Jaroslaw Zajic’s brother Jan set himself on fire in Prague.

Jaroslaw Zajic (1947), Czechoslovakia, 25 February 1969

He had taken the train to the capital, carrying a suitcase full of half-litre bottles with a chemical cleaner. They say he was alone when he set himself on fire. Before he could reach the famous Wenceslas Square, he collapsed.

My brother was only eighteen. At an even earlier age, he had learned to be on his guard at all times. He was used to it now: you never discussed what you heard on Radio Free Europe, which we listened to at home. However, at the start of 1968, everything that had been previously banned was suddenly permitted. Of course, we took advantage of this! Jan wrote poems and pamphlets, attended every debate he could find and read books that had been banned up to that time. He was euphoric, just like the rest of the country.

Even when the tanks of the Warsaw Pact occupied Prague in August, my brother remained hopeful: he had seen the strength of the reform movement, which would surely not be daunted easily. At school, he plotted student protests against the oppressor with classmates. But more and more people backed out. They were afraid. In Jan’s eyes, they reconciled themselves to the situation. He still wanted change, but there were no groups left to join.

In January 1969, the student Jan Palach set himself on fire in protest against the occupation. That act jolted the country awake again. My parents and I felt that such a deed didn’t solve anything, but my brother was gripped by its effects. Without telling us, he went to Prague to join the hunger strike of students he didn’t know. Those days in Prague affected him deeply. Thousands of people took to the streets for Palach’s funeral. I think that that convinced him that it was possible: organising a massive protest, standing together for something.

A few weeks later, nothing remained of that protest. We knew that Jan was sad about it, but that he would do this

He left us a letter. ‘Hopefully, my act will make your lives better,’ he wrote. It wasn’t a protest against the repression, as is sometimes said. It was a protest against passivity. He believed the people needed one more spark. ”


The Prague Spring

At the start of 1968, Alexander Dubček, who advocated ‘socialism with a human face’, came to power in Czechoslovakia. He abolished censorship and wanted to make the country more liberal and democratic. This lead to the Prague Spring: a wave of nonviolent civic activism. On 20 Augustus, tanks of the Warsaw Pact put an end to this. Almost all reforms were reversed.
In an extreme form of protest, student Jan Palach put himself on fire in Prague on 16 January 1969. He called himself ‘torch number one’. One month later, Jan Zajic wanted to follow his example in the same square, holding a flaming ladle as a torch in his hand. However, he collapsed, his body burning, before he could even reach the square.