Sylva Šimsová: Escaping to freedom all I thought about was survival – the fear came later

Sylva Šimsová, Karel Janovický

Sylva Šimsová was 18 when her father, a Social Democrat politician, told her the family had to escape from Czechoslovakia. It was 1949, a year after the Communists had taken power. The young Sylva insisted that her fiancé, whom she had met through her beloved scouts only six months earlier, come with them. Remarkably, almost 70 years later she and her husband – a composer and broadcaster who goes by the name Karel Janovický – are still together.

Sylva Šimsová,  Karel Janovický | Photo: Ian Willoughby,  Radio Prague International
When I visited their cozy home in North London, I first asked Mrs. Šimsová about her memories of wartime Prague.

“My father [Karel Maiwald] was active in the underground and my parents were offering hospitality to Ervína Brokešová [a famous violinist also working in the resistance], whose husband was in prison.

“I used to listen to their conversations, so I followed what was actually happening in the underground, although they didn’t realise that I was doing it.

“It was extremely dangerous.”

Your father was a Social Democrat MP and was in the National Assembly in the postwar period, before the Communist takeover. What do you remember about the atmosphere in Prague between the end of the war and February 1948?

“At the end of the war, people of my generation thought it was like in fairytales. It was the end of all evil and everything was going to be happy and good from then on.

“That’s what I lived for. And I became very active in all kinds of activities.”

How long was it between the Communist takeover and when your parents decided to leave Czechoslovakia?

“The Communist takeover was in February 1948 and we left in October 1949.

“My father was a great political optimist and he had friends in the West. He was hoping that the West would not leave us in that situation.

“So instead of going away immediately he was trying to establish awareness in the West about what was happening in Czechoslovakia and hoping for help.

“Eventually, by the end of August 1949, somebody told him that the Communists had a list of Social Democrats who were eventually going to be arrested.

“And his name was on it, so we had to go.”

How was it for you as a teenage girl when your parents told you, We’re leaving? What was your reaction?

February 1948,  Prague | Photo: Czech Television
“Utter, utter shock. Because I had known my future husband for half a year by then and it was really a great love.

“I was absolutely devastated.

“But my parents noticed that. And my father, who was a remarkable man, said, Well, if he wants to come with us, he can, if his parents agree.

“And because his own father had been dismissed from the Plzeň Opera, he was an opera singer, and my future husband had difficulties in getting to study, he is a year old than me, it was a very good thing.

“So he joined us and went also into exile.”

Could you describe how you escaped from Czechoslovakia to the West?

“We walked from seven in the evening until seven in the morning.

“There were five of us. There was Stanislav Koutník, my father’s assistant at the university, who organised the whole thing.

“We were divided into him and my husband and then my father, my mother and myself.

“We walked for 12 hours, and that was it.”

Were there guards, were there dogs, was there a barbed wire fence, or anything like that?

“Yes. The person who took us across the frontier, both groups, was a remarkable man and I have always tried to find out who he was.

“I asked some historians in 1990 could he be traced, but they told me it was too late.

“Which is a pity, because in some writings they [people smugglers] had a bad image and this man was a very remarkable person.

“My father was a great political optimist and he had friends in the West. He was hoping that the West would not leave us in that situation.”

“He was extremely careful and discreet. He never told us his name.

“He obviously must have had a permit to go into the Tachov area, near the border.

“Near the border there was a part where people who had a permit could still go.

“So he drove us by car. We were stopped on the way, more than once.

“He must have had the right documentation, including for us, or they knew what he was doing – I will never know that.

“Then we came to the edge of the wood, near Tachov, and we entered the wood and crossed the Šumava there.”

Were you afraid making that border crossing, especially given that your party was divided into two groups and you didn’t perhaps know where the other group was at that time?

“The main fear was, what would happen if both groups did not cross?

“But luckily, because we were the second group, we knew that the others did [get across].

“The man who took us across the frontier told us that it was all right.

“The other fear: Would we be caught ourselves?

“It’s a very strange thing when you are in a situation like that. I don’t think that there was fear.

“The fear was all the weeks before, while I was waiting for it to happen.

“But once it’s happening, all you think about is survival. You just put one foot forward, the other foot forward – and no room for fear.

“But the fear came afterwards. For years I suffered various feelings of fear about silly things.

After the border crossing in Germany,  October 1949,  photo: archive of Sylva Šimsová
“Like if my father wasn’t coming home at the time when he should – and that was in London – and I would worry what happened to him.

“It was these sorts of fears – somehow the fear transferred itself into my life.

“I don’t think I have it now. But now I am 86.”

You and your family eventually came here to the UK. Tell us about your early days of living in Great Britain.

“We arrived just before Christmas 1950. My mother met us at Liverpool Street station, so my first impression of England was Liverpool Street station [laughs].

“I didn’t somehow notice when we got off the boat. That didn’t impress me so much. I was just happy that I put my feet on the soil here.

