International Students' Day and the Struggle for Freedom and Democracy Day were marked on Friday 17 November by citizens, students, and academics across the Czech Republic. Traditionally, the main figures of the celebrations in Prague included the highest representatives of Charles University, who honoured the students' struggle for freedom in 1939 and 1989.
Representatives of universities, the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, political leadership and student organisations gathered at Hlávka dormitory on Jenštejnská Street to honour the memory of the students and teachers who were arrested there by the Nazi occupiers in 1939. More than twelve hundred students were deported from the student dormitories to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. The Nazis had responded brutally to a demonstration on 28 October, during which a young worker, Václav Sedláček, was shot dead in Žitná Street and a student official, Jan Opletal, who lived in Hlávka dormitory, was fatally wounded.
The commemorative ceremony, co-organized annually in front of the Hlávka dormitory by the Endowment of Josef, Marie and Zdeňek Hlávka Foundation, was opened by Ivan Wilhelm, a member of the presidium and the board of directors. “Allow me to share with you a personal memory of conversations with students who survived the tragic events of 1939. All of them, with whom I talked about twenty years ago, agreed that the consciousness of solidarity, academic belonging and the provision of support played an important role in their struggle for freedom and bare survival,” the Rector Emeritus of Charles University recalled the attitudes of the Czech students who managed to escape Nazi persecution. “And thanks to this, they were able to participate in active struggles in foreign countries, especially in Great Britain,” the former rector stressed.
He then handed the microphone to vice-rector of the University of Oxford, Irene Tracey, who said that her presence in Prague and her participation in the commemorative events associated with 17 November was proof of the bond of friendship shared by the University of Oxford and Prague. “My university at that time tried, especially at the request of President Edvard Beneš, to allow Czechoslovak students to attend lectures in Oxford. In December 1941 Oxford University accepted students from Charles University, Comenius University in Bratislava and Masaryk University in Brno. The first Czechoslovak students graduated there in 1946,” Vice-Rector Tracey explained.
Eva Zažímalová, the chair of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, used her speech to reflect on the consequences of both totalitarian regimes in the minds and hearts of people. She recalled the words of President Václav Havel from the early 1990s that many expectations had not been fulfilled, meaning the renaissance of values such as solidarity, the spiritual dimension of life, tolerance, and the will to get along and made clear Havel's words are still relevant.
Belonging is as essential as education
“From our spot in front of Hlávka College, we look back together with pride at the bravery of generations of students, while also recognising the positive strength of today's students. It is the role of the university to care for the legacy of those who gave their lives for freedom. Oxford University is a model for us in this. I am proud to say that, as the head of the Czech Rectors' Conference, Czech universities are building on this legacy by welcoming hundreds of Ukrainian students and academics," said Milena Králíčková, Rector of Charles University, in her speech.
She thanked the head of Oxford University for her words and presence at the gathering, which she cited as a symbol of common values and hopes for the future. She also drew attention to the fact that belonging and defending human values was as essential for universities as education.
After the laying of wreaths at the memorial plaques on the Hlávka dormitory building and performances by choirs, the procession moved to Žitná Street, for a memorial ceremony for Jan Opletal and Václav Sedláček, and then to Albertov, where representatives of Czech universities took the stage. CU’s Milena Králíčková was the first to give a speech aimed primarily at students. “The common denominator of 17 November 1939 and 1989 is the enthusiasm and energy of students, their courage and strength. I believe that you, today's students, are also the bearers of a humanist legacy, just like your predecessors. I know that you know how to be collegial, to support each other, including colleagues from abroad.”
“Our society is fragile and it is easy to divide, and then divide or frighten a society that is easier to control. That is why I want to call on all of you in this place: please think of others, your colleagues, your neighbours, your friends, your families. Let us stick together and help each other. If we work together for the development of society, if we work side by side, we will all have a better life here. I think this is the most honourable way to honour the memory of all the brave students who gave their lives for the freedom we feel today,” the rector said.
“A nation that forgets its past has no future. Those who forget their past are doomed to relive it,” Milan Pospíšil, President of the Council of Universities of the Czech Republic, said in his speech, quoting Winston Churchill and the Spanish-born American philosopher Georges Santayana. “I am very glad that students are here among us at Albertov as guardians of this legacy. This single holiday, International Students' Day, which is of Czech origin, is not a given. It is like a fire in the hearth, and if it is not maintained, it will burn out and will be difficult to rekindle,” Professor Pospíšil continued, adding that it is this maintenance of democracy that is a huge commitment for today's students, who can continue to maintain it with their energy.
