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CZEXPATS Interview: Sylva Šimsová, writer and historian of Czechoslovak exile in the United Kingdom

There are many great personalities and inspiring stories among Czech expats living in the United Kingdom. This time, we are bringing you our CZEXPATS Interview with Sylva Šimsová, writer and historian of Czechoslovak exile in the United Kingdom.

Good morning, Mrs Šimsová, it is a great honor to have you in our CZEXPATS Interviews project and congratulations on the 90th birthday you have celebrated this year. You went into exile together with your future husband and later successful composer Karel Janovický in 1949. However, your journey to England led through Germany, where you spent some time in a refugee camp. How difficult was this period for you and how do you perceive it these days?

I am the only child of the Czech economist Karel Maiwald. I started reading long before going to school. I loved sitting in my father’s study reading any books whether they were written for children or adults. I also watched my father writing his books. My own first book was written during my first school holiday. It was about a Frog hero who saved his Frog tribe by his actions. It was obviously influenced by what the adults were talking about in the pre-war time.

During the war my parents were active in the PVVZ underground  movement. I secretly listened to their conversations and identified with their underground activities. I decided that they were doing something very dangerous and needed my protection. This secret silent protection relationship with them remained with me into aduldhood.

After the communist takeover in 1948 my father’s name was put on the list of undesirable social democrats. At the end of summer 1949 my father’s assistant Stanislav Koutník, active in the new anti-communist underground, said that we must leave the country immediately.

The reaction of my parents was unbelievably generous and wise.  They offered to take my great love, Bohuš Šimsa (now Karel Janovický), with us and to look after him abroad as if he was their son, should our relationship break down because we were so young.

Koutník hired a guide and divided us into two groups, of whom one crossed the border on 14th October and the other on the 18th of October.  Unfortunately the international exile system was changed on 15th October and as a result  one group was sent  to an International Refugee Organisation camp , while the other went to a West German government camp.

Karel was supposed to be sent to Australia to shoot rabbits in the Outback, and we belonged to the unwanted refugees for whom no emigration was available.

In another camp an attempt was made to poison Koutník. He took a long time to recover and his health was affected to the end of his life in the United States.

The fourteen months of our life in the camps was very difficult. I did voluntary teaching in the primary school and on Saturday we used to play puppet theatre to the children.

In the end Maiwald managed to get a research post at Cambridge University. Karel was helped by the Czech violinist Jan Šedivka to a study place at the Surrey College of Music. The problem was that the scholarship covered only tuition fee and the Home Office made Karel and myself sign a promise that we would leave Britain in two years to go back to the refugee camp.

And so after two years, with unfinished study courses we were again in  great difficulties. Twelve British politicians, among them Dennis Healey, helped us to sort it out.


After your arrival to Britain, you started working as a librarian. Did the love of books or rather a coincidence lead you to that? And how were the beginnings for a young inexperienced Czech woman among British colleagues in the 1950s?

As my parents lived in Cambridge I tried to get a study place at the nearby Girton college. After passing the entrance exam I then decided that we could not afford to have two students in the family. Somebody suggested that there was a shortage of library assistants in Islington. The idea appealed to me - after all K.J. Beneš, who was involved in my parents wartime underground activities and whom I  admired, was a writer and librarian.

My colleagues in the Islington public library helped me whenever I failed to understand spoken English. Readers were supportive to me - probably because they remembered the Czech wartime pilots. Only one reader upset me by saying I was silly to leave the communist paradise.

I was not too happy with my life in a hostel. The girls’ interests seemed to me superficial and they did not read at all. However, the cook was very nice. She realised that I was undernourished and she used to serve me larger portions.

In the early years it was difficult to develop close friendships though there were people who tried hard to help us. In Cambridge there was an elderly Quaker lady who showed me English housekeeping and cooking and guided me in my personal reading so that I would know the same books as my generation.

I tried very hard to understand the culture in which I found myself, though some aspects looked strange to me, for instance the enthusiasm for cricket.

I completed my librarianship qualification by correspondence courses in 1956, was in charge of a district library in Finchley in 1960 and became a lecturer at a school of librarianship in 1964.

