Until recently Zdeněk Toman was an obscure name to many Czechs. However, his incredible story has now reached a broad audience thanks to an eponymous film about him that was released last autumn. Just this week Toman was nominated for 13 prizes at the upcoming annual Czech Lion awards. I spoke to Martin Šmok, the man who originally discovered his extraordinary story.
Otakar Dušek is a designer and artist with a passion for history and historical justice – something he hopes to instil in his students at the prestigious Václav Hollar School of Art in Prague. That passion helped propel him from a teacher of graphic design, fonts and computer graphics to world renowned medallist – an artist specialising in commemorative medals.
In a world still ruled by men, Hana Podolská –later dubbed the Czech “Coco Chanel” –fulfilled her childhood dream – she married a man who loved her passionately and built up a family fashion empire. Her clothes and fashion advice was sought after by the film stars of the First Republic, the wives of rich entrepreneurs and the country’s first ladies. But the communist take-over robbed her of everything she had worked hard to achieve and she died abandoned and forgotten in the harsh normalization years following the crushing of the Prague Spring.
A great many events have been held in the Czech Republic on Wednesday commemorating the 50th anniversary of the self-immolation of Jan Palach. At the launch of an exhibition about the student martyr at the top of Prague’s Wenceslas Square, one of the organisers discussed Palach’s legacy – and the high level of interest in him today.
It is not just Czechs who are currently remembering Jan Palach’s radical protest in January 1969 and the impact his sacrifice helped create. The British ambassador to the Czech Republic, Nick Archer, has had a painting by a UK artist – created right after Palach’s death – installed at his country’s historic embassy building in Prague. He explains the background to the acquisition.
Fifty years ago on January 16, a young Czech university student named Jan Palach doused himself in petrol and set himself alight at the top of Prague’s Wenceslas Square. Three days after staging this desperate attempt to rouse a demoralised Czechoslovakia in the face of Soviet occupation, he died in a burns clinic. Though his immediate political goals failed, Jan Palach inspired and steeled the resolve of countless others to fight for freedom during the two decades of ‘Normalisation’ that followed the crushing of the Prague Spring.
The 20th anniversary of Jan Palach’s self-immolation brought many thousands onto the streets for protests that had no precedent in communist Czechoslovakia. Palach Week, as it became known, began on January 15 1989 and saw running battles between demonstrators and riot police. Hundreds were arrested, among them top dissidents such as Václav Havel, and the events are seen by some as foreshadowing the Velvet Revolution, 10 months later.
Today, nine out of 10 Czech children are learning English at school. It seems strange that for decades English was considered the language of the enemy – first by Nazi Germany, which occupied present-day Czechia; and later by the communist totalitarian regime. This is the story of an extraordinary man for whom English was a lifelong passion no matter who was in power.
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”.