“Then we spent the Christmas with my parents in Cambridge [where her father, an economist and statistician, worked at Cambridge University’s Department of Applied Economics].

“Then for several months my husband went to the college where he was studying music.

“I was looking for an opportunity to get a job. I was improving my English, which was very poor.

“It took three months before I was able to get a job [Mrs. Šimsová worked as a librarian and lecturer, before starting a company selling computers in the 1980s] and a work permit.”

Your husband Bohuš Šimsa is a music composer and has also been a radio broadcaster. But he’s also known as Karel Janovický – why is that?

“That is because his name was identical with the name of his father.

“About a year after studying, when his compositions began to be played at various occasions, he realised that his father’s life could be endangered, if it was under his real name.

“So he decided he would choose a new, artistic name, and that is Karel Janovický.”

And he also used that name when he broadcast for the Czechoslovak service of the BBC?

“That is another reason why it was convenient to have another name.”

Did you know a lot of people from the Czechoslovak service of the BBC? What kind of a bunch were they?

“I liked them very much.

“We had a problem in our relationship to the Czechs living in England: We couldn’t tell which of them collaborated with the Communists and which did not.”

“We had a problem in our relationship to the Czechs living in England at that time: We couldn’t tell which of them collaborated with the Communists and which of them did not.

“And the best way to avoid any unhappiness was to avoid to them altogether.

“But when it came to the people in the BBC, I trusted them. So did Karel.”

I’m interested that you call your husband Karel, not Bohuš. Why is that?

“[Laughs] Because he changed his name, I never know which name to use when I’m talking to somebody.

“And I thought perhaps you knew him as Karel.”

But at home you call him Bohuš?

“At home I call him Joviš. That is his scout nickname.”

He was also a scout?

“He was also a scout. That’s how we met.”

During all these years between 1948 and 1989, how closely did you and your husband follow events in Czechoslovakia?

“Very closely. Because he worked in the BBC, he had to know everything.

“He had to read [Communist newspaper] Rudé právo. He had a compulsory one day of reading Rudé právo a week, I think [laughs].

“I followed it too, through the newspapers.

“We also had some correspondence, which was semi-legal and was about neutral things.

“We knew about children who were born and people who died and things like that – no political things, through the correspondence.

“We also met some visitors, because in 1968 there were a lot of Czechs who were making up their mind as to whether to go back or not.

Sylva Šimsová's wedding photo,  May 1950,  photo: archive of Sylva Šimsová
“That was such a dreadful time for us, too.

“I’ll tell you a secret what I did. I used to cry every morning for five minutes.

“I would come to work, put a watch in front of me and say to myself, Now, you can cry for five minutes and that’s enough for the day.

“It was so bad. It was so bad.

“Because my timetable as a lecturer was very flexible, I worked for a while for Czech students.

“So I met a lot of people, not people who I knew or who were recommended me from Czecho, just people, students, who were passing through.

“And to this day their stories still weigh on me.

“Some of them stayed, some of them went back. Which of them were happier is hard to say.”

Could you describe for us the first time you and your husband returned to Prague after 1989, and I presume after many decades?

“That is strange. I feel emptiness, utter emptiness.

“I remember when the plane was nearing the ground and I thought, Now, this is it.

“Then I remember the people who were waiting for me, because there was a group of people including a baby in a pram. It was marvelous.

“And then they took me to the flat where I was going to stay with my friends and everybody was there.

“I was completely… completely knocked out by it.

“Then I had a programme, which I’d arranged by correspondence, and I visited three places a day.

“I found that if I planned four, I started feeling ill.”

Given that both you and your husband are Czech, did you consider relocating back to Prague?

“No. No. You cannot transplant a tree more than once.

“If the chance to go back was after one year, fine.

“But after 40 years? If you live in a country 40 years, you really have roots.

“Some of my friends who used to live here decided to go back for retirement.

“Some of my friends who used to live in the UK decided to go back for retirement. I don’t think that’s a good idea – at least it wouldn’t be for me.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea – at least it wouldn’t be for me.

“On return, we loved it all. But we realised that we could not live there. We didn’t have the basic skills for living there.

“The ethical standards… well, I suppose if I lived for 40 years under such a terrible regime, I would also look after my own interest, rather than ethical principles.

“So I do not criticise, but I realised that I could not live there.”

For me the most incredible thing about your story is that you and your husband were together for only six months before you left together from Czechoslovakia – and you’re still here together, nearly 70 years later.

“Because he’s a remarkable man! That’s very simple [laughs].”

Otherwise, what’s the secret of such a long-lasting relationship, if you don’t mind me asking?

“It’s difficult.

“In fact I have just written a book and I hope it will be published by the spring.

“It is called Láska v exilu, Love in Exile, 1949–1950, and is based on our diaries and correspondence from our refugee camps.

“And maybe when you read that book, you will understand a little bit about how it works.”