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Jan Palach

Jan Palach

To die in the name of truth and freedom is the ultimate sacrifice a man can make in his life. It is even more poignant if the decision is made by a young person, with the whole life ahead of him. Throughout history, there was hardly any time when Czechs didn`t have to fight for their freedom. And throughout history, there were always those who didn`t hesitate to sacrifice their lives in order to encourage and unite the intimidated and resigned nation. Although their death didn`t always solve the problem there and then, they became the nation`s living conscience and inspired a great many not to give in to oppression, violence and lies, but stand up against them. For Czechs, three names will always symbolise truth, freedom and democracy...three names used to uplift the crushed spirits in times of oppression, and the very names used to trouble the authorities whose power was based on force rather than democracy. These three men, who stretch their hands to reach one another across five centuries, are the Catholic church reformer Jan Hus, and the students Jan Opletal and Jan Palach. The first of them died a long time ago, in the early 15th century, the second one in the early months of the German occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1939, and the last one shortly after the Soviet tanks quashed the 1968 Prague spring.

This week, Czechs mark the 30th anniversary of the death of Jan Palach, a student of Prague`s Charles University, who burnt himself to death on January 16, 1969, in protest against the Soviet invasion and the cowardice of the communist authorities and the government, who legalised the invasion with all its implications. Palach`s death shocked the nation and although it was already too late to change anything, it once again raised people`s anger against the betrayal by the authorities and made many realise the indestructible value of truth and freedom. When dying of his burns in hospital, Palach pleaded with the people by his side to make sure the world knew that his act wasn`t a suicide but protest. He set himself on fire like it`s done in the Buddhist tradition, and became a human torch, both literally and spiritually. His act shook the demoralised nation like nothing else. For the following twenty years, it served as a constant reminder to those defending the truth, and a permanent reproach to the authorities, who tried to root out every memory of Palach`s death.

As we said earlier, Palach wasn`t the first man in Czech history to give up his life in the name of truth. The name of Jan Hus is known to every Czech child, and there is a distinct parallel between him and Palach. Jan Hus was burnt at the stake as a heretic, in 1415. He was given the chance to revoke his preaching, based on the equality of all men in the face of God, which would have saved his life. But he decided to choose death, knowing it would do more for the cause than if he stayed alive. The figure of Jan Hus didn`t bother too much the communist authorities. They thought they could easily place his death in the religious context of the 15th century and not beyond, and so Hus was allowed to stay in Czech history textbooks, while all traces of Palach had to be removed. Hus` martyr`s death even suited the anti-religious communist propaganda, as it could claim that Hus protested against the rottenness of the Catholic church, or any church, for that matter. But they couldn`t do the same with Palach, whose sacrifice has no parallel in European history.

The third young man to become the symbol of truth and freedom for Czechs, was also a student at Charles` University. His name was Jan Opletal. He didn`t consciously choose to die, like Hus or Palach, but was shot during a student demonstration against the Nazi occupation. His funeral on the 15th of November 1939, like that of Palach`s thirty years later, was attended by tens of thousands of people and ended in a massive demonstration. Two days later, the Nazis closed all Czech universities, executed the leading representatives of the student movement and sent others to the concentration camps. The events shocked Europe, which wasn`t yet at war at that time, and the 17th of November was proclaimed the International Students` Day. Again, the 17th of November as such didn`t trouble the post-1968 communist authorities, as they could place it in the context of the anti Nazi resistance. But when students decided to celebrate the day differently from the toothless ceremony prescribed by the authorities, Opletal, too, became a bit of a nuisance

It was clear that the celebrations of the International Student`s day in November 1989, which was also the 50th anniversary of Opletal`s death, would bring something unexpected. That`s why the authorities tried, in the last moment, to cancel the demonstration, although they used to encourage it in the previous years. They had been aware of the threatening explosion since January that year, which was the 20th anniversary of the death of Jan Palach. On the 16th of January, the day when he set himself on fire, the whole of Venceslas square was practically closed off and patrolled by the police, to prevent people from paying their respects to Palach`s`s difficult to picture the situation now... What`s little known, is that two other men decided to become live torches after Jan Palach. One was the eighteen year old Jan Zajic, also a student, who held a hunger strike on Venceslas square to support Palach`s demands. When they were not met by the authorities, Zajic followed Palach`s example and became - as he put it in his farewell letter - the `Torch number two`. He set himself on fire on Venceslas square on February 25, 1969 - the anniversary of the 1948 communist coup. In the message he left behind, he asked people to protest against the communist dictate.

Still less remembered is the forty-year old Evzen Plocek, who became the `Torch number three`. Plocek burnt himself in the main square of the town of Jihlava, on April 4, 1969. Between January and April 1969, 26 people set themselves on fire; seven of them died. It wasn`t always easy to establish whether their motives were as clear and their aims as noble as those of Palach, Zajic and Plocek, or whether they were tinged with personal problems. But the memory of those who decided to put their death in the service of truth, guided many Czechs through the hopeless decades of the communist dictatorship. Their selfless act shaped the Czech conscience during the twenty year period between 1969 and 1989, and changed it forever. Without them, there would almost certainly be no velvet revolution, and the events would have taken a completely different course. Let`s make sure we are always worthy of this great sacrifice.

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