Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Royal Family in Captivity: Part IV

Widowed Queen Elisabeth with her grandchildren Joséphine-Charlotte, Baudouin and Albert

(Continued from Parts I, II, and III)

"I am sad that you cannot see the rose garden. All is so lovely! There are very beautiful lilies in the garden of my studio, and, while passing by, I saw the beautiful lilies blooming, around the bungalow, which has such a desperate air, with their eyes closed, all red. The little owls walk about on the golf course, and gaze at you from close up, astonished to see a human being. There are also a couple of marvelous hoopoes which do not fly off until the last moment when you approach them.When you return, it will be a jungle!" ~Queen Elisabeth describes the park at Laeken in a wartime letter to her son and his family, held hostage far from home by the Nazis

It amazes me that Queen Elisabeth of the Belgians is sometimes portrayed as a cold, hard figure. The care packages and poignant letters, sprinkled with affectionate phrases and drawings of flowers, that she tried to send to her son, King Leopold III, her daughter-in-law, Princess Lilian, and her grandchildren during their days of fear and deprivation in German captivity are eminent proof of her warm, loving nature. Sadly, however, she was only very rarely able to communicate with her imprisoned loved ones, or materially to alleviate their sufferings, although her prayers surely brought them spiritual strength. Instead, it was Princess Lilian, so often maligned as a selfish woman of pleasure, who daily cared for the family, with great abnegation.

After their imprisonment had dragged on for nine months, Elisabeth's son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren finally left the frightening fortress of Hirschstein at the beginning of March, 1945. Yet it was only to begin a new, sinister chapter in their captivity. En route to Strobl, Austria, the royal family reached Munich just in time for a terrible bombardment. While the population fled to shelters, the prisoners were forbidden from following suit. Colonel Lürker, the King's S.S. gaoler, even locked the royal family in a car under a bridge, before absconding with the rest of the German guards. Terrified by the inferno, the children burst into tears. After the danger had passed, leaving Munich in ruins, a furious Leopold would confront Lürker upon his return.

By a strange twist of fate, the convoy also spent time at the nearby Braunhaus, a property of Hitler, where some prominent Nazis had been invited to a banquet. The bombardment of Munich, however, had prevented their arrival. The repast fell instead to the King's gaolers. Meanwhile, the royal prisoners seized the opportunity to bathe comfortably for the first time in months. They also enjoyed a few leftovers from the banquet. After so much hunger, butter seemed an untold luxury and delight. As a memento of this bizarre evening, Princess Lilian mischievously managed to purloin a napkin marked A.H. Decades later, she humorously confided to the journalists Marcel Jullian and Claude Désiré that this was the only theft of her life...

The morning after this brief respite from misery, the journey to Strobl resumed its weary pace, traveling towards Salzburg, amidst bitterly cold weather. The royal family spent hours shivering in a tunnel during another bombardment. It was nearly midnight by the time the convoy finally reached the small village of Strobl, in the heart of the Salzkammergut. A wooden chalet, isolated from the rest of the local population, and surrounded with barbed wire fences, awaited the hostages. As at Hirschstein, they would live at close quarters, under cruel and humiliating conditions. Their diet remained poor, although it was fortunately supplemented by the dandelions growing plentifully in the garden. The prisoners' treatment, moreover, became harsher as the months passed, as their routine walks in the garden, initially allowed three times a week, were eventually forbidden.

As described by Roger Keyes in Échec au Roi, the Vicomte du Parc, governor of Prince Baudouin,  when asked years later about the period at Strobl, could find no words to describe the horror of these final months in captivity. As the Allied armies approached Strobl, the prisoners feared that they would be massacred by their gaolers, as a desperate, fanatical act of vengeance. The tragic fate of the Romanovs haunted the Saxe-Coburgs... Indeed, at the beginning of May, shortly before their liberation by American troops under the command of General Alexander Patch, an S.S. officer gave Princess Lilian a box of blue pills, claiming that they were vitamin supplements, and advising her to distribute them to the whole family. Duly suspicious, she did not do so. The pills were later tested by the Americans and found to contain cyanide. How often had Providence saved King Leopold and his loved ones!


Cleeremans, Jean. Léopold III, sa famille, et son peuple sous l'occupation. 1987.
Cleeremans, Jean. Un royaume pour un amour: Léopold III, de l'éxil à l'abdication. 1989.
Désire, Claude and Marcel Jullian. Un couple dans la tempête. 2005.
Dujardin, Vincent, van den Wijngaert, Mark, et. al. Léopold III. 2001.
Keyes, Roger. Echec au Roi: Léopold III, 1940-1951. 1986.

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