Monday, January 17, 2011

Jan Palach Martyr Patriot

 Jan Palach

Hi Everyone,
Have you ever heard of Jan Palach?  Yesterday was the 42nd anniversary of the day Jan Palach immolated himself in protest of the Soviet invasion and occupation of then Czechoslovakia.   I first became acquainted with Palach’s story after moving to the Czech Republic.  Jiří told me about  Palach and I was at once horrified and amazed.  Jan Palach was a young student at Charles University back in 1968.  At that time, Czechs and Slovaks were united in one country, Czechoslovakia, and were enjoying a time known as The Prague Spring. 

The Prague Spring is a mark in history when the communists of Czechoslovakia began loosening their stranglehold on the country.  Czechs and Slovaks were enjoying a time of revival and liberalization and reform.  It was a time of hope and light brought about by changes initiated by then General Secretary of the Communist Party Dubček.  This liberalization came in the form of freedom of the press, freedom of speech, while also ushering in a better economic plan to help revive the country’s spirit.  

The Prague Spring lasted only a few short months before August 1968 when the Soviets, at the head of a Warsaw Pact army, invaded and occupied Czechoslovakia.  Dubček asked Czechs and Slovaks not to protest in order to avoid a bloody invasion.  Even so, Czechs did protest in silent ways—by pointing sign posts in the wrong directions to confuse invading troops, or completely painted over sign posts, and many small villages renamed themselves so as to add even more confusion.  Even so, the invading army was able to find its way to Prague and clamp down on the Czechs and Slovaks.  There are many pictures of the Soviets and Warsaw Pact troops marching into Prague.  One iconic picture shows a young man standing in front of a tank trying stop the troops.  I can’t even begin to imagine how Czechs felt in that time.  I’ve never seen a tank invading my city or troops invading my home.  

 Invasion of Prague 1968

During the occupation many Czechs and Slovaks were demoralized, and yet the desire for democracy and liberalization still burned.  People fought against the occupation with riots, protests and limited acts of violence.  But after a time, the Czechs and Slovaks were brought under subjection and The Prague Spring was ended. 

One young man, Jan Palach, was very unhappy at the apparent apathy shown by Czechs and Slovaks in that time.  He decided it was necessary to rouse people from their complacency with a horrific act.  Palach decided to make a sacrifice of his own life in order to raise public outcry against the Soviet occupation.  On January 16, 1969, Palach stood on Václavské Náměstí (Wenceslas Square), in front of the National Museum and doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire.  Bystanders watched in horror as Palach ran across the square burning as a human torch.  Palach was saved when a bystander threw him to the ground and smothered the flames with his coat, but it was too late.  Palach suffered third-degree burns over 85% of his body, and lived another three days in agony before he died on January 19, 1969.  Palach was part of a group of young students who had committed to self-immolation as a form of protest to rile the Czech and Slovak people to protest against the occupation.  Most of the rest of this suicide group did not follow the fiery death of Palach.  From his hospital bed Palach had pleaded with the this suicide group not to go forward with this type of protest. 

 Jan Palach's death mask.

Palach’s funeral became a day of national protest for Czechs and Slovaks.  Thousands of people attended his funeral.  Soviet leaders were afraid Palach’s grave might become a national shrine, and exhumed his body, cremated it and reburied him in his home village.  For a  time Palach’s death did stir up the people, but eventually a period of “normalization” managed to take hold, and no significant protest took place, until 1989 brought the twentieth anniversary of Palach’s death and the Velvet Revolution.  Students at the protests and riots in 1989 were moved and inspired by Palach’s sacrifice.  They were emboldened, by his example, to move on with further protest which finally brought all Czechs and Slovaks into the protest against Soviets, and the subsequent overthrow of their occupation of Czechoslovakia.  

 Memorial to Jan Palach and Jan Zajic

Today, there is some controversy over whether Jan Palach accomplished much with his sacrifice.  Some say yes, he did, while others believe he could have done more if he had gone on living.  It is difficult to judge Palach’s actions, but we should consider the situation, and ponder what would we do in the same situation.  Would we be inspired enough to such an act as Palach’s to save our own country?  This is not a simple question, but one that takes deep thought and consideration.   Palach is remembered here every year, and many people place flowers on Palach’s memorial on Václavské Náměstí—the spot where he set himself on fire.    

I am moved by Palach’s story, and personally believe he did accomplish some good with his terrible sacrifice.  I do not advocate suicide missions or terrorism of any kind.  What Palach did was not terrorism--his death was not meant to hurt anyone but himself.  He committed this act to “wake up” his fellow countrymen.  And he didn’t hurt or kill any innocents.  This is a heroic act, though still terrible and hard to imagine.  A young man, in the prime of life, took his own life so that others might be moved to throw off the chains of Soviet rule and once again experience freedom and revival.

