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“My father was a Christian political leader, who was imprisoned by the communists for 17 years. My parents were engaged to marry, but their wedding took place 17 years later. My mother waited all those years for my father, although she didn’t even know if he was still alive …” Dr. Anca-Maria Cernea, the head of the Association of Catholic Doctors in Bucharest, Romania, spoke those words to the Bishops’ Synod on the Family on October 16.
Those words echo another story of another couple who also wanted to marry but, because of the communists, had to wait 14 years. But in the case of drs. Alexander and Milada Schirger, it was Milada who was imprisoned as a “Vatican spy” for five years, with a year and a half of that time spent in solitary confinement and torture.
Their story can almost seem like a novel, but it was very real. Alex was born in 1925 in Prague. His parents’ business crashed in the Great Depression, so they moved to New York. Alex joined them around 1931 and gained American citizenship. In 1935, both of his parents died, and he returned to Czechoslovakia to be raised by a grandmother and an uncle. By the time World War II ended, he was 20 and had already seen his share of suffering and death, including the entrapment of Reinhard “the Hangman of Europe” Heydrich’s assassins and biking out to the countryside to dig for potatoes to eat. But he survived and eventually went to medical school at Charles University.
Milada Kloubkova was born in 1927 in a Prague suburb. Her father spent two years in prison during World War II for his work with the Czech resistance. She studied mineralogy during the war and then switched to special education and took a doctorate in that field, also at Charles University, after the war was over.
The two met in a Catholic youth group in the late 1940s and came under the influence of Jesuit father Josef Zverina, who stood out in opposition to Communism. So influential was he that when Pope St John Paul II visited the Czech Republic in 1995, the pope recalled that Father Zverina had the “grateful admiration of the whole nation.”
Over time, Alex and Milada’s friendship blossomed into a romance, but because Alex was an American citizen, the Czech government would not let them marry. By 1950, the Cold War had reached the point where American citizens had to get out of Communist countries or lose their citizenship. Alex went to Austria and then Italy seeking help. The help came in the form of an audience with none other than Pope Pius XII. What should he do, he asked the Pontiff – stay in Europe to be as close to his intended as possible, or go to America? The pope’s answer: go to America and pray for her. That counsel would prove providential in the long run.
In the meantime, Milada continued to meet with Father Zverina’s youth group. They were warned numerous times to stop meeting, warnings which went ignored. Along with others in the group, Milada was arrested. She was held in solitary confinement, interrogated and tortured for 18 months. Finally, she was brought to trial and convicted of being an enemy of the state and a “Vatican spy.” She was sentenced to eight years of hard labor, but her father died after four years, and she was released.
Alex ended up in Lincoln, Neb., a full-fledged physician working as a hospital orderly since officials didn’t trust communist medical credentials. Then a train crashed in Lincoln and hospitals around town started to receive the injured. Alex tended to them, and doctors around him realized he really did know what he was doing. Soon he was on his way to the prestigious Mayo Clinic in Minnesota where he trained in vascular medicine.
Minnesota also happened to be the home state of the influential Senator Hubert Humphrey. Alex started working with his office, first to get Milada released from prison and then out from behind the Iron Curtain. That finally happened in 1965.
It did not take long for them to marry, and they spent the rest of their years in Rochester, Minn., where he worked at Mayo and she raised their two children, John, now also a physician at Mayo, and Anne.
Those years were fruitful in good works, such as the time Alex had a patient whose family, he found out, was homeless. The Schirgers had a cabin “up north,” as Minnesotans say, that was unused and he gave them the keys. They stayed there for a year rent-free, and when Alex returned to look at it, it had been wrecked. But he didn’t complain. His son, John, said Alex just shrugged and started cleaning up.
Milada is still living, but Alex died on Feb. 14, 2013. His death on that date was notable in two ways: the Church’s universal calendar celebrates saints Cyril and Methodius that day, the two apostles to the Slavic peoples, and both he and Milada were grateful recipients of the faith they preached that was passed on from one generation to the next.
But it is also Valentine’s Day, a day that has morphed from commemorating a Roman martyr to commemorating romantic love. It’s not much of a stretch to say Alex and Milada embodied what Pope Benedict wrote about in Deus Caritas Est (no. 6): “Love now becomes concern and care for the other. No longer is it self-seeking, a sinking in the intoxication of happiness; instead it seeks the good of the beloved: it becomes renunciation and it is ready, and even willing, for sacrifice.”
Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz writes from Minnesota.