The Un­known Woman

Anna re­mem­bered who she was – but could she con­vince her re­main­ing fam­ily?

Woman's Weekly (UK) - - Contents -

Ber­lin, 27 Fe­bru­ary 1920. The girl woke in an un­fa­mil­iar bed. A nurse in a white dress and stiff, white cap was stand­ing be­side her.

‘You’re awake,’ she said. ‘How do you feel?’

The girl tried to think, but all she could re­mem­ber was a burn­ing pres­sure in her lungs. She wanted to scream, but the sound came out as mewl­ing, such as an in­jured cat might make.

The woman felt her fore­head. ‘Just rest.

You’ve had a ter­ri­ble shock. If that po­lice­man hadn’t leapt into the river to save you, you wouldn’t be alive.’

The girl had no rec­ol­lec­tion of a po­lice­man, but she re­mem­bered the river, dark and freez­ing. The smack when she hit the sur­face. The speed with which she sank.

‘Are there any rel­a­tives I can con­tact?’ the nurse asked.

The girl frowned. She must have a fam­ily, but when she tried to search the part of her brain where such mem­o­ries might be kept, there was noth­ing but a blank.

Weeks passed and the girl re­cov­ered her phys­i­cal health, but still had no clue who she was. She couldn’t even re­call her name, and that made her giddy and dis­ori­en­tated. She knew she was run­ning away from some­thing. She knew she was not Ger­man, although she could un­der­stand the lan­guage. And there was one thing she did not tell any of the kindly doc­tors – she knew she had de­lib­er­ately jumped into that river. She re­mem­bered stand­ing on the para­pet, then leap­ing out into the dark­ness. But why?

She was moved to a sana­to­rium, where she re­mained for the next two years.

Twice a week she had ses­sions with a psy­chi­a­trist, who an­a­lysed her, hyp­no­tised her, but did not man­age to jog her mem­ory. It was a strange non-ex­is­tence that passed with ex­cru­ci­at­ing slow­ness.

When sum­mer was turn­ing to au­tumn that sec­ond year and the leaves on the trees were be­com­ing sparse, a new cleaner started – a cheer­ful lass with blonde curls, loosely re­strained un­der a blue scarf. She al­ways said hello and tried to make con­ver­sa­tion with the girl.

‘Do you mind if I say some­thing?’ she asked one morn­ing.

The girl shook her head. ‘You look just like Grand Duchess Anas­ta­sia. I was read­ing about the Rus­sian royal fam­ily in a mag­a­zine.’

She nod­ded to her­self, but the girl was puz­zled. She had never heard of such a fam­ily. Or had she..? Was there a dis­tant mem­ory of girls in white dresses, a boy in a sailor suit? She tried to bring the pic­ture into fo­cus.

‘You re­mem­ber, don’t you?’ The cleaner was watch­ing her closely. ‘That’s why you’ve lost your mem­ory. Be­cause of the ter­ri­ble thing that hap­pened to you.’

‘What ter­ri­ble thing?’

‘Your fam­ily were mur­dered by the Bol­she­viks.’ The cleaner low­ered her voice, glanc­ing to­wards the door. ‘But no-one knows if all of them were killed. Maybe you es­caped.’

The girl clasped her face. She could re­mem­ber some­thing ter­ri­ble. She heard scream­ing, smelled blood and gun­smoke. Had the rest of her fam­ily been killed? That would ex­plain the void, the place in her brain where she

was too ter­ri­fied to ven­ture. The cleaner brought her a mag­a­zine. Af­ter the Rus­sian Rev­o­lu­tion of Fe­bru­ary 1917, it said, the royal fam­ily had been placed un­der house ar­rest. Then, on the night of the 16 July 1918, Tsar Ni­cholas II had been shot by

fir­ing squad in a base­ment. Some said the rest of the fam­ily per­ished, too, while oth­ers be­lieved one or more of the women had es­caped – but no-one knew where they were now.

The girl peered at their pho­tos – Olga, Ta­tiana, Maria and Anas­ta­sia. Could she be Anas­ta­sia, the youngest? She felt a strong sense that she knew these peo­ple. If the rest of her sis­ters had been slaugh­tered, that would ex­plain why she threw her­self off the bridge.

When the psy­chi­a­trist vis­ited, she told him she thought she might be

She knew she was run­ning away from some­thing…

‘I find it so weari­some try­ing to prove my­self the en­tire time’

Grand Duchess Anas­ta­sia. ‘I re­mem­ber a palace with golden dec­o­ra­tions,’ she told him, ‘and lots of ser­vants. Then we were ar­rested.’

‘Can you speak Rus­sian?’ the psy­chi­a­trist asked her in Rus­sian then, and she squinted at him.

‘I recog­nise some of the words you just said,’ she replied, ‘but it’s as if my brain won’t let me re­mem­ber. There’s a block in the way.’

‘Mem­ory loss is com­mon af­ter se­vere trauma.’ He wrote some­thing in his notes. ‘We saw it af­ter the War. Usu­ally the mem­o­ries re­turn in time.’ ‘Not in all cases?’

She was des­per­ate to be her­self again. Liv­ing in this half-world made her feel as if she was con­stantly fall­ing for­wards, but never land­ing.

‘I will bring you a book about the Ro­manovs to see if it jogs any mem­o­ries,’ he said. ‘You have a close re­sem­blance to Anas­ta­sia. The same chin and nose.’

