Prague street renamed in honour of Polish "human torch" against Soviet invasion

13-02-2009

A street in Prague has been renamed in honour of a Polish man who committed suicide in protest at the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Ryszard Siwiec set himself alight in a Warsaw stadium in September 1968, and died four days later. His protest was long covered up by the communist authorities, and only recently have details begun to emerge.

A small crowd gathered in Prague's Žižkov district on Friday, as a small piece of cloth was pulled off the newly-printed street sign bearing the name Siwiecova. The ceremony was attended by Ryszard Siwiec's oldest son Wit Siwiec, who told the crowd he was thankful to the people of the Czech Republic for paying tribute to his father by becoming the first country to rename a street after him. He said he hoped his own country – Poland – would now follow suit.

On September the 8th, 1968, Ryszard Siwiec, a 59-year-old accountant and former Home Army soldier, decided to take his own life in protest at Poland's participation in the recent invasion of Czechoslovakia. He did so in front of 100,000 people who'd gathered for the annual harvest festival in a Warsaw stadium, including Poland's communist leadership and many foreign diplomats.

Recently uncovered footage shows the crowd suddenly parting around a man engulfed in flames, shouting and flapping his arms up and down. The flames are eventually extinguished and he is led away by the police, his clothes burnt to shreds and his skin blackened.

Photo: CTKPhoto: CTK His protest was covered up by the communists, his farewell letter to his family and a tape-recorded message seized by the secret police. But with the fall of communism historians have been able to find out more about him and many others who protested in 1968. Pavel Žáček is the director of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarianism, now situated in Siwiecova street.

“After forty years we could know what happened, what he did, how he reacted to the fact that the Polish Army had taken part in the invasion and occupation of Czechoslovakia. It was his personal act to send a message to the Communist nomenclature, the Communist regime.”

Other guests, including Poland's ambassador and the deputy head of the Senate, paid tribute to Ryszard Siwiec, saying his cry for justice had not gone unheard. News of his death was long kept secret, but was circulated in Czechoslovakia after a report broadcast in January 1969 on Radio Free Europe. That broadcast came after the Czech student Jan Palach chose self-immolation to make his own protest against the apathy in Czechoslovak society following the invasion. It's not clear whether Palach himself had heard about Siwiec's terrible act of self-sacrifice, and whether he was inspired by it.

13-02-2009