Fifty years ago this January, Jan Palach doused himself in petrol and set himself alight on Wenceslas Square to protest the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia. Prague City Hall is now looking to buy the former hospital where he died – slated to become a luxury hotel – and turn it into a “museum of totalitarianism”.
In death, Jan Palach, a 20-year-old Charles University student, would become known as “the conscience of the nation”. Some 200,000 people attended his funeral to both honour his courage and voice their own contempt for the new hard-line, pro-Moscow regime.
The late Jaroslava Moserová, a doctor who became an ambassador after the Velvet Revolution, was on duty at the Legerova Street hospital, specialising in burns and plastic surgery, were he died in agony.
“I was one of those who did the first aid, who cleaned the burned areas. Of course I shall never forget it nor the days that followed. We were all very unhappy. Not only over his fate, but over the fate of the nation – because he did it for the nation.”
“He kept repeating – ‘Please tell everyone why I did it. Please tell everyone.’ The reason why he did it was quite clear. It wasn’t so much in opposition to the Soviet occupation but the demoralisation which was setting in; that people were not only giving up, but giving in.”
The Communists tried to erase any traces of Jan Palach from public spaces. In 1973, for example, fearful that his grave was becoming a shrine, they ordered the secret police to destroy it.
Now, Prague City Hall is looking to save what it can of those traces – from capitalism, if you will.
What’s more, Jan Palach is not the only Czech martyr to have died at the old hospital on Legerova Street. So too did Josef Toufar, a parish priest savagely beaten and tortured by the secret police into “confessing” to having staged the so-called “Číhošť Miracle”.
Prague City Councillor Petr Zeman, founder of a wider initiative to save dilapidated buildings and convert them into public spaces, has been instrumental in pushing the city to buy the site. Standing outside the building, he laments plans to convert it into a luxury hotel.
“It should be something other than just a hotel – not necessarily housing only a Museum of Totalitarianism, but at least the operating theatre or rooms where [Palach and] Josef Toufar died should be preserved. I’d love to see it become something like a creative cultural centre.”
A make-shift and unofficial memorial to the two men, in the form of stark black-and-white portraits of them, has adorned the Legerova Street building since 2014.
But district authorities say the location, where traffic is especially heavy, makes it inappropriate for a museum. And Prague’s mayor has said the city will abandon plans to buy the building if the sale price is “excessive”.
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