Feb 25, 2024

55th Anniversary of the Death of Student Jan Zajíc

On February 25, 1969, Jan Zajíc, an 18-year-old student from Šumperk set himself on fire to protest against growing public apathy to the Soviet led-invasion in 1968.

Zajíc, who felt that further protest actions were needed, committed the act on the 21st anniversary of the communist putsch in 1948. He had several letters with him urging the people to fight against the Soviet military occupation of Czechoslovakia.

He left for Prague on the morning of 25 February 1969. Even though three of his classmates were traveling with him for different reasons and the police knew about his intention, no one succeeded in preventing Zajíc from committing suicide.

At about 1:30 p.m., he doused himself with petrol and set himself on fire in house number 39 on Wenceslas Square in Prague. He died directly on the spot after having failed to run out of the building.

He left there a list of his fictitious followers and a declaration called “Citizens of the Czechoslovak Republic”: “Despite what Jan Palach did, our life is returning to its old ways” he writes, “and that is why I decided to wake up your consciousness as torch number 2. I am not doing it to be mourned, to become famous, or because I am crazy. I decided to immolate myself so that you will pull yourselves together and will not let yourselves be oppressed by several dictators! Remember: ‘When the water level rises above someone’s head, it is not important how high it is’ (…) Let my torch light the way towards a free and happy Czechoslovakia. (…) Only through this, I will still be alive.”

However, his self-immolation was not intended to be the last. He had also tried to persuade some of his friends to do the same.

One of them, a third-year student from the same school was supposed to become torch number three. However, she was stopped before the act by the police and dissuaded by her parents and psychiatrists.

The funeral of Jan Zajíc was held in Vítkov on Saturday 2 March 1969. About eight thousand people came to honour his memory. The response to his act is much lower than in the case of Jan Palach. Yet the general public was aware both of Zajíc’s suicide and of its political motives.

After Zajíc’s death, his family went through many difficulties caused by his suicide. His mother lost her job at school, and his father was expelled from the Communist party. Zajíc’s suicide also brought about political problems both for his brother and sister at university entrance exams and during their studies.

Today, Zajíc’s memory is commemorated mainly by the Jan Zajíc Prize Endowment Fund in Vítkov. It grants prizes to the region’s most successful elementary and high school students. The prize granting is an important cultural event in the region.

In 1991, Jan Zajíc was posthumously awarded the Order of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, First Rank. One year later, his story was made into a famous television film called Jan.

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