "Your Highness, he is gone. He is dead. May I have his ration?" The cruel reality behind his question made me lose control of myself and I had to rush off, barely holding back my tears.
(recorded by Luciano Regolo in La Regina Incompresa, tutto il racconto della vita di Maria Josè di Savoia)
Marie-José's fierce loyalty to her father and her country made her vehemently opposed to anything German. Understandably, she felt deeply outraged by the invasion and occupation of Belgium. In 1917, she left Brentwood and entered the Collegio della Santissima Annunziata, near Florence (in preparation, undoubtedly, for her future marriage to Prince Umberto of Savoy). Her class' music teacher was a young German lady. Marie-José would later recall:
La nostra insegnante di pianoforte era di origine tedesca. Io la detestavo. Era una donna buona e gentile, ma a l'epoca odiavo qualunque persona avesse a che fare con la Germania. Le altre educande cercavano di farmi cambiare idea riguardo la povera fraulein, ma io, replicavo... "Mai! I Tedeschi hanno fatto tanto male al mio padre e al mio paese." Mi bastava sentire il nome dell'imperatore Guiglelmo per farmi infuriare.
Our piano teacher was of German origin. I hated her. She was a good and kind woman, but at the time, I hated anyone who had anything to do with Germany. The other boarders tried to persuade me to change my mind about the poor Fräulein, but I answered: "Never! The Germans have done so much wrong to my father and my country." Merely hearing the name of Kaiser Wilhelm was enough to send me into a rage.
(recorded by Luciano Regolo in La Regina Incompresa, tutto il racconto della vita di Maria José di Savoia)
Indeed, at the end of the war, when asked if she would be happy to be returning to Brussels, Marie-José responded: "I hate Brussels! The Germans were there. Before returning, we will have to disinfect the city!"
During her years at the Santissima Annunziata, Marie-José transmitted all her enthusiasm for her father to her friends. Whenever she spoke of her life in Belgium, she would repeat: "Mio padre e tanto bello!". She never forgot her emotion at finding that a number of her classmates kept pictures of King Albert among their prized possessions. This widespread admiration for his heroism touched her deeply.
She, too, even at a young age, was heroic. Her childhood was marked by terrible tragedy, yet she responded with great courage, resilience, and patriotism.