Last time Patrick Leigh Fermor explained how he met Bala?a Cantacuzčne in Athens, then lived with her in the Peloponnese for about six months, and then returned with her to her family home in Baleni, Moldavia, where they lived for over a year. The idyll was interrupted only by the declaration of war in September 1939, whereupon Paddy returned to England to volunteer for the army.
The resut of the War was that Rumania fell under Russian control. Even though the Communists before the war had been a negligible force in Rumania, under the Russians they held power and a dark night of Communism enveloped the country.
One by-product was the reduction of a country, rich in all natural resources, to poverty and hunger. In the final months of the Third Reich, Adolf Eichmann proposed a plan to sell the Hungarian Jews to the Western allies for trucks (see Guinness and Israel 4). In an echo of this plan (which was never carried out), the Rumanian Communists began to sell their political prisoners to the West for cash, a scheme through which Richard Wurmbrand escaped from his years of imprisonment (see Persecuted).
Patrick Leigh Fermor writes how he was finally able to return to Rumania to find Bala?a and her sister -
Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor
The sisters had been nurses during the war; the land was confiscated; and on a grim morning in the late 1940s, a truck drove up with police and a commissar. They were allowed a suitcase each, and a quarter of an hour to pack. (The Cantacuzčnes had been there for many generations.)
Villagers in tears filled their arms with loaves, cheeses, eggs and poultry; then a truck drove them away for ever. The painter-sister and a male cousin tried to escape down to the Black Sea to Constantinople in a rowing boat, but they were betrayed and imprisoned. (Her cousin was lucky not to have been sent, like several of their relations, to die in the Danube-Black Sea canal. Never completed, this horrible trench was a dustbin for 'elements of putrid background' - this was the official term; it is said to have killed off 100,000 undesirables.) After their eviction, their family were taken 200 kilometres from where they belonged and put in a garret in a Carpathian foothill-town.
The moment the veto was lifted I went back to Rumania in 1965, with a short-term visa. Mixing with foreigners incurred severe punishment, but harbouring them indoors was much worse; so the visit had to be made by stealth, at night, and on the back of a motorbike borrowed by the Ophelia niece, who was working as a draughtman in Bucharest.
We found them in their attic. In spite of the interval, the fine looks of my friends, the thoughtful clear glance and the humour were all intact; it was as though we had parted a few months ago, instead of twenty-six years. Their horrible vicissitudes were narrated with detachment and speed: time was short and their were only brief pauses for sleep on a couple of chairs. The rest of our forty-eight hours - we dared risk no more - were filled with pre-war memnories, the lives of our friends, and a great deal of laughter. It was a miraculous reunion. the sisters now eked out their state pittance by teaching French, English and painting.
Other Rumanian meetings came later, when they were eventually allowed abroad for two or three weeks now and then. there were joyful visits to friends in England and France and Greece. Early thoughts of leaving Rumania lapsed in the end, they resisted the idea partly from feeling it was too late in the day; also, they said that Rumania, after all, was where they belonged; secretly, perhaps, they shrank from being a burden to anyone. One by one the same dread illness carried them away. Nobility of character marked them all. They wrote many and brilliant letters and contact was unbroken. for many people under alien regimes, life is lived vicariously, pen in hand.
Words of Mercury
Taken from the article Rumania-Travels in a Land before Darkness Fell, Daily Telegraph Weekend Magazine, 12 May 1990
included in WORDS OF MERCURY (Patrick Leigh Fermor, ed Artemis Cooper, John Murray 2003).
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