50 years ago the extreme sacrifice of Jan Zajíc, for long time forgotten by the celebrations for Jan Palach, whose example he wanted to follow
«Citizens of the Czechoslovak Republic, since despite Jan Palach’s gesture, our lives continue to run on old tracks, I decided to shake your conscience as torch number two. May my burning enlighten the path to a free and happy Czechoslovakia! Only in this way, will I be able to continue living». Fifty years have passed, but the words of Jan Zajíc, in a farewell letter addressed to the Czechoslovak population, still bear all the strength and courage of those who chose the ultimate sacrifice. It was February 25, 1969, a month exactly had passed since the day of the funeral of Jan Palach, who had sacrificed his own life in Wenceslas Square to protest against the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the troops of the Warsaw Pact, when Zajíc, a young student died aged nineteen years old, carrying out the same suicide with flames. Same way, same place. The extreme gesture of Palach was not enough. Within a month in Czechoslovakia resignation had taken the place of the protests, with the Soviet normalization silencing any form of dissent. In this context, Zajíc’s gesture appears even more desperate, and extreme. He wanted to shake consciences, but found himself facing a wall of cynicism, power, fear, and a weakened population. Suffice it to say that the young man had sent one of the three goodbye letters to the student organization in Prague, which decided not to reveal its content because it was formulated in ‘unhappy’ terms. In short, the time of resistance had been exhausted.
But let’s rewind the tape of this story a little bit. Jan Zajíc is a young man from a Moravian provincial town, raised with a Christian education, who begins to take an interest in politics during his high school years. He participates at the student demonstrations in Prague in the months of the Spring of Alexander Dubček, and after the Soviet occupation of August 1968 refuses to emigrate, even though his father insisted that he and his older brother do so. He is in fact among the students who start a hunger strike to protest against the oppressors of Moscow. But it is only after Jan Palach’s sacrifice that Zajícbegins to open up to the idea of repeating his gesture. He is aware that normalization is beginning to take place: a climate of lethargy is settling in the country and «life continues to run on the old tracks».The great procession that crosses Pařížská street for the funeral of Palach impresses him and proves to be a decisive moment in his choice to become a laic martyr. He read the last letters left by the student before sacrificing himself and knows of that plea which prompts us into imagining other fires: «Since our people are on the verge of despair and resignation, we have decided to express our protest and to shake the conscience of the people».A few weeks later, Zajíc has made his decision, he will be the “torch number two”. On February 25th, inside a building, at number 38, a few dozen meters from the place of the first fire, Jan Zajíc ignites his clothes, soaking them with chemical products. Then he takes a dose of poison in order not to risk, as was the case with Jan Palach, agony lasting for days. In all likelihood, the poison acted with such speed that it did not leave time for him to leave the square. A human torch, yet he did not have the strength to run and died behind a door. Misfortune in tragedy, even the power of the symbolic gesture was dampened. And on the waves of Czechoslovak radio, in the hands of the regime that Zajíc wanted to accuse, his death was dismissed with a brief report. “On February 25, between 13:30 and 13:45 in Prague’s Wenceslas Square, at number 38, a young man committed suicide by setting himself on fire. According to the objects found on the spot it is JZ, a high school student from the Šumperk region.” An entirely different emphasis was found in the words of the then President of the Italian Chamber of Deputies Pertini who expressed himself, sympathetic to the gesture and moved, in the aftermath of the facts. “We express our fraternal piety to the latest voluntary victim (…) We address the young people of Prague in their passionate plea to live to fight. It is in the everyday struggle, of every hour that we validly cooperate in the liberation of our nation from every form of servitude.” A plea that came from afar, which would not receive any acknowledgement. By now it was late. Zajíc would be denied the “Palach-style” funeral that he had imagined; the burial in Prague, the large procession following the coffin. None of this. The police pressured his parents, who were forced to accept a more restricted and sober ritual in the distant Vítkov, the student’s home town. And if that were not enough, Zajíc was persecuted even after he died: for the regime the faults of the children fall upon their parents. After Jan’s death, the family faced various difficulties related to his suicide, the mother lost her post as a teacher, the father was expelled from the communist party. Zajíc’s suicide also caused political problems for the brothers, for admission to university and during their studies. And to think that before leaving them he bid farewell in the following way: “Dear parents, when you read this letter I will be dead. I am aware of the pain I am giving you, but please do not be angry with me. I am not killing myself because I am tired of living, but because I love life and with my gesture I hope I will make yours better. Do not lose your courage.” Not an easy task in the Czechoslovakia of the time. When those in power do everything to prevent the story of Zajíc from being told, like those of several other men who similarly sacrificed themselves with fire, the story is not remembered. A month later, in Jihlava, Evžen Plocek, a 39-year-old worker, did the same thing as Palach and Zajíc. Once again, the same motive, the same mode. But the censorship was even severer than in the first two cases. Of this episode at the time little or nothing transpired. Half a century later, Jan Palach is now a well-known symbol in the world, while the history of Zajíc and other “burnt” lives for the freedom of Czechoslovakia remain less known. However, much has been done in the homeland. Today his memory is preserved by the Jan Zajíc Prize Foundation in Vítkov, which awards prizes to the most deserving students of the elementary and secondary schools in the region. A cultural event of great importance in the region. In addition to this, in 1992, his story became the subject of a successful Tv film bearing his name “Jan.” Today there is a Republic in which Zajíc can finally “continue to live.” The capital of Prague named a street after him in the district of Prague 7, and also the city where he was a student, Šumperk, fifty years after his death, dedicates well-deserved honors to him. An exhibition, several theatrical performances and a ceremony all commemorate Jan, a boy who died for a “free and happy Czechoslovakia”.
By Edoardo Malvenuti