From the Magazine | Foreign News
Act of Grace
Posted Monday, Jul. 25, 1955
"Be warned," cried the headline in London's Daily Express. "This is a story of horror, brutality and evil. It is the story of the postwar life of an English war bride in Czechoslovakia. It is a terrible story." Express readers were quick to take the hint.
With avid eyes and indignant hearts they gobbled up the tale of young Phyllis Clarke, who had met and married Czech Airman Jaroslav Sispera in England in 1941 and returned with him to his own country at war's end. The story, told by Phyllis herself, described the happiness of those early years and then the change that occurred when the Communists took over Czechoslovakia. Arrested while attempting to escape on Christmas Eve, 1950, Phyllis, along with her husband, was dragged by police into a border railway station and raped before her three children, who were forced to stand watching. After that, her husband was sent to jail, her children were taken from her, and Phyllis herself was tortured, beaten and forced to dig her own grave.
Public Demand. What gave the Express story its final fillip was the fact that it had no end. Phyllis, though saved from the grave she herself had dug, was still trapped in Czechoslovakia. She had been released from jail, had divorced her husband (amicably, so it was said, and in a further effort to obtain her own release), and her three children had been put in a state home. A friendly Czech named Jaromir Chudy, crossing the border as a refugee, had taken her story to the Express. Warming to its cause, the Express editorialized: "Here is a woman, torn from her husband, robbed of her children, punished inhumanly for no crime at all. The British people demand her release."
Other papers took up the cry. In the week before Geneva, Phyllis was bigger news than Eden or Bulganin. "The treatment," said the Manchester Guardian, "makes a travesty of Moscow's recent proposals for greater freedom of cultural exchange." In Parliament, M.P.s prodded Minister of State Anthony Nutting into admitting that some 94 other British war brides were similarly trapped behind the Iron Curtain. So long as such things went on, Nutting later warned the Czech ambassador, Anglo-Czech relations "would continue to be poisoned."
Out of the Mines. In the midst of the continuing clamor, Minister Nutting rose in the House of Commons one day to announce that Phyllis Sispera had disappeared. Fleet Street blackened its front pages with the news. Two days later, the British embassy in Prague found her again. What had happened? Desperate in the face of sentiment turned against them by Britain's newspapers, the Communists had spent two days diverting Phyllis and her children with picnics and promises. They had even produced her divorced husband, who has spent the last several years in a uranium mine. They promised him a good job, and a villa for the whole family, if only Phyllis would consent to stay in Communist Czechoslovakia.
They did not know Phyllis. She was unmoved by the offer. At last the Communists told her she could take her children and go "as an act of grace." Last week, accompanied by the three little Sisperas, Phyllis, looking plump and happy, arrived at the Amsterdam airport, a free woman. Readers of the Daily Express had not been prepared for what happened next. She flew straight into the arms of Jaromir Chudy, the refugee who had got the Express interested in her story. Announced Jaromir calmly: "I am going to marry her."