When the courage of young people helped bring freedom to all
Joint statement by the Rector of the Slovak University of Technology, Rector of the Comenius University and the President of the Slovak Academy of Sciences on the anniversary of 17 November
The sequence of events that we are commemorating begins in Prague on October 28, 1939. On the anniversary of the founding of a democratic Czechoslovak state, which at that time had not existed for half a year, massive anti-Nazi demonstrations took place in occupied Prague and their violent suppression had tragic consequences. Vaclav Sedláček was shot and medical student Jan Opletal also died from serious injuries. His funeral on 15.11.1939 provoked thousands of Czech university students, among them many Slovak students who went to the streets to protest and stand up to the totalitarian regime.
The Nazi retaliation was cruel. On 17.11. 1939 dormitories were brutally invaded, including Štefánikova dorms at the centre of Slovak student life in Prague. On that day they also executed eight student representatives, one professor, hundreds of students were deported to a concentration camp, and all Czech universities were closed.
The report on the barbaric attack against education provoked outrage around the world, and students in Slovakia were also organizing assistance for Czech students at that time. The outbreak of the Second World War also became a struggle for the freedom of science and universities.
On the initiative of the Czechoslovak foreign resistance, the anniversary of 17 November 1939 became International Student Day. At that time, this was supported by a number of prominent personalities, including Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of the then US President, and was commemorated in schools around the free world.
50 years later, on 16.11.1989, a spontaneous, unauthorized demonstration of students of the Comenius University took place in Bratislava. A few hundred young people formed a living chain, shouted political slogans, and bravely continued to the Ministry of Education, where their protest ended in an unexpected discussion with the Communist leader.
On Friday, November 17, 1989, a memorial gathering was organized by Prague university students which began with them lighting candles on the tomb of poet Karel Hynek Mácha. The peaceful gathering turned into a march of thousands of students to the centre of Prague. There was a brutal intervention of police forces, hundreds of young people were beaten and ended up in hospital with serious injuries. This was the beginning of the end of the communist regime in Czechoslovakia.
Culture, Memory and Education as a Guarantee for Humanity
It is worth noting that at the beginning of the events of November 1989 there was culture, efforts to preserve the memory of the poet and of the students who were able to confront evil, injustice and persecution in 1939. One of the historical messages we want and must remember is that culture, memory and education are the foundation that can sustain and preserve the universal values of justice and freedom, despite decades of police brutality and political totalitarianism.
As academic officials, we are responsible not only for the future of science and university education, but also for preserving the memory and legacy of the past. We realize that students and young people are a driving force in our modern history that was able to change what seemed impossible.
We always keep their memory close, we support the efforts to preserve it truly within our institutions, but at this moment we want to express our respect for all students and young people who were under threat of repression and brutal violence that tried to deprive them of their own future who stood up for their truth, for the values of democracy and freedom, to defend humanity and decency from evil and violence.
We express our respect for the courage and suffering of those who defied themselves to bring freedom to all.
Miroslav Fikar, STU Rector
Marek Števček, UK Rector
Pavol Šajgalík , SAS President