Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Royal Family in Captivity: Part III

Prince Baudouin, the heir to the throne, at Hirschstein
(Continued from Part I and Part II)

As we recently celebrated Epiphany, perhaps it is appropriate to recall how the royal hostages spent their first Christmas in captivity at the dreary fortress of Hirschstein. Shortly before Christmas, Hitler had sent a message to his prisoners, grandiosely inquiring if they had any wishes he might grant. Wary of being placed in their enemy's debt, King Leopold and his family had only one request: they would be glad to have a priest to celebrate midnight Mass. A man in clerical garb promptly arrived, claiming to be a priest from the medieval monastery of Klosterneuberg, founded, ironically enough, by St. Leopold of Babenburg, Margrave of Austria. Posing as sympathetic and solicitous, the man offered to hear the prisoners' confessions. The quick-witted Princess Lilian, who was familiar with Klosterneuberg, had the good sense to cross-question him first, to determine whether he were an impostor. Finding that he was unable even to give a correct reply concerning the location of his supposed monastery, she quietly told her husband that the man was certainly not from Klosterneuberg, and that she doubted whether he were a priest at all. As described in Un couple dans la tempête, however, King Leopold indulged his ironic sense of humor by agreeing to let the man hear his confession and by submitting to a series of highly indiscreet questions under the guise of fatherly pastoral care. As the impostor prepared to deliver absolution, however, his royal penitent stopped him and sent him away, unmasked. Together with his family and small band of faithful followers, all King Leopold could do to commemorate Our Savior's birth was to sing Minuit Chrétien and Stille Nacht, to piano accompaniment. Princess Lilian gave the royal children watercolors she had painted using a box of colors smuggled into her luggage on the journey from Brussels. She had fashioned the picture-frames out of branches gathered in the small garden of Hirschstein.

As always, the King was determined that his household should display dignity and courage in adversity and resist the temptation to despair. Christmas was not the first time that they had bravely improvised a humble, poignant celebration.  On July 21, 1944, just over a month after their deportation, they had fervently celebrated their national holiday, albeit with meagre means. They had managed to construct a Belgian flag, using strips of red, yellow and black fabric, stitched together with vegetable fibers. The flag was draped over the poorly tuned piano, and M. Weemaes was able to play a few measures of the Belgian national anthem, the Brabançonne, bringing tears to the eyes of his fellow sufferers. Throughout the long months at Hirschstein, the King and his officers wore their uniforms at table and the children's lessons and games continued. Princess Lilian even composed and directed a play, Pygmalion, giving roles to the different members of the family. Whenever possible, the children exercised outside, in the small garden. They suffered severely from malnutrition.  Albert eventually developed hunger edema; little Alexandre, rickets. In January, 1945, while the princes were helping to build a sled, Albert also seriously injured his thigh. Mishandled by an S.S. officer, the wound became dangerously infected and began to putrefy. At Lilian's insistence, the family's gaoler, the S.S.  Colonel Lürker, perhaps afraid of being blamed for the death of a royal hostage, summoned a distinguished physician from Dresden, Professor Lang, to treat the prince. The man was obliged to disinfect and bandage the gangrenous wound in silence, as he had been forbidden to speak with the prisoners.  Thankfully, Albert's leg was saved. A Nazi physician, Dr. Ghebart, also arrived to examine the boy, sadistically seizing the opportunity to shock Leopold and Lilian with descriptions of the experiments he had secretly performed upon political prisoners in concentration camps. The King's blood froze with horror. Leopold and Lilian also had the frightening feeling that their tormentor did not expect them to live to repeat the revelations. Further traumas would follow in February, with the Allied fire-bombing of Dresden. The inferno was clearly visible from the windows of Hirchstein, so dazzling that night and day were equally bright. On Ash Wednesday, the capital of Saxony lay in ashes. The icy Elbe carried countless charred and mangled corpses past the royal family's horrified eyes. Lilian especially remembered seeing the bodies of two women, floating hand in hand, surely mother and daughter. 

Meanwhile, at the beginning of February, in an ominous new development, the King had been threatened with separation from his entourage. Due to the advance of the Soviet army, he had been told, the royal family would be transported to a new place of detention in southern Germany. His suite would be moved to yet another location. Leopold immediately protested this scheme, refusing to be divided from any of his companions. To Ernst Kaltenbrunner, chief of the Gestapo, he sent the following telegram: "It has been communicated to me that an order of displacement could soon be given to me and that the persons who have voluntarily accompanied us in captivity would be directed to a different destination. I express the formal desire that these persons, for whose fate I am responsible, may continue to share my captivity and that they may not be suddenly isolated in this manner. In addition, there are, among these persons, three officers, for whom I demand a treatment compatible with their rank". Departure would be delayed until March, and the royal party would be allowed to travel together to their next prison, the villa of Strobl, Austria, opening a new chapter of their weary captivity.

(to be continued)

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