Otakar Dušek: the medallic artist behind Prague’s illegal Jan Palach / Josef Toufar mural

Otakar Dušek on the death march, photo: archive of Otakar Dušek

Otakar Dušek is a designer and artist with a passion for history and historical justice – something he hopes to instil in his students at the prestigious Václav Hollar School of Art in Prague. That passion helped propel him from a teacher of graphic design, fonts and computer graphics to world renowned medallist – an artist specialising in commemorative medals.

Otakar Dušek on the death march,  photo: archive of Otakar Dušek

To be a medallist is a labour of love, he says, the fruits of which come in the form of personal satisfaction in helping honour Czech national heroes who fought against totalitarianism – such as dissident turned president Václav Havel and student martyr Jan Palach – and unsung heroes or little known victims of the fascist and communist regimes.

Jan Palach medal,  photo: archive of Otakar Dušek
“I quite often concentrate on political themes, military themes. And in my work, I not only make medals but show how I have formed them. At the same time, while I’m working on specific medals, I often make video documentaries.”

“These documentaries are quite important especially when I present my medals abroad because I need to introduce the public to my work but most of all to the historical topics. For example, with Jan Palach, it is important to explain why he self-immolated; the context of the Prague Spring and subsequent occupation by Warsaw Pact forces.”

Jan Palach died in a Prague burn victims hospital clinic in January 1969, three days after setting himself alight on Wenceslas Square. His protest act was a desperate attempt to rouse the demoralised Czechoslovak nation in the face of Soviet occupation.

In death, he would become known as “the conscience of the nation”. Yet not even a plaque marked the former hospital on Legerova Street where died, as Otakar Dušek was shocked to discover while working on a commemorative silver Jan Palach medal and accompanying video documentary.

“When I was preparing to make the documentary about Jan Palach and the medal, I came across the former Borůvka Sanatorium, the hospital clinic on Legerova Street where he died. One of the doctors who had treated him in the burns unit, Dr Zdenka Koníčková, was kind enough to agree to an interview and to show me the room where he died.”

“The building was in a horrible state. Homeless people and junkies had been using it and everywhere was broken glass and excrement. I thought it was outrageous, as for me he is a national hero. I decided to at least put some memorial plaque on the building to Jan Palach. I learnt that twenty years earlier, the Catholic priest Josef Toufar had died there from StB beatings. So I decided to honour them both.”

After first exhausting official channels, the graphic designer felt compelled to take matters into his own hands and installed an unofficial mural to honour Palach and Toufar, who had been tortured by the StB secret police, to extract a false confession he had staged a “miracle” to undermine the state.

“I tried through to get permission to install a memorial plaque but to no avail. So I decided to install an ‘illegal’ one with the help of some cousins and colleagues. It was rather risky. You know, a teacher must have a clean criminal record, and it could have been considered vandalism. Luckily, no one objected and it’s been there for five years. I’m grateful many people came to know where Jan Palach died through this memorial, and to learn of Josef Toufar – because many knew nothing at all about this priest before.”

Prague City Hall is now looking to buy that dilapidated former hospital on Legerova Street – slated to become a luxury hotel – and turn it into a “museum of totalitarianism”.

Václav Havel’s thumbprint and signature – on a beer coaster

A Soviet T34 tank about to imprint the Battle of Kursk commemorative medal,  photo: archive of Otakar Dušek
Early in his career, Otakar Dušek designed a number of commemorative coins issued by the Czech National Bank that perhaps fit the very image now forming in your head. But unlike most coins, commemorative medals are not necessarily perfectly round – as is the case with much of his work.

For example, the artist’s silver commemorative Jan Palach medal from 2014, several years in the making, is a perfect 1:1 ratio of the martyr’s burnt lips, as presevered for posterity in his death mask. On the reverse side are his last words: “Člověk musí bojovat proti tomu zlu, na které právě stačí” or “People must fight evil to the full extent they feel able.”

