Monument unveiled to Polish 'human torch' protestor against Soviet invasion

Monument to Ryszard Siwiec, photo: CTK

A monument was unveiled in Prague on Friday morning to Ryszard Siwiec, the Polish man who set himself alight in September 1968 in protest at his country’s participation in the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia. Siwiec committed suicide in Warsaw just weeks after the invasion and six months before the Czech student Jan Palach made his own terrible sacrifice in Prague. The monument was unveiled on the eve of the 42nd anniversary of the invasion.

A guard of honour stood to attention as a black monument was unveiled on Friday in front of Prague’s Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes. On September 8th, 1968, Ryszard Siwiec, a 59-year-old former Home Army soldier, set himself alight in front of a crowd of 100,000 people to protest at Poland's participation in the recent invasion of Czechoslovakia. He died shortly afterwards in hospital. Daniel Herman is the Institute’s new director.

Radek John (left) and Daniel Herman, photo: CTK
“It’s a very symbolic moment, because we want to express our honour to Mr Ryszard Siwiec, who offered himself as a living offering, as a protest against the occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968. I think [today’s ceremony] is a very important symbolic act, an honour from the Czech society, and it’s also a very good place here at this institute, because the responsibility of this institution is the totalitarian regime.”

You’re a former priest and a religious man – suicide, for Christians, is a sin.

“Yes, but this one is a symbol, it was an offering for freedom. It’s a higher level than suicide. I think it’s not possible to understand it as suicide. It’s a symbolic act.”

The street outside the Institute has already been renamed Siwiecova; the new monument is part of a continuing effort by Czech officials to recognise those who stood up to the communist system. Radek John is the country’s new interior minister:

“I’m glad we renamed the street after him. Formerly this street was named after a communist. Now it’s renamed after a hero from Poland, from a foreign country, but he is our hero. I think a man who goes against the communist regime so strongly is our hero, regardless of whether he comes from Poland or Russia and so on.”

Monument to Ryszard Siwiec, photo: CTK
The name of Ryszard Siwiec was unknown for decades after his self-immolation. Only recently has silent footage emerged showing the crowd suddenly parting around a man engulfed in flames, shouting wildly and flapping his arms up and down.

Poland’s communist government went to great lengths to erase his act from the public consciousness. A tape-recorded message explaining his actions was seized by the secret police; even his farewell letter to his wife and family, written on the train to Warsaw, never reached them.