The voice of youth has the power to change the course of history
“Where else but here to celebrate the International Students Day and the Struggle for Freedom and Democracy day?" asked Michal Farník, reminding attendees that it was at Albertov that the last farewell to Jan Opletal took place, and from there in 1939 a funeral procession marched towards Masaryk railway station, from where his coffin travelled to his birthplace. “This is also where the rally that caused the fall of the communist regime in 1989 came from. Without the activity of those brave young people, we would not be standing here today,” the chair of the Student Chamber of the Council of Universities explained.
In honour of the student Jan Opletal, the Jan Opletal Prizes are awarded annually by the Student Chamber of the Council of Universities together with the Thanks that We Can initiative. This year, 34 individuals were nominated and the ceremony took place last week at Divadlo Na zábradlí.
Pavel Linzer, delegate for the Czech Republic to the UN and a student at Charles University, also spoke on behalf of the students. “For me, the 17th of November is a symbol of the courage of the student community, its sense of justice, its ability to fight for the right cause and the fact that the voice of young people literally has the power to change the course of history. This holiday is a constant reminder that freedom and democracy are not a given and it is up to us to build on our predecessors and take personal responsibility for how we as individuals, students and society as a whole transmit and uphold their values,” he said.
The Václav Havel bench at Oxford
The closing address by the University and student representatives (hosted by the CU Centre for Societies, Students and Alumni, with the support of CU) was given by the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, Irene Tracey.
“Universities offer us a starting point to be a society with moral goals. We value different perspectives and protect the freedoms that are won. Universities are not only places of research, but also environments where people can gain universal knowledge to work on their projects and make valuable contributions to the world. Your students met that challenge then,” she said praising the protesters of November 1939 and 1989 who fought for freedom and democracy.
She added that at Oxford University, these values are also continuously commemorated through the local Václav Havel bench. “In the middle of this table is a lime tree and his quote 'Truth and love will triumph over lies and hatred'. I walk around this place, which is in a park, several times a day and sometimes I sit at the table and think. It has even more meaning for me now that I have visited your country and you have honoured me with this invitation. Thank you,” she concluded.
Evening concert and the Arnošt of Pardubice Prize
The festive day ended with an evening meeting and concert in the Carolinum Great Hall, jointly organised by Charles University and the Josef, Maria and Zdeňka Hlávka Endowment Foundation. “The seventeenth of November is a holiday celebrating freedom and humanistic values and traditions. More than any other time of the year, I am always reminded that it is up to each of us not only to actively defend these, but also to work to pass our country, our planet, on to our children in a better condition than we took it from our parents. Students not only from our university have the potential to be a positive driving force in this,” the Rector of Charles University Milena Králíčková at the beginning.
The chairman of the Endowment Foundation, Professor Václav Pavlíček, then awarded the Josef Hlávka Memorial Medal to the University of Oxford. “We will keep it as a constant reminder of the truth and love our peoples share through our research and education,” Oxford Vice-Rector Irene Tracey said in appreciation, accepting the award.
“It was an honour to be able to support you in your time of need. The spirit of this help lives on with us because, like your university, we also help Ukrainian students who need it today. Our links to the Velvet Revolution of 1989 are rooted in a shared recognition that freedom is everything and that universities are safe spaces in society where students have the right to be boldly ambitious, to challenge the status quo, to speak freely without fear of hatred or intolerance, and to develop the ability to think independently, to be critical, to change opinions, to be inquisitive and to demand the truth,” she said in her speech.
The Arnošt' of Pardubice Award was presented to Professor Jarmila Heissigerová from the First Medical Faculty of Charles University as an outstanding teacher and to a nine-member team from the Faculty of Medicine in Plzeň led by Professor Zbyněk Tonar for their educational achievement Innovation in teaching embryology for medical faculties. Awards were also given by the CU Grant Agency (GA UK), which were won by six students, or rather graduates, of doctoral studies. The Rector's Prize for the absolute best scientific project within the framework of GA UK's special-purpose support was awarded to Alexandra Ptáková from the Faculty of Science of Charles University.
The festive gathering culminated in a concert by the Charles University Orchestra and Choir. Petr Paleček - the son of Václav Paleček, a Czech diplomat and politician who in 1940, as the chairman of the World Youth Council, was instrumental in getting 17 November declared International Students' Day - also visited the Carolinum.