Commemorative events are being held around the country to honour the memory of Jan Palach, a Charles University student who set himself ablaze on Wenceslas Square 47 years ago to protest against growing public apathy to the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia. His act rekindled the desire for freedom in the nation and was a powerful motivating force behind the 1989 protests that toppled communism.
Forty-seven years ago, just five months after the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion crushed the Prague Spring reforms in his homeland, Jan Palach made the ultimate sacrifice – he set himself ablaze on Wenceslas Square in an effort to rouse the nation from its growing apathy. He died three days later. His funeral turned into a national protest against the occupation, rekindling the desire for freedom and enabling Czechs to hold their heads high.
On the anniversary of his self-immolation – January 16 – the country’s top officials, cultural figures and ordinary Czechs visited the modest plaque at the top end of Wenceslas Square to lay wreaths and light candles in his memory. Human Rights Minister Jiri Dienstbier said Palach’s act serves as a permanent reminder that we must defend freedom, democracy and human rights and should never take them for granted.
Students from grammar schools and universities are holding a chain hunger strike in the days between his self-immolation and his death, just as they did back in 1969. Film director Kristina Vlachova who shot a moving documentary about Palach’s legacy stressed the importance of keeping it alive.
“Actually two young people chose the same form of protest shortly before Palach–one was in Poland and another in Ukraine. But we are certain that Jan Palach did not know about them. He acted on his own council, as a socially engaged and politically aware individual. Many of the papers today say he protested against the 1968 invasion, but he left a letter saying that he wanted to wake the nation from its apathy.”
On Saturday a memorial to Jan Palach was unveiled at Alšovo nábřeží in Prague, an embankment near Jan Palach square. The memorial designed by U.S. architect John Heyduk is dedicated to Palach and his mother – each represented by a cube or “house” engulfed in flames, one bright, proud and upright, the other dark and bent in grief. A plaque at the base of the monument displays David Shapiro’s poem, “The Funeral of Jan Palach”, which reportedly inspired Hejduk’s work. The ceremony was attended by members of Jan Palach’s family, U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic Andrew H. Shapiro, Israeli Ambassador Gary Koren, Prague Archbishop Dominik Duka and Prague mayor Adriana Krnáčová, among others.
Meanwhile work continues on transforming Jan Palach’s home in the town of Všetaty into a permanent museum. The National Museum which now administers his home said on Saturday 31 architects are in the running for the Palach Museum project. The head of the National Gallery Michal Lukes says the winning proposal must meet three basic criteria –Palach’s former home must serve as a monument, an exhibition and a place for meditation. The authorities want it completed in time for the 5oth anniversary of Palach’s death.