Prince Paul of Yugoslavia died a traitor in the eyes of his countrymen. His daughter, Princess Elizabeth, has waged a long battle to clear his name. Emma Williams follows her

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, March/April 2013

LAST OCTOBER, A chapter of Serbian history was rewritten. There has been no rain for months, and the streets of Belgrade were parched and dusty. But the crowds that flocked to the White Palace were thinking not of summer, but of winter—the winter of 1941.

Serbia then was cold and tumultuous. The Nazi war machine was massing on the Yugoslav borders; spies and politicians were manoeuvring to unseat their rulers. Tanks circled the White Palace, poised not to protect but to attack. Peering from the palace windows, the royal family could see enraged crowds. The prince regent, Paul Karadjordjevic, was distraught—and with good reason. On March 27th, he was forced to flee the country, branded a traitor, never to return.

Princess Elizabeth, Paul’s only daughter, was just four when her family went into exile. More than 70 years on, as we sit together in a restaurant near the Danube in Belgrade, her memories of the departure are fragmentary but vivid. They were given four hours to leave, and her brother read her a story, giving the nurse time to pack. In the mayhem, they left their dog behind, but "someone went back and retrieved him", so they arrived late for the train waiting for them at a little station near the White Palace. 

Arriving in Athens, the family (both her parents, her two brothers, Nurse Ede and a Greek maid) stayed briefly with Elizabeth’s maternal grandmother, Grand Duchess Elena Vladimirovna of Russia, beloved but now cool towards her son-in-law Prince Paul. "I’ve never been in therapy," Elizabeth reflects, "but I probably should have—it was all so dramatic and frightening." A sense of trauma persisted through her childhood. Even when, after three years under house arrest in Kenya, the family moved to South Africa at the invitation of General Smuts, she still felt "dislocated". "I remember thinking, ‘if I shut my eyes long enough and tight enough, and walk around a tree, I’ll open them and be back home.’"

"Home" was never spoken of. Elizabeth’s parents took the line that "since you can never go back, there’s no point in learning Serbian", and spoke to her in English; and she was told to accept her new life and new identity and "move on". In her presence, her father drew a veil of silence over the events leading up to his exile. Unlike her brothers, however, Elizabeth had been born in Serbia, in a room in the White Palace, and she became determined that, one day, she would return.

Picture: Princess Elizabeth’s expression darkens as she recalls the injustice suffered by her father