Young Czechs remember Jan Palach

Jan Palach

Every year in the middle of January we remember Jan Palach. On 16th January 1969, five months after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, he dowsed himself with petrol and set himself alight on Prague's Wenceslas Square. In a letter he wrote that he wanted to awaken his fellow citizens from apathy and resignation following the invasion. Three days later he died, and his funeral was attended by tens of thousands of people, a demonstration for freedom and democracy that the invasion had crushed. The 20-year old from the grey little town of Vsetaty just north of Prague became an international symbol of the tragedy of Czechoslovakia. But does his sacrifice still mean something to today's young Czechs? Pupils and staff from a secondary school named after Jan Palach in Prague were among those attending a commemoration ceremony in Vsetaty on Saturday. David Vaughan's report starts with the headmaster of the Jan Palach School, Michal Musil.

"In our school in what we call 'Palach Week' we have competitions, especially in poetry, in music, in drawing and things like that. Some of the students who are here are part of it."

Accompanied by his classmate Jan on the saxophone, 16-year-old Martin recites a poem by the poet and lyricist Josef Kainar. Martin is in no doubt about Palach's legacy:

"I wasn't around then, but I know from my parents and grandparents that what he did helped to wake people up. And that was a good thing. Heaven forbid that we should find ourselves in a similar situation again, but if ever we do, I hope that someone will turn up who will once again bring the nation together like that. It's up to us, young people, to try to change the future and make it better. What happened during those 40 years mustn't happen again."

Jan Palach School in Vsetaty
Jan Palach's self-immolation was an extreme act, and it has always been controversial. In a sense it is also the nightmare of every parent or teacher, so how does Michal Musil, as headmaster of the Jan Palach School, reconcile this with his admiration for Palach?

"It is not easy to explain, especially now, nearly 40 years later. It is a totally different period. But I think personally that Jan Palach's act was a really brave act, and it was a symbol for people in the time after the invasion. Now when we speak to the students in schools, we say - well, think of the period now. Of course we are now living in a different time, but still there are some threats, so think about it. Don't do what Palach did, of course, but you should think about it and you should know what Palach really did."

And Martin brings the message of Jan Palach right up to the present day:

"We've got elections coming up and we should think about the next four years. Of course people have the right not to vote - they say that the politicians are nothing but a bunch of crooks - but then if, heaven forbid, the communists win the elections and come back to power, they'll be the first to grumble as they sit in the pub over their beer."