Memories of Jan Palach

Jan Palach

It was just at this time of year, 37 years ago, that an unknown 20-year-old Czech student overnight became a focus and symbol of the nation. His name was Jan Palach, and at the top of Prague's Wenceslas Square, just below the National Museum, you can find a small memorial to him. On 16th January 1969, Jan Palach dowsed himself in petrol and set himself alight on the square. It was a desperate attempt to reverse the gradual process of demoralization that set in when Soviet-led troops crushed the reforms of the Prague Spring, five months earlier. Three days later Jan Palach died in a Prague burns clinic; tens of thousands attended his funeral and his name became a symbol around the world of the Czechoslovak tragedy.

Jan Palach's death had further echoes. Seventeen years ago in January1989, the 20th anniversary was marked by a series of demonstrations in Prague which were violently crushed by police and came to be known as Palach Week. Many have seen this as the starting point of the Velvet Revolution which culminated ten months later in November 1989.

Jaroslava Moserova is a doctor. She has also had an exceptional career as a writer, translator, a diplomat and politician - until recently she was a member of the upper house of the Czech parliament. But back in 1969 she was working as a burns specialist in Prague, and she was the doctor who gave Jan Palach his first surgical treatment when he was taken to hospital on 16th January.

Jaroslava Moserová | Photo: David Vaughan,  Radio Prague International
Earlier this week I spoke to Jaroslava Moserova about the events that led to Palach's sacrifice and the legacy of his act to this day. She started by telling me of her part in those events 37 years ago.

"At that time, when Jan Palach set himself on fire, when he decided for this ultimate sacrifice I was working in a burns centre, the only burns centre in Prague, which is very near the National Museum where it all happened. So he was brought to our burns centre, to our hospital. I was there and I happened to be the one who did the first surgical debridement, and at that time Jan Palach still could talk. So we did talk... yes, we did."

He must have been in extraordinary pain, with the scale of the burns he had.

"Well, yes and no, because skin - when it's really destroyed by heat - does not hurt, because the nerves are destroyed as well. It was more his whole body, his bones, his joints, he must have felt extremely ill, but the skin, when the burn is very deep, does not hurt."

And he spoke. What was he talking about? I believe he was very concerned about how people were reacting to his act, that people should understand why he had done it.

"Already, as the nurses told me, already when he was in the elevator and being taken up to the intensive care unit, he kept telling the nurses, 'Please try to make them understand. Please tell people why I did it.' When people say that he did it because of the invasion of the Warsaw Pact armies, that's not really so. He did it because of the demoralization that was setting in. He was a young man, he had some hopes in the Dubcek Prague Spring, he had some illusions that it might even work, and he saw, as we all saw, so many people of talent and courage suddenly emerge from nowhere during the Prague Spring. And then so many of these people disclaimed the statements they made during the Prague Spring, so many of them gave in and sold their souls. That was what he couldn't bear, what he wanted to stop. He wanted to do something that couldn't be played down, that couldn't be kept secret, that would necessarily attract public attention, and he really wanted to shake the conscience of the nation."

Do you think he did the right thing?

"I can never sanction suicide, but it did have the effect he wanted. It did serve the purpose he wanted it to serve. It can never be repeated of course and I'm very angry when I hear of a similar case, because it belittles what he did. It cannot be repeated. Jan Zajic of course deserves the same respect as Palach because it was the same period."

That was just afterwards, wasn't it? He was the second of the so-called "human torches".

"But he's not mentioned so often because he died immediately, while Palach lingered for those days, and the first days, as I said, one could speak with him. I must say that it did bring him solace and it did bring him some... happiness I suppose is too much to say, because we kept bringing him messages from people, from factory teams, from miners, from universities, from all kinds of people, saying that they understand. So he knew it was not in vain.

Do you think he knew that he was going to die?

"Yes, he did. He certainly did. I think that he would have liked to stay alive, but that he was absolutely reconciled to the fact that he was going to die, because very often he started to suffocate, because his breathing was affected. The heat did a lot of damage all the way down to the lungs, so he was condemned. He could not live."

His act - to set himself alight in that way - it seems the act of a fanatic. Did you have the impression that there was something of the fanatic in him?

"No, there wasn't, and I am convinced of this. I am really convinced. I spoke with him long enough and I heard his reactions to things. No, he was an absolutely normal, rational, balanced young man, I'm absolutely sure of it, who knew what he was doing, why he was doing it. Later on, in the late 80s, when already the East Germans were revolting and the other countries that were in the Soviet Bloc were slowly revolting, here it remained worse than ever. I thought he should have done it now, that this would have been the right moment. And I even thought, shouldn't one do something, not of course to set oneself on fire, because as I said, such a thing should never be repeated, but to offer one's life in some very dramatic way."

There is something that troubles me in what Palach did: that it seems to be an act of desperation, creating a victim, rather than actively in defiance of what was happening. It worries me a little, the idea of the victim as hero.

"I do understand. It was an act of revolt against a desperate situation. There was desperation in it, of course, but he saw nothing else, he could think of nothing else that could somehow make a difference, that could somehow stop it or at least slow down the process of demoralization which was setting in and which was unbearable. That is why I think that he should never be forgotten. That is also why I think that it should be remembered and it should be recorded, and testimonies should be collected of the demoralization, of the falsehood, of the lies, of the suppression of truth, but mainly of the falsehood, lies, hypocrisy that was forced onto decent people by the regime, because that will be forgotten. The generation that experienced it will die out. The documents, testimonies, will disappear."

August 1968
And how could this demoralization happen so quickly? Palach died just five months after the Soviet invasion. There had been all this hope and optimism that seemed to be extinguished like a candle.

"It was because, incredibly quickly, people we had respected until that moment started disclaiming what they stated during the Prague Spring and started backing out, and that was awful. For a young person that actually believed that the Prague Spring could succeed, it must have been unbearable."

Can you give me some examples of what was going on?

"For instance, a friend's son was crying because his father didn't want him to wear the pioneer's red scarf to school. And the father said, 'It's a question of principle and my child is never going to wear a pioneer's scarf. I simply do not want to see this red scarf round your neck. It's a question of principle and no way shall you wear this scarf. It's out of the question.' So the child didn't and then some days later the child's teacher, a non-party member, very well loved by all the kids, an extremely good teacher, asked the father to come for a talk. He told the father, 'Look, if your boy doesn't come with the pioneer's scarf, I can understand why you don't want him to, but if he doesn't come, I'll be fired.' So the same father told the same child, 'Tomorrow you will wear the pioneer's scarf.' Isn't that awful?"

It's a kind of moral blackmail working its way through each level of society...

"...and you know, people got so used to it. In the very fact that children knew they were being taught lies at school, that people knew they were being told lies by the media, and that their parents, their seniors, are accepting the status quo without revolting - that in itself was demoralizing. Today there is a lot of talk about corruption. Of course the higher level corruption is awful and is costing the country an awful lot of money, but the petty corruption really started during the communist regime, because you couldn't get anything without giving extra money, without corruption. You couldn't get your car serviced, you couldn't get your water faucet fixed, you couldn't get anything without paying some extra."

There was a saying that went around, wasn't there, that if you don't steal from the state, you're stealing from your family?

"Yes, there was such a saying. Taking things from the state was really not considered dishonest even by decent people."

And we're living with that legacy now.

"In small ways, yes."

And I'd like to talk about the legacy of Jan Palach today. We're living in an age when we see and read in the news every day about suicide bombers, about people who sacrifice their lives but in a very different way - you could say it is a kind of grotesque parody of what Palach did. What do you think Palach's legacy should be for us today in the Czech Republic, or even worldwide?

"...that one should never betray one's own conscience, that one should never sell one's soul, give in, give up to something which one despises and cannot accept and agree with. That applies even now."

At any cost?

"At any cost. Not at somebody else's expense but at a personal level I would say at any cost."