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Jan Palach – The Human Torch Number 1

Jan Palach – the Human Torch Number 1

On January 16 2021 we commemorate 52 years since the death of Jan Palach.

Jan Palach was a student at College of Philosophy at the Charles University in Prague who burned himself in protest against the Soviet occupation and the situation in society in January 1969. His funeral was one of the last manifestations against the communist regime before the so-called normalization started. Why did he burn himself? And what is his legacy?

His classmates and teachers described him in their memories as a sensitive and thoughtful young man who was interested in political events. He was happy to see all the positive changes that the Prague Spring had brought since January 1968. Unfortunately this great time ended in August 1968 with the Soviet occupation and the beginning of the so-called Normalization. Jan was very disappointed. It bothered him how quickly the people got used to the new situation and stopped fighting.

The place where Jan Palach burned himself.


On January 16 1969 around 11am Jan Palach left the student dormitories towards the center of Prague. Along the way he bought two plastic containers which he had filled with gasoline. Shortly before 2.30pm he arrived at the fountain below the National Museum on Wenceslas Square.
Here he took off his coat, pulled an ether bottle from his briefcase, opened it and sniffed at it. Then he put everything down, spilled gasoline and set himself on fire. Then he jumped over the railings, ran through the top of the square and fell to the ground in the middle of the road. Here the witnesses extinguished him with their coats.

He suffered burns to 80% of the body. Shortly after being transported to the hospital he kept communicating and trying to explain what had happened. A letter appeared in his briefcase explaining that it was not a mad act but that he wanted to wake the nation from the passivity into which it had fallen after the Soviet occupation.

Jan Palach died on January 19 at 3.30pm.

Immediately after his death the Czech sculptor Olbram Zoubek decided to create a death mask of Jan Palach to emphasize and preserve his message.
He got to the hospital the same day when Palach died, thanks to his friend, who was a doctor from the burns department and secretly cast a death mask from Jan Palach’s face. He was afraid that the communists could destroy the work so he made several copies which he had hidden in various places.
This sculpture is now on display next to the Faculty of Philosophy in Prague where Palach studied.

Funeral of Jan Palach – January 25th 1969

Jan Palach’s funeral became a silent manifestation of people for freedom. Thousands of people attended. Many people came to say goodbye to the cemetery but a huge number of people were also in the streets where the funeral took place. Even though this act was downplayed by the Communists and Palach was called a naive student or madman most of the nation remembers him as a hero.

Palach was not the only one, followed by others not only in Czechoslovakia but in other communist countries. Nevertheless, this regime lasted until 1989.


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