Commemorating Jan Opletal, whose murder triggered off traditional November 17 student marches

Jan Opletal

On the morning of November 17th 1989 no one would have ever believed that the events of that day would lead to the collapse of forty years of Communist rule. A quiet and peaceful student march was violently cracked down by police. Some 170 students were injured, triggering a wave of nationwide strikes and protests. Just weeks later, the Communist regime fell. But few people are aware that the student march was held to commemorate events fifty years earlier. On October 28th, 1939, a student demonstration protesting at the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia saw medical student Jan Opletal shot dead.

Jan Opletal
"He was a very fine young man, very smart - a student par excellence. You know... bullets don't choose their victims."

Josef Jira, who knew Jan Opletal personally and was chosen to carry a wreath to his grave, spoke to Radio Prague at a ceremony that was held on Wednesday morning to remember the events 65 years ago. Leading politicians, professors, and academics gathered in front of the Hlavka student dormitory that Josef Jira, now 88, and Jan Opletal once lived in. Mr Jira still has very vivid memories of the day his friend died over half a century ago:

"We were all in a huddle and mounted police officers pushed the crowd away from Wenceslas square. There were German civilian police and they had guns with silencers. Jan was close to the National museum and drifted with the crowd. He didn't know he was shot. All he felt was being stung. In reality, he was shot seven times. We had the shirt he wore in the dormitory it had bullet holes and was soaked with blood. In the hospital, his fellow medical students went to see him and we were sure he would pull through. At eleven they came back with the news that he was dead."

The funeral of Jan Opletal
In reaction to the student demonstration, Nazi officers stormed the dormitories in the early hours of November 17th. They closed down all universities, executed nine students and sent over one thousand, including Josef Jira, to concentration camps.

"Early on November 17th, at three-thirty in the morning, they stormed into our dormitory and detained us. Then we and students from four or five other dormitories were sent to a concentration camp. They divided us into two groups - those under 20 and those of us over 20. We didn't know what had happened to the younger group. It was much later that we found out that they were released and sent back home."