‘They called me Anna,’ the girl said. Sud­denly, she could hear her mother’s voice. ‘Short for Anas­ta­sia.’ It was a huge re­lief to have one piece of the puzzle in place.

‘Well done,’ the doc­tor said. He never smiled, but she knew he was pleased. ‘Now that mem­o­ries have started to re­turn, more will come.’

When she read the doc­tor’s book, images came thick and fast. The Alexan­der Palace at Tsarskoye Selo, the royal yacht on which they sailed round the is­lands of the Baltic, their favourite Li­va­dia Palace in Crimea where they went ev­ery spring, just as the fruit trees were in blos­som.

‘We had three dogs – Jimmy, Joy and Or­tipo,’ she told the doc­tor with ex­cite­ment. ‘And a pet ele­phant, given to us by the King of Siam.’

‘Do you re­mem­ber how you es­caped the Bol­she­viks?’ She shook her head.

‘I have con­tacted your mother’s sis­ter, Princess Irene. She plans to come and visit you.’

Anna couldn’t pic­ture her. Would her aunt recog­nise her? Then she could re­turn to her fam­ily – what was left of it – and start to live again.

News of her sur­vival got out, and the sana­to­rium was soon be­sieged by folk wish­ing to call on her. Cu­ri­ous vis­i­tors forced their way in, trick­ing the nurs­ing staff. A wealthy Rus­sian émi­gré, Baron von Kleist, of­fered that she could stay at his well-guarded house, and Anas­ta­sia ac­cepted. He was kind, like a be­nign un­cle.

The Baron’s home was com­fort­able, and she slept in her own room and had a maid to draw her bath and help her dress. The food was ex­quis­ite – wild boar and schnitzel, with del­i­cate cakes for dessert. Most im­por­tant of all, the Baron pro­tected her from the hordes of sight­seers.

Once she was set­tled, her Aunt Irene came to visit. Anna felt shy, and mum­bled in an­swer to her ques­tions. It was strange to be scru­ti­nised so closely – her aunt even pulled back her hair to ex­am­ine her ears.

‘Of course, it is 10 years since I saw Anas­ta­sia,’ the Princess con­cluded, ‘but

I find lit­tle re­sem­blance.’

Anna knew she’d changed in that time. Her face was thin­ner and her eyes had a sunken look, but that was hardly sur­pris­ing af­ter her har­row­ing ex­pe­ri­ences.

‘All the same, it is me,’ she whis­pered, feel­ing des­per­ately dis­ap­pointed.

There were plenty of fam­ily friends who did be­lieve her. She was fêted by the Rus­sian emi­grés of Ber­lin, in­vited to their din­ners and soirées. It was ex­haust­ing, but she was proud to be a Ro­manov.

In 1927, news came that Anas­ta­sia’s cousin’s hus­band had hired a pri­vate de­tec­tive to in­ves­ti­gate her claims.

‘I hope at last the truth will come out,’ Anna told

the Baron. ‘I find it so weari­some try­ing to prove my­self the en­tire time.’ Her hopes were dashed when Prince Yusupov’s man an­nounced that, ac­cord­ing to his

find­ings, Anna had been a worker in a Polish mu­ni­tions factory who had a his­tory of men­tal health prob­lems. She’d been kept in an asy­lum but dis­ap­peared in 1920, shortly be­fore Anna was plucked from the river.

‘That’s ab­surd,’ Anna laughed. ‘I know noth­ing of Poland. I’ve never been there.’

‘Prince Yusupov is try­ing to pro­tect the fam­ily for­tune,’ the Baron told her. ‘Much

of it must be yours. I find it heart­less that they can treat you this way af­ter the suf­fer­ing you have en­dured. Don’t worry.

We are all be­hind you.’

Ar­ti­cles about Anas­ta­sia’s mirac­u­lous es­cape from Rus­sia were pub­lished in Amer­i­can news­pa­pers, and sym­pa­this­ers in­vited her across the At­lantic. They planned to take le­gal steps to se­cure her fa­ther’s for­tune in bank ac­counts out­side the Soviet Union.

As Anna left the Baron’s house to be­gin her jour­ney, an un­kempt man in his

30s stepped in front of her.

‘Franziska,’ he smiled.

‘It’s me. Felix. You know me?’

‘Of course not,’ she said. But she did. His face was as fa­mil­iar as her own.

‘Mama is des­per­ate to see you. Please come back to Borowy Las. We’ve missed you so much.’

Anna had grown up with this man. He was her

flesh and blood, her brother. Mem­o­ries of her life in Poland un­rav­elled in front of her like a vast ta­pes­try.

The Baron was frown­ing. ‘Is this man both­er­ing you?’ he asked in Ger­man, and it was only then Anna re­alised, with a start, that she had an­swered Felix in Polish.

She had a rapid de­ci­sion to make. Should she re­turn to Poland, to her fam­ily who loved her, but who lived in strait­ened cir­cum­stances? Or should she go to

Amer­ica, where she would be treated as a princess?

Anas­ta­sia stepped around her brother, eyes down­cast, be­cause she couldn’t bear to see the hurt ex­pres­sion on his face as she climbed into the Baron’s coach.

THE END Gill Paul, 2019

✿ Gill Paul’s new novel about the Ro­manovs, The Lost Daugh­ter, is out in pa­per­back and e-book.

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