I am not advocating this type of protest by writing this post.   The purpose of this post was to relate to this story to readers (who live outside of the Czech Republic) and who may have never heard of Jan Palach. 

I believe in the sanctity of all Life, and believe we should not take our own lives or that of another.  The situation of Czechoslovakia during the invasion and occupation was a time of great hardship for the country, and young people felt the need for some type of protest.  Thus did it come about that Jan Palach decided to give his own life for this purpose.  He endured an agonizing three days of unbearable pain and suffering before he died,  and during the last days of his life pleaded with the others not to protest in this manner. 

That's all for today. 

God bless,

January 19, 2011:  Note:  Here's a wonderful news story,, about how Czechs remember Jan Palach and his sacrifice:  Czechs Honor Student Who Died to Rouse the Nation

Image credit:  Wikipedia

(c) 2011 by Sher Vacik, all rights reserved.


Unknown said...

I just stumbled on your blog and found it very enjoyable! It's always interesting to read how Americans perceive the life in Czech Republic and how they adapt to the various challenges it offers. I was born Czech and I emigrated when I was 18 years and three days old in 1969. I remember Jan Palach well - in fact I attended his funeral along with thousands of other students. Since 1969 I've lived in the UK for number of years and since 93 I've lived in Southern California with some time in Nevada and Arizona. I do not have a blog per se, but my web site is where I post stories dealing with cultural differences and various national oddities in the countries I know well, mostly with a humorous angle.

Sher said...

@Karel: Welcome to Czech Off the Beaten Path! It's funny to hear you live in the US--we've done an exchange of homelands, with me being in Czech :0)

Thanks for your positive comments about my blog. It's great to hear when readers find something they can relate too and enjoy.

I'll be sure to stop by your blog, too! It sounds like it might be a nice balance to Czech Off the Beaten Path!

Thanks so much for stopping by!

Have a great day,
Sher :0)

Sher said...

@Karel: This is a PS to your comment!

Jan Palach is a subject that hit me pretty hard when I first moved here. I was too young to remember this being reported in the US. I'm sure it was, but we were also in the midst of some very turmoil at the time. So, when I moved here and heard about Jan Palach's sacrifice, it hit me very hard--that a such a young man would sacrifice himself in a horrendous way to try to "wake" the Czechs up and get them to act against the regime.

I've seen the videos of his suffering in the hospital--that one famous interview before he died. Watching that was very hard.

I admire what Jan Palach did, and believe he did accomplish his mission, for he is remembered by Czechs every year, and stands as a permanent reminder to stand up against totalitarianism.

Have a great day,
Sher :0)

Unknown said...

It is hard to describe how I feel about Jan Palach and his self immolation. I still remember the deep disappointment and anger when the Prague Spring ended and the Soviets arrived with their tanks. And one can wish that his extreme act of desperation would have had some effect, someone change... But it did not and ultimately it was just a waste of a young life. So it's difficult to feel thankful for what he did "for us" as the price was was just too high. Personally, it was in January of 1969 that the seed was planted that I would escape and maybe Jan Palach contributed to that. I just know that within five months I managed to get both the entry visa into UK AND an exit visa to leave Czechoslovakia. And I found the money to buy a plane ticket...not a mean feat in retrospect.
I am coming to Prague in late May, first time after three years. It will be the usual round of school reunions. It's an odd sensation...when in Prague I feel 50% native and 50% tourist. Exactly! I belong yet I don't. This time I'd like to visit places that are not on the usual tourist schedule. Jachymov, the Czech hard labor mines/prisons, Oscar Schindlers factory in Brnenec and either Auschwitz or Gross Rosen in Poland. Cesky Krumlov might be more fun, but I can do that too...take care

Sher said...

Thank you for sharing your thoughts and insights about Palach's sacrifice and your subsequent escape. It's hard to imagine what it must have been like for you to leave as you did. However, it sounds like you've done very well.

I hope you have a great visit when you come to Prague! The places you've mentioned sound very interesting. I've not had a chance to visit, but will probably try to this summer. I especially love places that are "off the beaten path."

I know exactly what you mean when you say it is strange to come back to your homeland. You feel 50% native and 50% tourist. This is exactly how it feels when I go back to visit my family in the US. I feel like a foreigner in my own country :0) It is a feeling that I never thought to have! But living overseas, away from your home country, has that affect.

Anyway, I hope you have a great time when you come back to visit the Czech Republic!

Have a great day,
Sher :0)