The there’s Otakar Dušek’s startling medal for the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad, a pressing of a Nazi-era 50 Pfennig coin on one side and a Soviet 20 Kopeck on the other, pierced by a bullet shot by a World War II-era rifle. Or his medal commemorating the Battle of Kursk, the largest tank battle in history, which he minted using the full physical force of a Soviet T34.

Václav Havel imprints his thumbprint for the commemorative medal,  photo: archive of Otakar Dušek
Quite striking too is his medal honouring Václav Havel on his 70th birthday, of which only 70 pieces were issued. It resembles a translucent beer coaster, recalling how the dissident playwright was compelled to work in a brewery under communism; the president’s iconic signature with a heart feature on one side; his fingerprint – unique to every human being and unchanging throughout a lifetime – on the other. Among those owning one are the late president’s friends Bill Clinton and the Dalai Lama.

Other medals by Otakar Dušek defy concise description, as they are so intricate in design and rich in both symbolism and allusions to Czech history. Hence the importance of the accompanying video documentaries.

Tracing the path of a Nazi death march

Otakar Dušek with todesmarsch medal,  photo: archive of Otakar Dušek
“Two months ago, I finished a project called ‘Todesmarsch – Death March’ – about women from a German concentration camp near Helmbrechts, some 40 kilometres from the Czechoslovak border. The SS tried to erase any trace of their atrocities during the war. The camp was hastily evacuated on April 13, 1945, as US troops were approaching. The Germans decided to liquidate the women prisoners, not on the spot but through hunger and the cold.”

It took Otakar Dušek more than a year of archival research to collect enough documents and period maps to be able to reconstruct, fairly accurately, the route of the march – which took some unexpected turns.

He set out to trace their route from Helmbrechts wearing boots with special soles into which he inserted memorial silver medals. These were designed to resemble the shape of labels on the boxes of Mauser ammunition used by SS-guards to execute prisoners too exhausted to continue marching.

“They first set out for Dachau, but along the way learned that the US Army had already liberated that camp, and so they were forced to march towards the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. The idea was to take them to another all-female camp at Zwodau. But when they got there, after walking 88 kilometres over five days, the camp was already full. There were thousands of women from all over Europe. So the Helmbrechts camp commandant, Alois Doerr, decided to exchange the non-Jewish prisoners for Jewish ones. He then took only the Jewish prisoners on a march that ended in Prachtice, in southern Bohemia.”

See also YouTube video “Todesmarch – Death March”

The video documenting Otakar Dušek’s three-week march is recorded on a memory stick accompanying each medal, placed in a bag made of the same woven cloth used to make the prisoners’ uniforms.

The memory stick is inserted inside a seam in the fabric, to symbolise how prisoners hid their valuables. The text engraved on the obverse side of each medal reads “Todesmarsch – Death March”, followed by the names of the towns the column passed through; Helmbrechts – Zwodau – Volary.

Honouring Ryszard Siwiec

For his Death March project, Otakar Dušek was named the first awardee of the Mel Wacks Judaica Art Medal Award, presented in June at the FIDEM Art Medal Congress awards banquet in Ottawa, Canada. Wacks said in a presentation the work “breaks down barriers for medallic art that have been in place since the Renaissance. It shows how a relatively small medal can have significance far beyond its size”.

Having broken many such barriers over the years, what might be Otakar Dušek’s next project?

“Ryszard Siwiec, the Polish man who was capable of self-immolation in protest against the invasion of a foreign country, is another person I greatly respect and admire. That’s another medal I hope to make. It was an unbelievable act. And it bothers me that most Czechs don’t know who he was. When I visited Poland some years ago, not even most Poles knew the name Ryszard Siwiec. And I think I need to do something about that.”

Otakar Dušek is the first awardee of the Mel Wacks Judaica Art Medal Award, bestowed upon him in 2018 for his “Todesmarsch – Death March” medal. His Václav Havel medal earned him the Jaap van der Veen and Teylers Museum in 2012. He is the only Czech medallist to have received a prize from the international medal congress FIDEM, which in 2004 honoured him for best creative struck and / or technically innovative medal, for medal commemorating the 60th Anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad.