A student who committed suicide by dousing himself in gasoline and setting himself on fire in political protest, Jan Palach killed himself on January 16, 1969, after the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia in what has come to be called the Prague Spring. He died three days later. The site became a place of vigil and fasting. His friend, Jan Zajic, joined him in death a month later.

This memorial on was installed in 1990, soon after the old regime was overthrown in the “Velvet Revolution.” It is in front of the National Museum on Wenceslas Square in the spot where he self-immolated.

Designed by artist Barbora Veselá and architects Čestmír Houska and Jiří Veselý, it emphasizes the horizontal – two low round mounds stick out of the pavement, connected with a cross which faces the place where the burning Jan Palach fell to the ground. On the left branch of the cross are the names of Jan Palach and Jan Zajíc with their respective dates.

The authors stated the reason why they had chosen the cross as a symbol:

“In our cultural environment, sacrifice has always been associated with the symbol of a cross. In the Christian tradition, the cross brings redemption. The meaning of our cross is similar to that of conciliation crosses. These were mostly erected in the landscape as memorials of conciliation, as a confession, and atonement for an unfortunate event as a means cope with it. However, we don’t want to soothe. It isn’t certain whether our cross is about to be erected or whether it has already been knocked down because of our indifference. Similarly, the mounds might be coming up or falling in the underground – into our subconscious, into the forgotten and suppressed history – and slowly, they can merge with the ground.”

In a letter that Palach left behind, he wrote:

“Mother, father, brother, little sister! When you read this letter, I will already be dead or close to death. I know what a severe blow my act will be to you, but don’t be angry at me. Unfortunately, we are not alone in this world. I am not doing this because I would be tired by life, on the contrary, because I cherish it too much. Hopefully my act will make life better. I know the price of life and I know it is the most precious thing. But I want a lot for you, for everyone, so I have to pay a lot. Do not lose your heart after my sacrifice, tell Jacek to study harder and Marta too. You must never accept injustice, be it in any form, my death will bind you. I am sorry that I will never see you or that, which I loved so much. Please forgive me that I fought with you so much. Do not let them make me a madman. Say hi to the boys, the river and the forest.”

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