Thursday, January 22, 2009

A Martyr Remembered

The memorial at the top of Prague's Wenceslas Square, in front of the National Museum, where Palach committed the ultimate act of self-sacrifice.

On January 16, 1969, a 20-year-old Czech student named Jan Palach (pictured) walked to the top of Prague's Wenceslas Square, emptied a can of gasoline over himself, and set himself on fire.

He died three days later in hospital.

Palach's self-immolation was an act of protest against the complacency of his countrymen in the face of the August 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Others followed his example -- student Jan Zajíc in February of 1969, in the same place, and 39-year-old Evžen Plocek in the Czech city of Jihlava in April.

Acts of self-sacrifice that are difficult to comprehend, but which continue to resonate 40 years later. Their acts of martyrdom were designed to inspire, to motivate, not to maim or kill.

As a colleague of mine, Luke Allnutt, wrote so eloquently in a piece in "The Wall Street Journal" this month, "[Palach's] protest...was true to the original meaning of martyrdom -- a self-sacrifice designed to save others, not to kill them. And so his legacy still endures, remarkable not just for its altruism, but for its spiritual and intellectual significance."

On the 40th anniversary of Palach's self-immolation, many in Prague stopped to lay flowers and light candles at a memorial to Palach and Zajíc at the top of Wenceslas Square.

Or simply stopped and paid silent tribute.

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