A participant at a recent genteel dinner in Jerusalem could not help being reminded of the scene from “Fiddler on the Roof” in which the rabbi of Anatevka answers a congregant asking if there is a special blessing for the czar of Russia.
Of course, answers the rabbi. “May God bless and keep the czar… far away from us!”
Nearby sat Dimitri Romanov — one of those Romanovs — a towering and gracious 87-year-old prince.
After dinner, Romanov mused about his own history and that of Israel, where he had just arrived for the first time, and about the nature of statelessness.
Prince Dimitri Romanov was born in 1926, 8 years after Bolshevik revolutionaries murdered the last czar of Russia and his family at Ekaterinburg and threw their bodies into an abandoned mine shaft. The surviving Romanov duchesses and grand dukes and the rest of the extended royal family, including Dimitri’s father, Prince Roman Petrovich, fled Russia, never to return.
Romanov and his wife, Princess Dorrit, who wore an elegant salmon dress and golden slippers, were early in a 36-hour sojourn in the country, part of a round-the-world journey on a cruise ship called the Seaborne Quest. They were being given a whirlwind tour of which the dinner — at an unmarked and luxurious establishment called Spoons, near Montefiore’s windmill — was part. There was Tuscan cabbage, Israeli wine, superb Jerusalem artichoke soup, and candlesticks the size of modest missile silos.
Romanov admitted he had not formed much of an impression of the country in the several hours that had elapsed since his arrival. He was surprised at how green it was, he said, and how hilly: “I always thought it would be more flat.”
Jerusalem is not entirely foreign to a Romanov visitor. The attractions before dinner included a visit to the grave of a relative, Elizabeth Feodorovna, the last czar’s sister-in-law and a Russian Orthodox saint, at a church on the Mount of Olives. (Among the city’s other Romanov-era relics is a building downtown known as Sergei’s Courtyard, which was built for Russian pilgrims and named for Grand Duke Sergei, brother of Czar Alexander III.)
Born in France and raised across Europe and, for a time, in Alexandria, the prince is a great-great-grandson of the reactionary Czar Nicholas I, who died in 1855. Romanov spent his life, however, not as royalty but as a banker. As a young man, he recalled, he never had much interest in the complexities of the Romanov lineage, less a family tree than a chaotic forest of intersecting and competing lines linked in bewildering ways to the other active and defunct royal houses of Europe. “I was totally uninterested to know who the Princess of Baden Baden was,” he said. This disinterest also means the prince does not know what number he is in line for the British throne; his wife says he is “around 2,000th.”
Romanov returned to the country his family ruled for centuries for the first time only after the fall of Communism, when he was in his 60s.
“For me, ‘returning’ to Russia is a misnomer — I can’t return to a country I never visited before,” he said.
He has lived half of his life in Copenhagen, but until 23 years ago he held no citizenship at all. Then a friend suggested that he finally become a Danish citizen — “You’ll feel at home,” she promised. This friend, Margaret, was the queen of Denmark, so he obliged.
“It’s important to be a citizen of something, like a Jew who comes from Yemen or Morocco and comes here and becomes a citizen — it’s important to be a part of society. I felt that in Denmark for the first time in my life,” he said.
During the main course, talk turned to Jewish history and the prince was reminded of a visit he once made to Warsaw, where he was touched by the story of the Jewish partisans who took part in the uprising in that city’s ghetto during WWII. He proposed a toast to them.
“I thought I must express my feelings about these young people fighting Nazism, dreaming that one day those who lived would come back to Israel,” he said afterward.
Of course, he noted, they had never actually been to Israel. “How can you go back if you’ve never been?” he wondered. “I suppose it’s in your blood.”