Jan Palach, the forgotten story

In 1969, in Saint Venceslaw square, a 21-years-old student, set himself on fire. His aim was to protest against the Communist repression of the Prague Spring. Nowadays, fifty years later, the majority of tourists don’t know anything about his act.

“I didn’t see the monument until you pointed it out” says a tourist, just passing near the place when Jan Palach sacrificed his life for freedom.

The Saint Venceslaw square is one of the most visited places in Prague. You can find many different shops, tourist guides and attractions as mimes and men dressed like pandas. In the centre of the square, dominates the giant statue of Venceslaw, the saint protector of the city. Crowds of tourists take pictures and have a rest in the bars along the square.

In front of the National Museum there is a bronze black cross, carved on the ground. It was sculpted by Barbora Veselá in 1990, to commemorate the self-immolation of Jan Palach. He was studying philosophy at the Charles University, when in Czechoslovakia the communist government opened a new, more democratic season. It was the so-called Prague Spring. But, when Moscow decided to repress with army this freedom, Jan went into the Saint Venceslaw square and set himself one fire. It was the 16th on January 1969. He died three days later, as a martyr. Only after the fall of the USSR his figure was rehabilitated, and the president Havel decided to put the cross monument in the right place of Jan sacrifice.

The monument is still there, remembering the heroical death of a young student. But time has passed, and the memory of Jan Palach was destroyed. “I thought it was Gagarin” says Raya, a Muslim woman, indicating the black cross on the ground, confusing him with the Russian astronaut. “I don’t really know what it is – adds Raùl, from Mexico – I arrived in Prague only a few days ago”.

A lot of tourists walk nearby the monument, at any time of the day. Someone looks careless, someone stops for a few seconds. No one just comes to see the monument, no guide brings here tourists. A few meters from the bronze cross there is one of the most noisy and busy streets in Prague: the Wilsonova.

To understand better why no one knows anything about the story of Jan Palach, we try to ask to some elderly person. Mark is 79 years old. He comes from England. At the time of Prague Spring he was 19, almost the same age of Jan. He says that he remember the communist invasion of Czechoslovakia, the pictures of the tank in Prague. But he can’t remember anything concerning the “human torches” and the immolation of Jan Palach. “Now, seeing the monument, I seem to recall something” he exclaims “but I didn’t know that it was here”. Finally, a man knows the whole story of Jan. He comes from Chicago and he claims that tourists guide only speaks about Nazi’s occupation. But they don’t tell anything about the Russian invasion. “I think that he [Jan] should have a better monument. It should be higher, cause people just walk through the square and ignore the importance of such a little cross hidden in the floor”.

But, at the contrary, the author and the architects decided to do something new and special for the memorial of Jan Palach., “In contrast to the vast majority of memorials, the authors emphasized the horizontal – two low round mounds stick out of the pavement; these mounds are connected together with a cross […] The cross faces the place where the burning Jan Palach fell to the ground” explains the Charles University Multimedia Project “Jan Palach”.

The Jan Palach memorial is, therefore, was built in order to reflect the personality of an ordinary person, who gave his life for what he believed in. The Czech philosopher Václav Cílek says that “hardly anyone knows this memorial. Many people pass by without even noticing it.” Then, he explains the meanings of the memorial: “[…] is unobtrusive, not actually suited for remembrance celebrations. It is not heroic; it is just a private reminder.” Not heroic. Just as Jan Palach was.


Leave a Reply