Jan Palach in letters from Radio Prague listeners

In today's special edition of Mailbox we read from listeners' letters dedicated to the memory of Jan Palach, a Czech student who burned himself to death on January 16, 1969 in Prague, to protest against the lethargy that prevailed in Czechoslovak society in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion in 1968. We quote from letters sent by: John Murphy, Jamie Marshall, Leslie Farmler, Jan Lea, Tom O'Neill, Trevor Bunn, Craig, Lana, and Alessio Pagnucco.

On Monday we remembered the 37th anniversary of the self-immolation of Jan Palach, a 20-year-old Prague student. In a letter he left behind he wrote he wanted to awaken his fellow citizens from apathy in the aftermath of the 1968 Soviet invasion which crushed the Prague Spring liberation movement.

Seventeen years ago, in 1989, the week of the anniversary was marked by a series of demonstrations in Prague which were violently crushed by police and came to be known as The Palach Week. That was 10 months before the beginning of the Velvet Revolution.

In today's Mailbox we will be reading from your letters devoted to the memory of Jan Palach.

Let's start with John Murphy from Great Britain:

"I have never forgotten Jan Palach, even though I come from a country far from his home, a country the pre-war British Prime Minister called 'a faraway country of which we know little'. In his day it was true enough, by 1969 less so and the West watched with enthusiasm and hope as the 'Prague Spring' unfolded. Then the Soviet Army rolled in to "restore order" and we watched with dread, well founded as it turned out. But we also saw the resistance of the Czech people, appreciated their desire for liberty.

"Then Jan Palach made the supreme sacrifice and while we were horrified at the manner of his death, the nobility of his act was appreciated by all and really showed us what this repression really meant to those who lived it. I'm sure his memory is still dear to the people of your country, be assured that it is held dear by all those outside your borders who remember that day."

Jamie Marshall follows Radio Prague's broadcasts in Prague:

"I am a 50-year-old Englishman living in Vinohrady, just up the road from Cesky rozhlas (Czech Radio). I remember the events of 1968 so vividly, watched via the BBC on a black and white TV. I felt then as I do now a strong sense of identity with the Czechs. Thanks for the articles on Jan Palach, Jan Zajic, and Evzen Plocek."

Leslie Farmler from New Orleans also remembers the events from 37 years ago:

"I was a reporter in Beirut and not much older than Jan Palach when the BBC broadcast the news of his death with a clip of the Czech announcer's voice breaking as she read her script."

Jan Lea from the UK, too, was about the same age as Jan Palach.

"I was in my early 20's living in England when Jan took his own life. I remember he begged others to throw more petrol on him, to kill him quicker, as he didn't have enough to make his death other than slow and painful. His actions and courage have always been an inspiration to me, and as long as he is remembered his death will not have been in vain."

A listener who only signed as Lana had a few questions to ask:

"Thank you for a very interesting read about Jan Palach. I was just wondering: wasn't he a philosophy student? I was also curious about a few other things. I read that Jan was part of a group of 8 students who all had planned to kill themselves by fire. The letter Palach left behind, can it be found in English somewhere? I will be visiting Prague shortly and Jan fascinates me, it would be interesting to know a bit more about him before I go there."

Jan Palach studied history and political economics at the Faculty of Philosophy. He left a suicide note entitled "Torch Number One". A wave of protest suicides followed: worker Josef Hlavaty, student Jan Zajic, builder Miroslav Malinka, Blanka Nachazelova, and worker Evzen Plocek.

In his e-mail, Tom O'Neill also asks a question:

"I have been reading an article about Jan Palach written by David Vaughan. Could you please tell me if, when Jan Palach's ashes were returned to Prague, they were re-buried in his grave in the Olsany Cemetery?"

Jan Palach's ashes were first buried in Olsany. In 1973 the police moved them to the town of Vsetaty where Jan Palach's relatives lived. In 1990 - after the Velvet Revolution - they were again moved to Prague.

Trevor Bunn follows Radio Prague in Birmingham, England:

"Although I was in Prague only for two days, I actively sought out the places that Czech citizens had made their greatest sacrifice in defending the honour of their country and its people. The first place was the small memorial to where Jan Palach had immolated himself in Wenceslas Square. This act of defiance I witnessed as a 13-year-old in 1969 on television and the newspapers. It shook me to the core and made me aware for the first time in my early life of the reality of what passion and resolve meant in the face of oppression."

A listener from Glasgow who only signed as Craig is reacting to a music video by the British band Kasabian which they dedicated to Jan Palach.

"For months I had wondered who the 'bold' Jan Palach was after watching Kasabian's music video on TV. The band got me curious and they must have thousands more curious and keeping the guy remembered! Music can entertain and educate!"

And staying with music, Alessio Pagnucco from Italy himself wrote a song about Jan.

"In my little town Pasiano di Pordenone we want to dedicate a square to Jan Palach. Meanwhile I'm sending you our song to Jan Palach."

Thank you very much for all those letters, please keep them coming - the address is Radio Prague, 12099 Prague, Czech Republic or [email protected]. It is also the address for your competition answers.

The January question is:

"Who, when and where first invented the sugar cube?"

Please, send us your entries by the end of January.