Dr. John Schirger
My Parents: A Story of Courage, Strength and True Love
Q: As a physician and son of Czechoslovakian immigrants, what did you learn from your parents that have affected your faith and family life today? Can you tell us more about them? What about your mother in particular helped you in your faith journey?
A: Ales (Alex) and Milada (Kloubkova) Schirger were married on August 7, 1965 in St. Cloud, MN, surrounded by friends of Alex -- but without any family. Photographs of the joyous occasion couldn't capture the hardships Alex and Milada had endured to get to that day. I would like to tell you their story, a story, like all good stories, of trials and perseverance, of light overcoming darkness, of steadfast hearts and courage.
Both Milada and Alex were born in Prague, Czechoslovakia in the mid 1920s, and witnessed a prosperous, modern and democratic country fall prey to the two more obvious ideological totalitarianisms of the 20th century, first National Socialism (Nazis) and then Soviet Communism. They now stood at the threshold of a new life together, in a land known for its freedom, seemingly unaware of an encroaching “soft” totalitarianism. Or were they? It seems that both saw, though through a glass darkly, the gathering fog of an aggressively secular, bureaucratic culture unfriendly to religious faith. Perhaps their experiences in mid-century Prague allowed them to see coming storm clouds before others.
Milada was born in a Prague suburb in 1927 to Karel and Francis Kloubek. She had a younger brother Jan; another sister died at a young age. Karel was a member of the famous Czech and Slovak legion that broke from the Austrian army in WWI and fought their way through Russia to the Sea of Japan. During WWII he spent two years in a Gestapo prison for participation in the Czech resistance.
After the war, Milada studied at the famous Charles University in Prague, earning a doctorate in education with a focus on education of children with special needs. There she met Alex, an American citizen studying medicine who’d been raised by relatives in Prague after his parents’ death in New York. They were part of a group of students who met with priests for discussions, hiking and skiing in the mountains along the Polish border, and other activities as they shared their faith together. Alex and Milada’s growing affection for each other met a roadblock with the Communist assumption of power in Czechoslovakia, as citizens were not allowed to marry foreigners. After Alex left for what he thought would be a short time to maintain his American citizenship, Milada was arrested as an enemy of the state for religious activities, and, after an extended trial, interrogation and torture, was sentenced to several years of hard labor. Their dreams of a life together seemed finished.
At the advice of Pope Pius XII given during a semi-private audience, Alex went to the U.S., prayed for Milada, eventually practiced medicine at the prestigious Mayo Clinic, worked for Milada’s release and waited. She was eventually released from prison and then from the country of Czechoslovakia in 1965.
Throughout the suffering, privations and harrowing experiences she endured, Milada’s faith remained joyful and strong during her years of imprisonment. Small groups prayed together clandestinely, and on one occasion while wearing a cast due to an injury, she was able to smuggle the Blessed Sacrament into the labor camp within that cast. Alex’s faith grew stronger as well, as he prayed and waited in the U.S. Finally, after fourteen years of separation, through prayer, perseverance and hard work she was able to join him and they were married.
Alex and Milada were blessed with two children, myself and my sister Annie, who lives with her husband and two sons in Omaha. Faced with the challenge of raising a family without any extended family, childhood friends or familiar cultural surroundings, they provided a faith filled environment with much love, joy and happiness. It was difficult however to be such a small enclave of love, and there were times of stress and pressure. Our family remained close through my dad’s hope and cheer, and my mom’s faith. The gift of their faith, hope and love to my sister and myself, and later to our own families, was immeasurable.
Every life, whether faith filled or not, has its suffering, and despite their heroic love my parents did leave us with crosses to bear in a culture we were never fully at home in. My parents’ experiences as immigrants were very different from other immigrant families. Without an extended family or immigrant community to share my parents' experience, which my sister and I couldn’t help but share in, we often felt like fish out of water. Holidays, while filled with joy and cheer, were mixed with a sense of the absence, of family, friends and shared culture. That sense of rootlessness remains with me today. Perhaps though every cross has a hidden gift, and this one drives me to the arms of our Lord and His Blessed Mother, as I’m entrusted with the care of my beautiful family, my wife Zita, and my daughters Mary Jo and Rosie, in a culture alternatively hostile and indifferent to the gift of faith my parents gave me.
My parents' experience with the ideologies of the 20th century seemed foreign to friends, school mates and co-workers, leading to interesting situations, for example the disbelief expressed by a grade school teacher of mine when I stated my mom’s opinion that a popular educational program on public television was permeated with Marxist influences. She saw clearly some of the close analogies of our regnant materialist educational philosophies with ideological indoctrination she’d experienced in Communist Czechoslovakia. My dad, always a great champion of those in need, who moved heaven and earth to help them, also understood early on the Marxist influence on the culture of extreme political correctness, and the attacks on tradition and family often implied in this form of politics. From them I learned a healthy skepticism of the promises of big government and and large managerial bureaucracies that don’t account for the deep truth of the human being.
Through their heroic lives, my parents passed on great gifts to me. Above all the gift of our faith, given in the sacred story of their lives, but also the gift to see clearly the threats to our faith today. I pray that I have their courage to live up to the challenges of today - in some ways more complex than the challenges of their time.
Editor's Note: Alex died on February 14, 2013 on St. Valentine’s Day, which is also the feast of St. Cyril and Methodius, the patron saints of the Slavic peoples. Milada resides in a care facility in Minnesota. Thank you to Dr. John Schirger for sharing this heroic story of his parents with us!
Dr. John Schirger is a cardiologist in Rochester, Minnesota at Mayo Clinic. He received his medical degree from Creighton University School of Medicine and a Master’s Degree in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America. He is now serving as President of the Board of Directors of the Catholic Medical Association.