Jan Zajíc – the story of “human torch number two”

Photo: ČTK/Michaela Říhová

On February 25 1969, five weeks after Jan Palach, another man set himself alight in protest to Czechoslovak apathy following the Soviet invasion of 1968. The name of the second human torch was Jan Zajíc, a high school student from Šumperk. Fifty years on his act still brings chills of shock, but also respect among Czechs.

Photo: ČTK/Michaela Říhová
Walking up Wenceslas Square, you may easily miss a beige building located on its upper half. But it was there, in the passageway at number 39, that the second human torch predicted in a declaration left behind by Jan Palach set himself alight on this day 50 years ago.

His name was Jan Zajíc and he was just about to finish high school. However, Palach’s radical protest five weeks earlier inspired him to also become a human torch, says historian Petr Blažek.

“At the time when Jan Palach committed his act, Zajíc was 18 years old and took part in a hunger strike in support of Palach’s demands. He attended Palach’s funeral with friends from Šumperk. Apparently, this experience struck him hard and we can look for the origins of his decision here.”

He chose the 21st anniversary of the Communist Party’s coup d’état as the date of his death. At around half-past two in the afternoon, he doused himself with five cans of flammable liquid and went up in flames.

Photo: Kristýna Maková,  Radio Prague International
Why did he choose the passageway of an obscure building as a location? Investigators at the time believed that Zajíc caught flame sooner than he had intended. Possibly due to the sheer amount of flammables he had poured on himself. We will never know for certain.

What he did leave behind was a goodbye note for his family and an emotive call to the populace.

“Citizens of the Czechoslovak Republic: Despite Jan Palach’s act, life is returning to as it was before. I have therefore decided to rouse your conscience as torch number two. I do not do so because I want to mourned, or made famous, or because I have gone mad. I have decided to go through with this act because it is time you finally rally yourselves and stop being led along by a few dictators!...”

Jan Zajíc died of his burns on the spot. So fast in fact that he did not even manage to ingest the acid he had prepared to ensure he would die quickly and not in prolonged agony like Jan Palach. However, his self-immolation was not intended to be the last. He had also tried to persuade some of his friends to do the same.

One of them, a third-year student from the same school was supposed to become torch number three. However, she was stopped before the act by the police and dissuaded by her parents and psychiatrists.

Photo: ČTK/Petr Sznapka
A number of others in Czechoslovakia and abroad would follow the example Zajíc and Palach set. However, none created the same impression in people’s memory as these two students who both left strong messages of resistance in their appeals to the public.

Historian Petr Blažek believes that it is precisely this reason their memory endures today.

“With Jan Palach, the reason was that he was the first in Czechoslovakia and for a long time, people thought he was the first in the whole Eastern Bloc. With Jan Zajíc I believe the main reason why he left an imprint in people’s memory is because, just like Palach, he prepared himself meticulously for the act and also penned a declaration to the Czechoslovak people.”