The Unknown Woman
Anna remembered who she was – but could she convince her remaining family?
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.