As a lecturer I taught Reference work, Comparative librarianship, Reading surveys, and The use of computers in libraries. At the same time I developed a research about the reading of ethnic minorities and about reading surveys. My longterm interest in reading was related to the bibliopsychology of Nicholas Rubakin, about whom I wrote my MPhil thesis for University College London in 1975. In order to understand the use of computers in the research projects I took a one year postgraduate course in 1982.

In the early eighties ten senior staff at the school including myself were made redundant and I opened a freelance business called Data Help.


Is Czech literature popular among the British and are there any specific Czech authors who would be especially popular here?

While I had worked in public libraries I had not noticed any interest in Czech books among English readers.

I did, however, notice my own lack of knowledge of English books. I developed a method of improving it while shelving books every morning. For an author with 10 books on the shelves I took one home to read overnight. It was a superficial method but it quickly broadened my outlook. 

This was a long time ago and I do not know which Czech authors are favoured in English public libraries today.


After the Velvet Revolution, you made a significant contribution to the modernization of librarianship in the Czech Republic, for which you also received the Silver Medal of Merit from the Charles University. What principles and techniques did you help bring to the Czech librarianship and how did your then Czech colleagues accept these innovations?

At the beginning of our exile, our only postal contact with close relatives at home was through a relative who had legally emigrated to the United States.  Later we corresponded with people at home under various false names and UK addresses. Our first personal contact in 1964 was the writer Miloš Zapletal who at his interrogation after returning home from his visit in Britain claimed that he had slept under a tree on the edge of London. The number of casual visitors gradually increased, among them librarians.

After the fall of communism I arranged many visits for librarians  to see British libraries. During 1990 there was at least one guest librarian a night in our house. At the same time, as I was able to travel home again, I talked to many librarians there, gave lectures and attended conferences. It was all informal and it filled in the time before official cooperation and help was developed. I was just a friend.


Today, in retirement, you write books and do historical research on Czechs in exile. From this point of view, which period is the most interesting for you and what do you see as the main differences between the Czechs who came to Britain in the principal "migration waves", ie in 1939, 1948, 1968, 1989 and after 2004?

My interest in the cultural contacts of the two worlds is not limited to a particular period. My choice of topic to research and write about is accidental, often related to a conversation or email. For instance, the premature death of my friend Zdeňka Pilková made me continue with her research and write a book about the Czech 18th century musician Anthony Kammel who had lived in London.

I am most interested in the 1939 nad 1948 migration waves of exiles because I have had many contacts with them in my life or access to their archive material.  For instance, I made a sound recording of the reminiscences of Dr.Josephine Bruegel (who belonged to both waves, going into exile twice) and deposited them in the British Library. I have also helped with the sorting of archive material of my father’s friend Blažej Vilím.

On arrival in Britain members of the 1948 wave welcomed the existence of the previous wave because it provided an assurance that Britain is a good country to live in. A visit to a Czech dentist brought out the joy of national feelings.

The relationship between members of the 1948  wave and others of the same wave was distant and cautious because it was difficult to say if any of them were working for the communist regime. It took some time to form relationships.

But members of the 1968 wave saw the 1948 wave as social support. Hours were spent discussing whether to stay in exile or not. My own unique experience concerns meeting a middle aged woman asking me for advice. I invited her to a picture gallery and as she was leaving she said “I know now what to do”. We had not talked about politics at all.

There are just over 300 printed items in my bibliography: articles, conference papers and books. Some are in Czech, some in English.

My plan for a trilogy of reminiscences about Czechs in exile in the twentieth century is now no longer viable. I shall store manuscripts related to it in my own archive. It seems that my published literary activity is coming to an end.


You have lived in the UK for more than 70 years. How much do you think the country has changed over the decades?

Before going into exile I had an idealised picture of Britain, because my mother in her youth had studied there and met my father here.

On arrival as exiles we tried to see Britain as perfect as in our imagination.

I find it difficult to answer questions about changes in Britain over the 70 years because in my heart I still carry this idealised picture of a country which I do not belong to but greatly admire it and want to live here.

And what is my picture of the Czech Republic? The country of my childhood to which I would love to belong and about which I often reminisce with sadness.

I think this is close to the true identity of exiles. They have to learn to live without belonging anywhere.