“He wanted to wake up our citizens”: Jan Palach remembered

On 16 January 1969, Czech student Jan Palach set himself on fire on Prague’s Wenceslas Square in protest against apathy in the wake of the Soviet occupation of his country. He died three days later. Fifty-four years on, his actions are still relevant, says speaker of the Chamber of Deputies and leader of the TOP 09 party, Markéta Pekarová Adamová.

The top of Prague’s Wenceslas Square, just below the National Museum, was the venue for a memorial event to Jan Palach on Monday morning. It was there, exactly 54 years ago, that the 20-year-old Palach put down his coat and took out a bottle with the inscription “Éter” (Ether) from his briefcase. He opened it with a knife and, after briefly putting it close to his face, doused himself in the flammable liquid and set himself on fire.

Josef Kříž, a witness to the act, later gave this testimony about what happened:

Photo: Anna Fodor,  Radio Prague International

“By the time I saw him, the flames were already so massive that I could barely see his facial expression. However, before I could do anything, the young man ran the distance from the wall under the Museum to the railing near my car, jumped over the railing from the sidewalk, past my vehicle and another car on my left, dashed onto the road and ran behind a tram, which at that time was passing in the direction from the bottom of Wenceslas Square to the museum.”

Palach fell in the road and passers-by tried to extinguish the flames with their coats. At his prompting, the onlookers went and fetched the briefcase he had left by the fountain and read the letter they found inside.

“As our nations find themselves on the brink of hopelessness and surrender, we have decided to express our protest and awaken the nation's conscience. Our group is made up of volunteers who are determined to immolate themselves for our cause. Our demands are: 1) immediate abolition of censorship 2) ban on the distribution of Zprávy [the official newspaper of the Soviet occupying forces]. As you can see, our requirements are not excessive, rather the opposite. If our demands are not met within five days, that is, by 21 January 1969, and if people do not come forward with sufficient support for our demands, more torches will be lit.”

Jan Palach | Photo: Michaela Danelová,  Czech Radio

Even when in hospital in the days prior to his death, Jan Palach repeated the demands of his letter, emphasised that his dramatic protest was intended to rouse people to action, and was interested in what repercussions it had had.

How should we remember Jan Palach today? What is his significance, 33 years after communism ended? The most high-profile politician at today’s memorial event, speaker of the Chamber of Deputies and leader of the TOP 09 party Markéta Pekarová Adamová, says he was a hero who inspired people to act rather than silently stand by.

Markéta Pekarová Adamová | Photo: Anna Fodor,  Radio Prague International

“He was one of the key people who helped our society wake up and demonstrate against the regime. 20 years later there were Palach weeks and people wanted to change the regime in the country. He helped the deconstruction of the totalitarian system in Czechoslovakia.”

With events in Ukraine bringing back memories of 1968 for many Czechs, she says that Jan Palach and the others who followed him serve as an example to all of us today.

“I am sure that nowadays we have the responsibility to not only keep their memory alive, but also to mirror it ourselves, ask ourselves if it is possible for us to do something for others, for society, for our country. This was something that they had on their minds when they were doing these things. So I am quite sure that for us it’s not just some historical thing, it’s also very relevant nowadays.”

Photo: Anna Fodor,  Radio Prague International