“I am not doing this to be mourned, nor to be famous, and I am not out of my mind, either. With this act, I want to give you the courage to finally resist letting yourself be pushed around by a few dictators!”
Jan Zajíc in his statement addressed to the people of Czechoslovakia, February 1969
Based on the available witness statements and archive materials, the group mentioned in Jan Palach’s suicide letter may not have existed at all. However, at the beginning of 1969, he was imitated by an array of other people who had not even known him personally. Most of his followers adopted his form of protest, but not his strict political motives.
From 16 to 31 January 1969, a relevant Czech police report lists ten cases of self-immolation in Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia; two of them (Jan Palach and Josef Hlavatý) ended in death. According to the study carried out in 1969 by Milan Černý analyzing applicable Czech police data, there were 29 self-immolation attempts in Czechoslovakia from January to April 1969, but only three of them (Jan Palach, Jan Zajíc and Evžen Plocek) were “undoubtedly altruistic in nature and motivated politically”.
On 20 January 1969, Josef Hlavatý (25, blue-collar worker), set himself on fire in Plzeň and died five days later. He told the doctor that he did it in protest against the Soviet occupation. Furthermore, both Miroslav Malinka (blue-collar worker, 22 January 1969 in Brno) and Jan Bereš (16, apprentice, 26 January 1969 in Cheb) made direct references to Jan Palach. Josef Hlavatý, Miroslav Malinka, and Jan Bereš were nevertheless facing their own personal or family problems, and their suicide attempts were, therefore, denounced by the general public.
On 21 January 1969, Jan Zajíc (18, student of a technical secondary school in Šumperk) joined a hunger strike in support of Jan Palach’s demands that was staged in front of the National Museum in Prague. After Palach’s funeral, he returned to his hometown, Vítkov (Moravian-Silesian Region), but the tense atmosphere in Prague had made a deep impression on him. He mentioned the possibility of his Palach-like self-immolation if nobody else would do it for the first time during the hunger strike, but his co-strikers talked him out of it. The idea came to him again after his return to school in Šumperk (Olomouc Region). He did not conceal his intention, and even though his friends warned him not to do it, he had made up his mind. On 25 February 1969, Jan Zajíc and his friend Jan Nykl took a train to Prague, and a few hours later, he set himself on fire in the hallway of house No. 39, Wenceslas Square. He died immediately without a chance to draw public attention to his act. People learned about his suicide and the statement he wrote only from the media and flyers.
Evžen Plocek (39, toolmaker, trade unionist and reform communist) was the last Czechoslovak “living torch” of the year 1969. He set himself on fire in Main Square (today’s Masaryk Square) in Jihlava on Good Friday, 4 February 1969. Flyers were found with the following messages: “To tell the truth is revolutionary – Antonio Gramsci” and “I support a humane face, I hate heartlessness. – Evžen”. Outside Jihlava, however, his act did not elicit any response, partly because of the new media ban on providing information about these protests.
Jan Palach’s protest generated enormous publicity even beyond the Czechoslovak borders. Sándor Bauer (16, apprentice) who set himself on fire on 20 January 1969 in Budapest referred to Jan Palach in his suicide letter. On 13 April 1969, Ilja Rips (20, student of Jewish origin), modelling Palach, attempted to burn himself in a protest against the occupation of Czechoslovakia. Moreover, a number of other “living torches” worldwide often referred to Jan Palach, regardless of what their real motives were.