Jan Zajíc

* 3July 1950, Vítkov, Czech Republic

† 25 February 1969, Prague, Czech Republic

“Capricious afternoon. /More than Prometheus is being carried around. /Eyes are a broken dam. / I am weeping – in the rain – on the pavement. / For everything. / For the twenty-one years, / for the spring blossom the soldiers killed / for the person who refused to go back, / (…) It is January 1969.”

Jan Zajíc, from a poem To Jan Palach

On 25 February 1969, Jan Zajíc, a student from a technical school in Šumperk, Northern Moravia, Czech Republic, doused himself with petrol and set himself on fire in one of the houses on Wenceslas square in Prague. He consciously followed up on the self-immolation of Jan Palach a month earlier. He failed to run out of the building and died on the spot.

The parents of Jan Zajíc came to Vítkov, a town of several thousand inhabitants in Northern Moravia, as displaced persons after the Second World War. His father was a salesman and his mother became a teacher in the local primary school. Jan Zajíc was their second child – he had an older brother and a younger sister. Family documents tell us that “his father was rather liberal whereas his mother was bringing up the children according to the traditional Christian education.” Zajíc was even baptised.

Jan Zajíc finished elementary school in Vítkov, and in 1965, he started to study at a technical school in Šumperk. The choice of a vocational school was driven by his father’s illness – the family wanted the young man to be able to earn his living as soon as possible. The January 1968 came two years later bringing the final phase of the Prague spring. Jan Zajíc, as well as his schoolmates, were interested in the political situation and took part in public debates. According to witnesses, he excelled over other students in political knowledge. After the Soviet invasion on 21 August 1968, he joined the resistance movement against the occupation forces in Vítkov. He refused to emigrate, even though his father proposed it both to him and his brother.

After Jan Palach’s death, Zajíc left Šumperk for Prague to participate in a hunger strike undertook by a group of students and young people. The strike took place under the ramp of the National Museum on Wenceslas Square. On 25 January, he and his classmates from Šumperk watched the Palach’s funeral procession in Pařížská Street. The few days stay in Prague would become for Zajíc, a young person from a rather marginal part of the country, the main impulse to start thinking about suicide with a political motive. Zajíc expected that another university student would, on the basis of the declaration in Palach’s letter, decide to commit suicide, but no one did, and so he himself started getting ready for this act about a week in advance.

He left for Prague in the morning of 25 February 1969. Even though three of his classmates were travelling with him for different reasons and the police knew about his intention, no one succeeded in preventing Zajíc from committing suicide. At about 1:30 p.m., he doused himself with petrol and set himself on fire in house number 39 on Wenceslas square in Prague. He died directly on the spot after having failed to run out of the building.

He left there a list of his fictitious followers and a declaration called “Citizens of the Czechoslovak Republic”: “In spite of what Jan Palach did, our life is returning to its old ways” he writes, “and that is why I decided to wake up your consciousness as torch number 2. I am not doing it to be mourned, to become famous or because I am crazy. I decided to immolate myself so that you will really pull yourselves together and will not let yourselves be oppressed by several dictators! Remember: ‘When the water level rises above someone’s head, it is not important how high it is’ (...) Let my torch light the way towards the free and happy Czechoslovakia. (...) Only through this I will still be alive.”

The funeral of Jan Zajíc was held in Vítkov on Saturday 2 March 1969. About eight thousand people came to honour his memory. The response to his act is much lower than in the case of Jan Palach. Yet the general public was aware both of Zajíc’s suicide and of its political motives. After Zajíc’s death, his family went through many difficulties caused by his suicide. His mother lost her job at school, and his father was expelled from the Communist party. Zajíc’s suicide also brought about political problems both for his brother and sister at university entrance exams and during their studies.

Today, Zajíc’s memory is commemorated mainly by the Jan Zajíc Prize Endowment Fund in Vítkov. It grants prizes to the most successful elementary and high school students of the region. The prize granting is an important cultural event in the region. In 1991, Jan Zajíc was posthumously awarded the Order of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, First Rank. One year later, his story was made into a famous television film called Jan.

Bibliography: >>>

CIKRYT, Václav: Jan Zajíc 3. 7. 1950–25. 2. 1969, Šumperk 1991.

EICHLER, Patrik: Následovníci Jana Palacha. Jan Zajíc (1950–1969) a Evžen Plocek (1929–1969), In: BLAŽEK, Petr – EICHLER, Patrik – JAREŠ, Jakub a kol: Jan Palach ´69. FF UK – ÚSTR – Togga, Praha 2009, s. 90–114.

EICHLER, Patrik: Následovníci Jana Palacha. Jan Zajíc (1950–1969) a Evžen Plocek (1929–1969), In: BLAŽEK, Petr – EICHLER, Patrik – JAREŠ, Jakub a kol: Jan Palach ´69. FF UK – ÚSTR – Togga, Praha 2009, s. 90–114.

LEDERER, Jiří: Jan Palach. Zpráva o životě, činu a smrti českého studenta, In: BLAŽEK, Petr – EICHLER, Patrik – JAREŠ, Jakub a kol: Jan Palach ´69. FF UK – ÚSTR – Togga, Praha 2009, s. 231–345.

MAZÁČOVÁ, Barbara a kol.: Ve jménu života Vašeho…, Karolinum, Praha 1990.

SADECKÝ, Josef (ed.): Živé pochodně, Konfrontation, Zürich 1980.

VALOUCH, František: Básnický fragment Jana Zajíce, Severní Morava. Vlastivědný sborník, sv. 60, Šumperk 1990, s. 57–58.