The name Jan Palach invariably comes to mind any time I think of the August, 1968 Soviet invasion and subsequent occupation of Czechoslovakia. Palach was a 21 year-old university student who decided to protest the occupation of his country by committing suicide by self-immolation on January 19, 1969. Several other young Czechs followed Palach’s example, to little avail. Soviet troops did not leave the country until June, 1991.
What is not well known – I certainly did not know until today – is that Jan Palach was not the first to protest the invasion by self-immolation. The Czech Internet daily iDNES points out that the first such protest took place four months earlier, in Poland. The protester was Ryszard Siwiec, a modest Polish accountant and former member of the Polish Home Army that fought against the Nazis throughout World War Two.
Siwiec was so deeply troubled by the invasion itself and by participation of Polish Army units in it that he chose to commit public suicide in the manner of Buddhist monks in Vietnam. He did so on September 8, 1968, during the national harvest festival in a Warsaw stadium.
Despite the public nature of the protest, the Polish government was able to suppress the incident immediately, billing it as the result of smoking while drinking irresponsibly or even as a case of spontaneous combustion. Later, Siwiec was portrayed as a mental case. In any case, few people made the connection between his death and the invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Siwiec’s protest suicide remained practically unknown until after the fall of communism, when a seven-second movie footage was discovered in the archives of the Polish Film Chronicle. Since then, more documentation was unearthed, and his story was told in an award-winning documentary film. As Siwiec’s fame spread, he was given widespread recognition and was posthumously awarded a number of Czech, Slovak and Polish decorations.
A memorial to Siwiec was erected in Prague as well as in Warsaw.
The postscript on the Warsaw memorial plaque reads: “He gave his life for freedom.”
And so he did.
(images courtesy of Wikipedia)