In January 1969, the self-immolation of student Jan Palach shocked Czechoslovakia and all of Europe. On these days of mourning and confusion, French singer Charles Aznavour arrived in Prague to give a concert. Upon learning of what had happened, Aznavour immediately canceled the concert and went to pay tribute to the memory of Jan Palach.
The French singer was accompanied by the photographer Pavel Vakha in Prague. His photographs for the 50th anniversary of those events would be exhibited at the Czech Cultural Center in Paris. The photographer in an interview shared his memories.
“The story began with the horrible gesture of Jan Palach, which shook us all so much. By pure coincidence, a concert of French singer Charles Aznavour was to take place in Prague in those days. The concert was planned on the day of the funeral of Jan Palach. Aznavour would land in Prague a few hours after we learned that Jan Palach died in a hospital.
At the time, I worked in the magazine “Melodie”, and we arranged a reportage with the organizers of the concert. We went to meet Aznavour at the airport and immediately informed him of what had happened because he couldn’t learn about it while in the air. I must say that the agency that organized the concert and Aznavour’s entire trip to Prague wanted to hide this information from him.
The news strongly shocked Charles Aznavour. In the evening, we met again at the hotel. He was to meet Czechoslovak Olimpic Champion and athlete Emil Zátopek. But on that evening, we talked very little about sports. It was such an emotional meeting that Charles Aznavour at the end called his agent and decidedly asked to cancel the next day’s concert.
The agent, of course, canceled the concert, and the next morning, we were accompanying Aznavour in Prague. We walked around the whole city. We started from the place where Jan Palach committed self-immolation in the upper part of Wenceslas Square next to the National Museum.
Then, we went to the “old city” where Charles University was located. In the historical part of the university, a coffin with the body of Jan Palach was set up for parting.”
You accompanied Charles Aznavour all day. How did he react to what was happening, what did he say? And what feelings did your fellow citizens have in Prague?
“Back then, all the people of Prague, all Czechs were very emotional about it. But what is most imprinted on my memory is the silence in Prague. For Mr. Aznavour, this was also a shock. We visited all the locations in the city where Prague residents paid tribute to the memory of Jan Palach. I must admit that we skipped the queues a little because Charles Aznavour had only one day in Prague. He was in a hurry.
We accompanied him to the airport and continued our conversation. Before boarding the plane, he told me something very important: ‘I understand the act of Jan Palach and I understand your grief. You know, I was born in Paris, but I’m an Armenian, our people have their own historical experience.’”
In Czechoslovakia, after the invasion of the Soviet troops, not only Jan Palach but also other people committed or attempted to commit self-immolation. Why was it his gesture that caused such a shock and remained in history?
“Other self-immolations were the ‘aftermath’ of the death of Jan Palach. Because of the police terror, there was no information. Therefore, the death of another student who committed self-immolation, Yana Zaitsa, remained virtually uncovered.
So it lasted for 20 years. I am very happy to recall this heroic and bold gesture of Jan Palach in Paris and that the French public was able to learn about this important moment in our history thanks to the Czech Center.”
You were a witness to the events of 1968 – the suppression of the “Prague Spring.” You were then 28 years old, and you were in Prague. How did you go through those events?
“As you know, the troops invaded on August 21. On August 20, I was still in Paris. I was visiting the famous Czech artist Joseph Shima who lived in Paris. I was ready to say goodbye when he asked: “Didn’t you read the newspapers?”. I replied: “I read them, but I think that everything will be fine.” And the master told me that I was still too young and advised me not to return. Full of optimism, I boarded the plane and arrived in Prague on the same evening.
I lived not far from Prague Castle. I was very tired from the road and went to bed early. At two o’clock in the morning, I was woken up by an unfamiliar noise. One by one, large military transport planes were flying over our house. A few minutes later, a journalist friend called me and told that Soviet planes were landing in Prague’s Ruzyně Airport and that they brought armored personnel carriers and tanks.
We went out to have a look and were horrified – my friend’s car was destroyed by a tank. Then, we went to the center of Prague, to the Radio House, where everything would continue (near the Czech Radio building on Vinogradskaya Street, there were fierce clashes between local residents and the military. Prague residents defended the radio station that continued to broadcast in the morning of August 21, condemning the invasion).
But I would like to return to Jan Palach, because after the end of the August events, the atmosphere has changed a lot, and the mood of the people has changed as well. People began to adapt. This is what was caused by the action of Jan Palach. He urged people to wake up from this forgetfulness and return to rational thinking in order to regain the freedom that we, although only briefly, got to know before the August events.”
Ksenia Gulia, rfi.fr