Reliving the Prague Spring crackdown, 40 years later
The memories of witnesses and survivors of the day that Soviet tanks stormed the Czech capital are highlighted in a new exhibit.
Prague -- The black briefcase with two metal clasps could be anyone's: ivory-colored plastic combs, a leather wallet, a turquoise plastic pen, Latin and German textbooks, a wool shawl, a black beret, another pocketbook filled with documents.
But it doesn’t. The briefcase and its contents belonged to Jan Palach, a 20-year-old Czechoslovak student who set himself on fire to protest a Soviet-led invasion that crushed the Prague Spring communist reform movement 40 years ago.
"When you go through these things, it sends shivers down your spine," said historian Marek Junek.
For the anniversary, Czechs and Slovaks are recalling the turmoil after Warsaw Pact troops stormed their country in the wee hours of Aug. 21, 1968, leaving 108 people dead in an overwhelming show of force.
To do so, more than 400 witnesses shared their memories, harrowing and nostalgic, with Junek, a curator at country's National Museum at the top of Prague's Wenceslas Square, where bloody fighting raged.
A selection of stories and items from Palach's estate are part of the museum's exhibit opening Thursday. In an invasion flashback, the display includes a Soviet T-54 battle tank in front of the stately building, still scarred by shrapnel from 1968.
Svetluse Zavorova was 30, an ER doctor with late-60s big brunette hair, when the tanks rolled in. At 7:30 a.m. that morning, she rushed to treat the first of the wounded at the Czechoslovak Radio building, a flashpoint of resistance -- mainly by young Czechoslovaks -- against the invasion.
A Soviet soldier blocked her way.
"I started screaming in Russian that I am a doctor," she wrote seven days later in a letter now on display. "I pushed his machine gun away."
Bullets whistled by as her crew dashed to the casualties. None of those she treated, alive or dead, were older than 28. "Tears dropped on the paperwork, provided I had time to fill it out," she wrote.
Frantiska Cokova was a Prague postal service driver in 1968. She took to the streets to persuade Soviet soldiers that their mission was baseless.
"They kept saying that there is a counterrevolution here," she wrote to Junek. "It was pointless to talk to them."
Enchanted by freedom
The letters provide a human face to a crisis that shook the world.
The challenge built from early 1968 as a new generation of Communist leaders pushed to reform a declining economy and loosen the party's choking grip on civil life. Even as the tanks rolled in, Czechoslovaks felt united in fighting for a noble cause.
"I will never forget that beautiful feeling when the nation was enchanted by freedom," Cokova wrote. "People stuck together and behaved nicely to each other."
For acclaimed photographer Josef Koudelka, whose captivating images are on another display, that unity was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
"Thieves issued a declaration that they will not steal because the cops have more important things to deal with," he told reporters.
Reprisals followed and resistance faded away. Palach, an idealistic, disappointed history student, was the first of several youths who gave his life to try to rouse the nation again.
He set himself ablaze on Jan. 16, 1969, on Wenceslas Square and died from severe burns three days later, becoming an anti-communist martyr as a result.
In his office cluttered with invasion memorabilia, Junek unclasped the briefcase, loaned to the museum by Palach's older brother, Jiri.
As he pulled out a greenish sheet of university cafeteria meal coupons -- the one for Jan. 16 was the last one torn out – the clock seemed to turn backward 40 years.
Palach speaks from his deathbed on a Czech Radio CD that compiled sound documents from 1968, a separate project.
"A human must fight against the evil that he can confront at the moment," he said. "And that apparently is not possible yet."
It took another two decades before communism fell, democracy came to Czechoslovakia in the 1989 Velvet Revolution, and Soviet soldiers left.
Two decades too late for young fighters like Palach.
-- Katerina Zachovalova/Expatica