We are all familiar with the tragic story of Princess Mafalda of Savoy, the daughter of King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy, who was arrested by the Gestapo in 1943, sent to Buchenwald concentration camp where she died a year later. But there is another royal story that is far less famous but equally tragic and sad; the one of the German Princess, Marie Eleonore of Albania.
Born on 19 February 1909 in the city of Postdam, she was the only daughter of William, Prince of Albania (born Prince William of Wied) and his wife Princess Sophie of Schönburg-Waldenburg. Her father was a nephew of Queen Elisabeth of Romania, and this is quite interesting for our story as Romania will have a tragic and important place in the life of the Princess.
In 1914, her father became a Prince of Albania, and the whole family moved to Albania, where they were met with genuine enthusiasm by the locals. However, this would be a short-lived adventure. After just six months, the new sovereign was overwhelmed by the serious internal problems of his host country on the verge of the First World War. He was exiled in September 1914 and Albania became a republic in 1925. Marie Eleonore developed a great love for nature and animals, and even a serious horse-riding accident in 1921 could not dissuade her. In 1925, the family came to live in Romania at the invitation of their royal relative, Queen Elisabeth. Prince William and Princess Sophie stayed in Romania for the rest of their lives.
Marie Eleonore attended a girls’ high school in Munich, and she spent a year at the agricultural college in Hohenheim. She also studied economics and political science at the universities of Bonn and Berlin. She even studied in the United States for two years on a scholarship. On 13 November 1937, she completed her doctorate in Berlin with the thesis, “The International Capital of South America.” She graduated magna cum laude. Just three days later, on 16 November 1937, she married Prince Alfred of Schönburg-Waldenburg, a relative. The young couple settled in München. History doesn’t tell us if it was a happy marriage, but it was a short one. Four years later, Prince Alfred died during the Second World War of an illness. Finding herself alone in Germany in the middle of the war, Princess Marie Eleonore decided to return to Romania where her parents were still living in Fontaneli Castle.
Marie Eleonore did her bit during the Second World War by joining the Romanian Red Cross. However, the heavy work eventually led to a complete mental and physical breakdown. She recovered and returned to work. At the end of the war in 1945, she was an established presence in the intellectual and cultural circles of the Romanian society. During a cultural gathering, she met a young lawyer named Ion Bunea, who would become her second husband in 1948. However, as the Russian army closed in, Marie Eleonore and her father – her mother had died in 1936 – escaped by car, fleeing to Sinaja, the summer residence of King Michael I of Romania, who gave them an apartment on his estate. Marie Eleonore nursed her father there until his death on 18 April 1945. She then moved to Bucharest and married Ion Bunea on 4 February 1948.
In the 1950s, Romania underwent a period of cultural and economic isolation triggered by the new Communist regime imposed by the Soviet Union. The Romanian authorities decided to close many of the leading cultural institutions in the country, like the French Institute, the British and American press offices. Princess Marie Eleonore (a Romanian citizen by marriage) was one of the employees of the British information office, and she was arrested by Securitate (the secret police agency in Romania) and accused of treason. Before being arrested, she gave a large part of the family jewellery to British diplomats for safeguarding in the UK.
Princess Marie Eleonore, as a relative of the Romanian royal family, was forced into exile by the Communist regime in 1948, another element that weighed heavily in the judicial trial that was opened in her name. She was condemned to 15 years of forced labour, and all her material possessions were confiscated by the state. Her husband was also convicted to five years of forced labour.
In 1956, after six years of incarceration, the Princess died at the Miercurea Ciuc Penitentiary, a political prison for women in Romania. Aged only 46, she couldn’t handle the inhumane conditions of detention. In early 1956, she had fallen ill with tuberculosis. She died following a bowel surgery on 29 September 1956.
Marie Eleonore, who was a daughter of a sovereign and a relative of the most important royal families in Europe, doesn’t even have a grave. She disappeared along with other tens of thousands of women deemed as dangerous by the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe. She is probably buried somewhere on the prison grounds. Their heroism and solid moral principles that transcend social classes and geography should be treasured as an example of courage and goodness in a world that proved to be cruel and inhumane so many times in history.
A nun who was incarcerated with her later said, “I can not forget her because in the midst of our dark presence her essence shone, just, sincere, mindful of the essential people, with great tenderness and kindness towards the suffering. She saw the human being in each of us without distinction.” 1