Elijahu Rips

* 12 December 1948, Riga, Latvia

Someone has to prove that it is impossible to silence everyone.

Aronovich Rips, 13 April 1969

On 14 April 1969, Ilya Aronovich Rips, a twenty-year-old student of mathematics, attempted self-immolation to protest against the occupation of Czechoslovakia.

He was born on 12 December 1949 in Riga, Latvia, as Ilya Aronovich Rips, and when he immigrated to Israel in 1971, he adopted the name Eliyahu. He grew up in a Jewish family, and his father was a mathematics teacher in Riga. He was an excellent student and finished elementary school two years in advance. At high school, he participated in the International Mathematical Olympics in Moscow in 1964 and, at the age of 16, he entered the University of Latvia where he studied mathematics at the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics.

In 1968, he became very interested in the events in Czechoslovakia he learned about from international radio broadcasts. In summer 1968, he was sent as a university student to do military training in the Kaliningrad region. Later on, the army unit he served in took part in the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. The students serving in this unit were posted back to Riga. The military suppression of the Prague Spring left Rips deeply disappointed.

In January 1969, he learned about the self-immolation of Jan Palach (he was unaware of the other human torches in the Soviet Bloc). Rips gradually decided that he would protest in the same way. However, contrary to Palach, the aim of his act was not to cause mass demonstrations: “No, it was my personal protest and I did not want to provoke anything. My act originates in pure bitterness. I stopped to believe that Communism can collapse, even though it finally did.” He prepared for the protest for several days. He made a banner which stated in Russian: “I protest against the occupation of Czechoslovakia.” He also wrote a suicide note addressed to his friends.

Rips chose a symbolic place for his protest – the Freedom Monument located in the square with the same name in the centre of Riga. He came there with a bottle of petrol, a banner rolled in newspapers, and matches on 13 April 1969 at around 4 p.m. “I poured petrol on myself, opened the banner, put it on the ground, and committed self-immolation. When I unrolled the banner, there was no way back.” The by-passers managed to put out the fire very quickly, so Rips suffered only slight burns on his neck and arms. A crowd of people gathered quite quickly on the spot, and one of them was a member of the Committee for State Security who took Rips to the police station for an examination. After a few hours, the young man, suffering from burns, was sent to a psychiatric hospital and placed in a closed ward. The next day, Rips was officially arrested, accused of “anti-Soviet activity” and transferred to a prison in Riga. He was also expelled from the university.

In October 1969, Rips was declared schizophrenic and sent to a psychiatric hospital in Riga. The doctors were, however, nice to him and allowed him to be in contact with his family. Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovski sent the information about his case to the participants of the International Mathematics Congress, and Rips was, thanks to international pressure, released from the hospital in spring 1971. At the end of that year, he and his family managed to immigrate to Israel. Since January 1972, he has been living in Israel where he studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and now he holds the position of professor there. In April 2009, Eliyahu visited Prague for the first time.

Bibliography: >>>

HRADILEK, Adam: Myslet na celý svět. Rozhovor s Elijahu Ripsem, In: Paměť a dějiny, roč. 3, č. 1 (2009), s. 40–45, dostupné na stránce http://www.ustrcr.cz/data/pdf/pamet-dejiny/pad0901/040-045.pdf (ověřeno 19. 7. 2011).

HRADILEK, Adam (ed.): Za vaši a naši svobodu. Torst – ÚSTR, Praha 2010.

JANSONS, Ritvars (ed.): The Aftermath of Prague Spring nad Charter 77 in Litvia/the Baltics. The State Archives of Latvia, Vilnius 2008, dostupné na stránce http://www.itl.rtu.lv/LVA/Praga68/index.php?id=1002 (ověřeno 19. 7. 2011).

KAMIŃSKI, Łuskaz: První živá pochodeň ve východním bloku. Ryszard Siwiec (1909–1968), In: BLAŽEK, Petr – EICHLER, Patrik – JAREŠ, Jakub a kol: Jan Palach ´69. FF UK – ÚSTR – Togga, Praha 2009, s. 115–127.