On June 11, 1963, Vietnamese monk Thích Quang Duc set fire to himself at a busy intersection in Ho Chi Minh City (then Saigon). Thích’s death was a protest, a stand against the dictatorship in his nation and the persecution of Buddhists there, and to this day stands as the most famous (infamous?) self-immolation in history. Photos of the suicide circulated quickly, and John F. Kennedy said that ‘no news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one’. Even Rage Against the bloody Machine used it as an album cover.
Since Thích Quang Duc’s act, setting oneself on fire as a political protest has become depressingly common. Since 2009, at least 120 Tibetans have done this, and whilst India currently heads the international political self-immolation standings it is the Kurds outside of Turkey who lead the self-immolation table by ratio, with 14 out of every million folk deciding self-immolation to be the way forward. Political self-immolation isn’t a thing of the past either, with a Nepalese women going up in flames in China in July 2016 in protest against social injustice.
In September of 1968 a 59-year-old accountant from nowheresville (Dębica, Poland to be exact) set himself alight in front of 100,000 people in a major stadium in the Polish capital, only to have his protest practically ignored until long after. One month earlier the Soviet Union had led an invasion of Warsaw Pact nations into Czechoslovakia to crush the liberal reforms of Alexander Dubček, although I shan’t ruin that story just yet. Needless to say this represented a repressing of freedom as well as true kick in the shin for moral in the Soviet satellites of Eastern Europe. The man from Dębica decided to vigorously shake the conscience of his countrymen by sacrificing his own life in the most dramatic way possible.
Ryszard Siwiec was born in Dębica on March 7, in what was then the Austrian partition of Poland. Siwiec was a clever kid, and he would go on to graduate from Lwów (Lviv) University with a degree in philosophy. Siwiec moved to Przemyśl on the Ukraine-Poland border after graduating and everything was going fairly swell until that pesky World War II came along. Siwiec joined the Polish resistance movement, and also worked as a gardener in Przemyśl. Immediately following the war he was one of the owners of a wine and honey company, and once this company was nationalised, Siwiec stayed on as an accountant.
The crushing of the Prague Spring resonated strongly with Siwiec, a man who was born in a Poland that didn’t exist on the map of Europe at the time, who had a portrait of Józef Piłsudski hanging in his home. A history-loving man, Siwiec had long written leaflets supporting the striking students of Poland under the pseudonym Jan Polak (eerily close to Jan Palach, the Czech student who met a similar end) and was vehemently anti-Commie, or at least as anti-Commie as an individual could be in Poland in the late 1960s. Siwiec had had enough, and spent months putting together a plan for his final hurrah, for one last attempt to wake Poland up.
Siwiec wrote an official last will and testament. He acquired a pass to the national harvest festival, a huge annual celebration that took place in what was called the July Manifesto 10th-Anniversary Stadium (Stadion Dziesięciolecia Manifestu Lipcowego). Once the largest stadium in the country, it would fall into disrepair and eventually be replaced by a market before being demolished to make way for a sparkly new stadium in time for Euro 2012. In 1968 it was still the primary arena in Poland, and around 100,000 people piled into it on September 8, 1968 for the annual harvest festival.
Siwiec had purchased paint thinner prior to the festival, as well as preparing a red and white flag with ‘FOR YOUR AND OUR FREEDOM’ inscribed on it. Finally, the man from Dębica recorded a lengthy political manifesto on tape, criticising Soviet imperialism and the enslavement of smaller, weaker nations. It was his final cry that was laid bare the desperation at the heart of Siwiec’s plan; ‘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!’.
On the morning of September 8, 1968, Ryszard Siwiec rose early at his home in Przemyśl. He blessed his sleeping children, and left his watch with his eldest son. Siwiec headed to the station to catch a train to Warsaw, on which he would pen a letter to his wife explaining his actions. He said that he was dying to prevent truth, humanity and freedom being destroyed, but it would take 25 years for the letter to reach Mrs. Siwiec as it was intercepted by the Security Services. Siwiec made it to the stadium and settled in for the festival, patiently waiting for the right moment.
Truth be told, Ryszard Siwiec chose the wrong moment. As First Secretary Władysław Gomułka was giving his speech the crowd was entirely silent, but once the folk dancers began post-speech noise had taken over the stadium once more. It was then that Siwiec began to distribute his leaflets, before pouring the paint thinner on himself and setting himself on fire. The orchestra that was playing drowned out his words, and his self-sacrifice almost turned into farce. Video footage of the self-immolation exists, footage that shows a strangely calm man attempting to avoid the attempts of nearby people to put him out. Eventually Siwiec was bundled into a car and taken away, presumably by security services. He died in hospital four days later on September 12.
If Siwiec’s goal was to rouse his people into life, he failed. Despite thousands seeing his protest it had little effect in the country, as the crowd was told it was merely alcohol igniting on a drunk man. Word was spread of Siwiec being a lunatic, and whilst rumours spread that a man had willingly set himself on fire in protest, not many connected it with the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia months earlier. It wasn’t until the spring of 1969 that the truth became known about Ryszard Siwiec, as Radio Free Europe broadcast the real information on him in the wake of Jan Palach’s self-immolation in Prague in January 1969.
The video footage raises a whole host of questions surrounding Siwiec, albeit questions that either lead you to simple answers or outrageous conspiracy theories. There is no screaming, no melting skin, no eyeballs falling out of their sockets. Siwiec seems completely in control of himself the entire time, to the point where he actually seems far calmer than the many people around him trying to avoid Siwiec’s act catching on. The final shot of Siwiec in the footage shows him calmly talking, with visible burn marks on his neck and arms and all his clothes burned away but looking far from death. He doesn’t look like a man who has attempted to die via setting oneself on fire. As some have hypothesised, four days seems like just the right amount of time for a man to be interrogated and receive a bullet to the head. Either that or he died from all the fire. Make your own mind up.
Siwiec was the first man to commit suicide via self-immolation in protest against the plight of the nations behind the Iron Curtain, but he was certainly not the last. In contrast to the elderly Siwiec, the second was much younger, as the 20-year-old Palach set himself alight in Prague’s Wenceslas Square. One month later Jan Zajic followed his fellow Czech into flame, and at the beginning of April that year Evžen Plocek became the third Czech within four months to set themselves on fire in protest.
Two Poles followed Siwiec’s lead almost a decade later, as Jozef Dolek set himself on fire in Wrocław in 1977 before 76-year-old Walenty Badylak chained himself to a water pump in Kraków, doused himself in petrol and set his skin ablaze. Badylak was protesting the Communist authorities denial of the massacre of Polish military officers in Katýn during World War II, and much like Siwiec his protest largely fell on deaf ears. Civil disobedience increased, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that his sacrifice was truly acknowledged.
It is Palach who is the most well-known of the group, although his monument in front of Prague’s National Museum is still largely ignored by the hordes of tourists who traipse the streets of the Czech capital on a daily basis, getting in your humble author’s way. Palach’s death sparked international outrage, and his funeral turned into a major protest against the Soviet occupation. The 20-year anniversary of his death was marked with a number of manifestations that were repressed by the Czech police, events that are considered key in loosening the grip of communism in the region some 10 years later. Numerous streets worldwide are named after Palach, and the oldest rock club in Croatia even bears his name.
Palach supposedly wasn’t aware of Ryszard Siwiec, but the 59-year-old accountant from Dębica will go down in history as the first individual to choose this flamey form of sacrifice against Soviet repression in Eastern Europe.
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