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Prague monument unveiled to Pole who committed suicide in protest at 1968 invasion

A monument has been unveiled in Prague to a Polish man who killed himself in protest against Poland's part in the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Ryszard Siwiec set himself alight just weeks after the invasion.

Polish ambassador Jan Pastwa in front of monument

Siwiec's suicide was kept under wraps for decades

A monument dedicated to Polish dissident Ryszard Siwiec, who committed suicide because he did not agree with Poland's involvement in the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, has been unveiled in the Czech capital Prague.

Czech and Polish scouts stood to attention either side of the stark, black monument in front of Prague's Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes on Friday morning, with Czech and Polish dignitaries paying tribute to Ryszard Siwiec.

Senior politicians from both countries spoke of Siwiec's ultimate act of self-sacrifice, which came long before the Czech student Jan Palach set himself alight in Prague's Wenceslas Square and which, unlike Palach's suicide, was almost unknown for decades.

Ryszard Siwiec monument

Siwiec set himself on fire in 1968 but has only been commemorated in 2010

‘Strong message'

"After 42 years, we are only now celebrating his name and his act, and I think that it's a very strong message. We can see from that fact that his name is transcendental," said Daniel Herman, the new director of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, after the ceremony.

"[His death] was a symbol, it was an offering for freedom. It's on a higher level than suicide. I think it's not possible to understand it as suicide. It's a symbolic act," said Herman, a former priest in the Czech Catholic Church.

On 8 September 1968, the 59-year-old accountant and former Polish Home Army soldier traveled to a harvest festival at a Warsaw stadium. In front of 100,000 people, including senior communist officials and foreign diplomats, Siwiec poured petrol over himself and lit a match. He died four days later in hospital.

Heart-rending farewell

For decades Poland's communist authorities went to great lengths to erase Siwiec's act of protest from the public consciousness. A tape-recorded message explaining his actions was seized by the secret police, and even a farewell letter to his wife and family, written on the train to Warsaw, never reached them.

"The story of this Polish hero is unbelievable," said Radek John, the Czech Republic's interior minister.

"He committed suicide in the stadium in front of 100,000 people, and the Polish secret police forced them to be quiet. It's like a story out of Franz Kafka. And it's a story that shows how awful the communist regime was," John added.

Footage withheld

Only recently has silent footage emerged showing the crowd suddenly parting around a man engulfed in flames, shouting wildly and flapping his arms up and down, before being led away by police. After years of being hidden from the public, the harrowing footage is now available on the Internet.

The street outside the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes has already been renamed Siwiecova. The new monument is part of a continuing effort by Czech officials, mainly from the right of the political spectrum, to recognize those who stood up to the communist system, in both the Czech Republic and beyond.

Author: Rob Cameron, Prague (ng)
Editor: Susan Houlton

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