* 7 March 1909, Dębice, Austria-Hungary
† 12 September 1968, Warsaw, Poland
People, who still have a spark of humanity! Pull yourselves together! Hear my cry! A simple old man’s cry, a cry of a son of a nation that beloved its own freedom as well as freedom of others above all, above its own life! Pull yourselves together. It's not too late yet!
Ryszard Siwiec, 7 September 1968
On 8 September 1968, a fifty-nine-year-old office worker, Ryszard Siwiec, poured a solvent over himself in the 10th-Anniversary Stadium in Warsaw and set himself on fire in protest against the involvement of Polish military in the occupation of Czechoslovakia.
Ryszard Siwiec was born on 7 March 1909 in Dębice, Galicia (then Austria-Hungary). In the beginning of the 1920s, the family moved to Lvov (then Poland), where Ryszard graduated from high school and then the Jan Kazimierz University, majoring in economics at the Faculty of Arts. Since the middle of the 1930s, he had worked in a tax office in Przemyśl (Poland). He did not want to work for the invaders after the western part of Poland had been occupied by the German army, so he decided to leave the office. He then worked as a gardener for the town. He was involved in the resistance movement. After the war, he became one of the owners of a company producing wine and honey. After the company was nationalised, he continued working for it as an accountant. In 1945, he married and had five children with his wife Maria.
Siwiec opposed the communist regime. His conservative values were rooted in national and Christian traditions. A portrait of marshal Józef Piłsudski, the founder of modern Poland, who defeated the Bolsheviks in 1920, hung in his house. He loved historical novels, and he was interested in the history of the Second World War and the heroic struggle of the Polish resistance. In 1968, he was moved by the student protests and their violent suppression. At night, he wrote leaflets supporting the striking students under the pseudonym Jan Polak. In the beginning of April 1968, he wrote a last will that the family received by mail only after his death. The very first sentence makes it clear that he was considering this radical form of protest already at that time. His final decision to immolate himself came in August, after the occupation of Czechoslovakia, in which the Polish military took part. This was a national disgrace for Siwiec as well as for many of his compatriots.
He prepared carefully for his sacrifice – he recorded a message on a tape accusing the Soviet Union of imperialism and trying to start a new world war. He obtained a ticket to a harvest festival that took place in the 10th-Anniversary Stadium and was attended by the leadership of both the party and the People’s Republic of Poland. There were around one hundred thousand people present. However, they did not react as Siwiec apparently expected. After putting out the fire, he was immediately moved away. He was under permanent surveillance of the police in the hospital and died after four days. The Polish editors of Radio Free Europe learned about the event several days later, but the management did not think it was trustworthy. Only after the self-immolation of Jan Palach and a new description of the event obtained from Poland, was the news of Siwiec’s sacrifice broadcast in March 1969.
In 1981, Siwiec’s family published a commemorative book that made public for the first time the transcript of the message that he recorded before immolating himself. In the beginning of the 1990s, the Polish director Maciej J. Drygas managed to collect testimonials of eyewitnesses and the family. He also obtained archival documents from the original investigation and discovered a seven-second-long video recording of Ryszard Siwiec in flames. In 1991, he made a film documentary Hear my cry (Usłyszcie mój krzyk) and a radio programme Last will (Testament). It is mainly through his achievement that Siwiec’s protest became known in Poland and abroad. In 2003, researchers at the Polish Institute of National Remembrance found new video recordings taken by the polish secret police.
Ryszard Siwiec was posthumously awarded Czech, Slovak and Polish high state decorations. After 1989, memorial plaques have been installed in his memory in Warsaw, Dębice and Przemyśl. A bridge has been named after him in Przemyśl, where he lived. In 2009, the street where the Czech Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes is located was named after him. His memorial was erected in that street in 2010 as well.
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