When Jan Palach burned himself to death in January 1969 over the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, his radical protest was echoed by a number of young men in the Eastern Bloc. Among them was Eliyahu Rips, who put a match to his petrol-doused clothing in the Latvian capital Riga on April 13, 1969. But unlike the others, Rips survived, after passers-by put out the flames.
Now a maths professor in Israel, he was in Prague last week to speak at the Václav Havel Library. Sitting on a park bench in the Jewish Quarter, Eliyahu Rips told me that, like Palach, he and many Latvians had been bitterly disappointed by the crushing of the 1968 Prague Spring.
“You could go down the street and every face was glowing and now [after the invasion] it was the opposite. Also you had no way to find an outlet for your feelings. You had to shut your mouth – for many months. This kind of feeling accumulated.
“And the information about what Jan Palach also ignited it. And then one day it exploded. You see, it was such a bad feeling that I could not even say to anybody how I felt about it. And then one day it was about doing it at any price, and whatever.”
Why did you take [the crushing of the Prague Spring by Soviet-led forces] so personally?
“I don’t feel it was only my personal feeling – to a very large extent it was the general feeling then. But it was such a difficult feeling, that one had to swallow everything. And at this age, I was 20, I maybe took it in such a way.”
What were you hoping to achieve, or did you have any goals in mind?
“Not at all. I saw the Soviet regime as kind of eternal. I didn’t believe then that something would change.
“Also I didn’t think that anything in my protest would change anything. I just wanted to express this kind of feeling and so be it.”
Did you think about how your action might impact your family or your friends?
“Of course this is the shadow side of it. A person may think about the whole world but he also has parents, and in this case parents of an only son. So I cannot say what has greater weight, you see.
“But then I also felt that this is a way that power controlled all of us. Because all of us are related in some way. And this is the way that power grips all of us. Normally one should shut up because of relatives or people who are closely related to him.”
“Of course not. This would only bring trouble.”
Could you describe what actually happened on April 13, 1969?
“I had some things to prepare that took several days, writing the placard, getting a suit that I would wear. Then I had to have some gas and then I had to find a place to store it near the place.
“In the afternoon I went to this place and put the suit on myself. It already had gas on the inside of it. Then I had to open the placard: I protest against the occupation of Czechoslovakia. In Russian.
“Actually, opening the placard was the most difficult task in my life. Because this was the point of no return. Until this point I could take everything and go back and nothing would happen.
“But just opening it meant that from this point it was irreversible. Then I had to take a match to strike it, but that was easier, because you see the whole tremendous fear of the Soviet system – this was the moment of challenge.”
What were your feelings at the moment when you lit the match?
“It was just a technicality. The difficult thing was to open the placard.”
Soon after you set yourself on fire, some passers-by put it out, is that right?
“Yes. I remember the flames but then some minutes I don’t remember. But then I was told there was a group of passers-by that extinguished me.
“Then I saw a big crowd, hostile – but maybe the people who felt otherwise would not say anything, I guess. And then somebody came out from this crowd and arrested me.”
How did you feel about the fact that these passers-by had extinguished the flames?
“Now I know that a person is not supposed to take his own life – it’s also a kind of murder. So I can only say that it is easier for me to think this way.
“Therefore I must say that the people who for example went to demonstrations and knew very well that they would end up in prison that evening – that was a higher kind of courage.”
Later what happened? You were imprisoned? Or you were put in some kind of a mental hospital, is that right?
“OK. First I was arrested by the KGB. They brought me to the mental ward as was routine with any case of suicide. The next morning they returned with the arrest order, then brought me to Riga prison and opened the investigation.
“Then the usual practice was to declare people who protested mentally ill. So they had an expert opinion which decided that I should be given this forced cure.
“Then several months later in the autumn of that year the court case was held. I was not present because they decided I was not mentally able to understand what was going on.
“Then they decided to put me on this forced psychiatric cure and placed me in the Riga psychiatric ward and I was there about a year and a half.
“Due to the activities of the famous Russian dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, who collected material about this kind of psychiatric persecution… he sent it abroad and I have to stress that his activities actually helped to end it.
“Then there was another commission that decided to remove the forced cure and then the court removed it and I returned home.”
And not long afterwards you moved to Israel and you’ve been there for almost all of your life. How does it feel for you today being in Prague, which was kind of the inspiration of your action?
“I am here for the second time. The first time was in 2009. The historians researching this period and the actions of people invited me then and I felt extremely good with them – just very good people, very good friends. Then when they invited me now I was unable to resist.”
My last question has to be: How do you view today what you did in April 1969?
“In a sense the world changed very much. In another sense, it remains the same. You see, I hope that at least in this part of the world those dreadful days will not return. But nothing could be said about the rest of the world.”
But what about your own action? Do you condone what the young you did?
“In one sense it was very important to me to be able to express what I felt then and to overcome the whole barrier of fear. But of course I caused my relatives very difficult pain. One cannot say which has more weight.”