PHOTO GALLERY: From sculptures to street art – a guide to the Jan Palach memorials

The student protester died on Jan.19, 1969 three days after setting himself on fire in front of Prague's National Museum.

Raymond Johnston

Written by Raymond Johnston Published on 19.01.2023 07:30:00 (updated on 19.01.2023) Reading time: 4 minutes

Student protester Jan Palach died on this day in 1969, three days after he set himself on fire on Prague’s Wenceslas Square. While most accounts say the act was in protest of the August 1968 Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, Palach intended to draw attention to the complacency that followed.

While his story isn't as widely known, another student, Jan Zajíc, died from self-immolation on Feb. 25, 1969, the 21st anniversary of the communist takeover in 1948.

Reminders of modern-day martyr Palach can be found across Prague’s city center, including a square named in his honor and several plaques and sculptures. Tributes to Zajíc can also be found. We've collected them in the photo gallery below, scroll down to read the history of these monuments and a guide to where to find them in the Czech capital.

The Wenceslas Square Memorials

The most famous memorial, a ragged metal cross, is embedded in the pavement in front of the National Museum on Wenceslas Square. Unveiled on Jan. 16, 2000, it was designed by artist Barbora Veselá and architects Čestmír Houska and Jiří Veselý.

The sculpture, on the spot where Palach fell after setting himself on fire, is dedicated to both Palach and Zajíc. An inscription on the crossbeam with both names and their years of birth and death has grown worn from foot traffic and is almost impossible to see now.

While the memorial is a bit inconspicuous, it is often covered with candles and wreaths not only in January but on other national holidays as well.

Another joint monument is in the flower bed in front of the statue of St. Wenceslas. This dark gray stone plaque has etched images of Palach and Zajíc, and their names and dates in gold lettering. A red granite plaque under it reads “in memory of the victims of communism” in Czech, English and German.

Next to the New Building of the National Museum, you can find a sculpture called “The Flame” on what is now called the Palach Pylon. During the communist era, the building was home to the Czechoslovak Federal Assembly.

Although the sculpture was unveiled on Nov. 17, 2020, it had initially been planned as part of the 1968–73 expansion of the building. Communist authorities became wary of a sculpture named “The Flame” so close to where Palach set himself on fire, so they canceled the plans to add the sculpture to the pylon. The base of the pylon says “Plamen / Pamatce Jana Palacha” (The Flame / Memorial for Jan Palach).

The last memorial on Wenceslas Square is a small plaque in front of the building where Zajíc set himself on fire. A gray metal hand holds a black rose, and the text says “Umřel jen ten, kdo žil pro sebe” (Only those who live for themselves will die). It also has Zajíc’s name and his dates of birth and death. This memorial is dedicated to Zajíc alone.

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UNIVERSITY MEMORIALS

Since the end of 1989, the square in front of Charles University’s Philosophical Faculty has been known as náměstí Jana Palacha (Jan Palach Square) to commemorate the fact that Palach attended the university starting in 1968. A bronze memorial on the side of the faculty building has a sculpture of Palach’s face based on his death mask.

The sculpture is by Olbram Zoubek, who also designed Palach’s grave covering at Olšanské hřbitovy (Olšany Cemeteries). The grave is located a few meters to the right of the cemetery’s main entrance on Vinohradská Street. You can search for the exact location here.

Jan Palach's student ID. Photo: Raymond Johnston.
Jan Palach's student ID. Photo: Raymond Johnston.

Next to náměstí Jana Palacha at Alšovo nábřeží is “The House of the Son and the House of the Mother,” a group of sculptures installed in 2016. The two abstract sculptures by late American architect John Hejduk are meant to resemble buildings on fire. The shiny one represents Jan Palach and the rusted one is for his mother, Libuse Palachová, who lived on in sorrow without her son.

The courtyard of the Karolinum, the main building of Charles University, has a plaque that measures 69 by 69 centimeters, with Palach’s name plus dates in Roman numerals. The museum in the basement of the Karolinum, which is open on weekends, has a plaster copy of his death mask and his student ID booklet.

Palach memorial at the Karolinum. Photo: CzechTourism.
Palach memorial at the Karolinum. Photo: CzechTourism.

Palach also briefly attended the Prague University of Economics and Business (VŠE). A memorial metal sculpture shaped like a burned log is on the back of the main building at náměstí Winstona Churchilla 4, but the school grounds are not accessible to the general public. An auditorium in the school has also been renamed for him.

Zajíc lived and went to school in Moravia. Memorials for him include a plaque at a school he attended in Šumperk, similar to the one for Palach at the Philosophical Faculty, and an elaborate tomb in the cemetery in the town of Vítkov. The plaque and tomb were both designed by Olbram Zoubek.

Street mural

A mural of Palach and priest Josef Toufar was installed on the side of the dilapidated Borůvkovo sanatorium on Legerova Street in 2014. Both Palach and Toufar, a victim of a communist show trial, died at the hospital that was once located there. The Prague 2 district plans to create a permanent memorial with an exhibition space there.

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