“Palach was a quiet and rational person; he seemed like a philosopher – later we found out that he had actually wanted to study philosophy. He was serious-minded. He studied in order to understand things profoundly, not to excel in exams. He was always willing to help other people with their studies or with problems related to school. He primarily took part in debates connected with studies or political problems.”
Pavel Bursa, Palach’s schoolmate from the University of Economics, Prague; 28 January 1969
After secondary school, Jan Palach wanted to study history at the Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague. Although he passed the entrance exams successfully, he was not admitted due to an excessive number of applicants. He thus enrolled in the University of Economics to study agricultural economics. Although it was not the field of study he had dreamt of, in two years at this university, he passed sixteen exams and was active in student life. In the summer of 1967, he took part in a business trip to Kazakhstan, and a year later, he was the main organizer of temporary summer work near Leningrad. In the spring of 1968, he helped to found the Academic Council of Students at the University of Economics.
When studying at the University of Economics, Jan Palach experienced the Prague Spring, which was a radical turning point in his life. He had been interested in politics before (for example, he distributed various typescripts to his friends – a letter from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, texts by Ludvík Vaculík (a Czech samizdat writer), transcripts of speeches given at writers’ seminars, etc.); however, in 1968 his interest in public affairs escalated. In the spring of 1968, he took part in many discussions and meetings.
Jan Palach spent most of the summer of 1968 on a trip to the Soviet Union, returning on 17 August 1968. At home, encouraging news was waiting for him – an announcement that his request to transfer to the Faculty of Arts had been approved. While in Všetaty, he experienced the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact troops from five countries. On 21 August 1968, he went to Prague where he spent a few days. After his return to Všetaty, he and his friends wrote anti-occupation inscriptions on the streets.
At the beginning of October 1968, Jan Palach had first visited a Western country. In return for his organizing the summer job in the Soviet Union, he got a trip to France where he helped to collect grapes. He returned to Czechoslovakia on 19 October 1968 – a day after the National Assembly approved the agreement on temporary deployment of the Soviet army.