Olbram Zoubek

* 1926  †︎ 2017

  • “I have started to work on Jan Palach’s gravestone immediately after his death. A few people had met at my place, creating a sort of an unofficial committee and I presented them with my proposal. Mr. Vilímek kept the money from fund-raising – about one million and six hundred thousand Crowns. He wanted to use the money to buy a grandiose gravestone since it was clear that the authorities wouldn’t allow for a memorial. Luckily, I listened to the advices of others and made a flat desk with a shallow relief which retained water. It looked just like a body rising up from the ground. We had mounted it on 1 June 1969… Seventeen days later, on 18 June, my auntie – the mother of Jan Palach – went to see me and told me that she had received a letter from the city municipality that the grave stone has to be removed.”

  • “I have served with the ‘Revolutionary Guards’ for some two additional days after the end of the Prague Uprising. Then I saw how the Guards’ members treated the Germans whom they took captive… I still have remorse about not intervening back then – but they would have torn me to pieces. Whoever defended the Germans back then was in a very difficult position. I didn’t step up for them. I still have pricks of conscience about it.”

  • “For me, 1989 was an unexpected miracle. We anticipated that something would happen, but we didn’t expect that things would take such a turn. But all of us, me included, made one mistake: we expected too much from it. We expected that if the politics changed, people would change as well, and this did not happen. We believed that when the dog in the manger was removed, people would start being nice, friendly, honest...We should not have hoped in that, for it was nonsense. People are still the same, and when they have more opportunities for thievery, they make use of them. So I was disappointed, but in a stupid way, because I shouldn’t have expected so much from it.”

  • “Palach’s gravestone was heavy, weighing some 450 kilos, and suddenly we were asked to remove it. What should have we done with it? With my auntie, the mother of Jan Palach, we set off to the presidential office but president Svoboda was just at a vacation. Some clerk had admitted us. When I told her who we were she walked around the desk and bowed down. It was touching. She went to the back and then returned in tears – literally torn – since someone told her off for even talking to my auntie. She told us that the presidential office would not intervene and that our efforts were in vain. So we went to see Prague’s mayor who also rejected us; some clerk from the construction office had sent us to the cemeteries management located at the Old Town Square. There, some boor spoke to us and we entered into an argument with him. He forced auntie to tears and me to screaming so hard that I lost my voice. But it was of no use. I wanted to at least postpone the removal of the gravestone so that I’d manage to gather a group of people who would lift it and move it away. However, during the night they stole it, hid it at an unknown place and before Christmas melted in in the same foundry where they had previously created it.”

  • “One cop, Kovář, was assigned to the Artists’ Union, and he came here quite often to see what the mood among the opposition was. I was sort of among the leaders of this opposition. He was smart, and he was telling us that they were no longer those cops in leather jackets who beat people in their face- that his task was to prevent tensions and crises in society. Thus he was asking me what we would want, and he even made some of it happen. One day I was telling him that Havel could become president, and he would not hear of it. I told him, 'When Husák was in the darkest cell in the Leopoldov Prison and had to sift his shit through a strainer to prove there were no secret messages there, your father also did not believe that Husák might ever become a president, and now he is.' And then he contacted me again, after the revolution, and he pissed me off terribly. He had set up some art agency, because he knew many people from among the artists. When he had been coming to me before, his name was Kovář, and now suddenly his name was Šmíd. I asked him, 'Which name is the real one?' 'Šmíd, for sure, I was christened so.' 'And how about that president thing?' He did not say a word. Interviewer: 'And how often was he coming here?' 'Like every two weeks. When the Cibulka’s lists came out, I was afraid that my name might also be included there. People could think that I was speaking with them, accepting them, but fortunately it was not recorded anywhere.'"

  • “They melted it in the very same foundry, right before Christmas. The foundry boss told the female comrade workers to go home to make Christmas cookies and to skip one shift. He took two Party members. He called them in for the night shift, and police guards surrounded the entire premises. At night they moved the tombstone there, and these two cut it to pieces and melted it in furnaces. Thus in the morning when the morning shift came to work, the furnaces were still hot, and there was an extra 460 kilograms of bronze in the scrap-heap. And the day they melted it, they sent 60,000 Czech Crowns to auntie’s savings account, so the money was returned. It came full circle.”

  • “I was so humiliated and unhappy. I felt this so intensely. And then the normalization, Husák, it was even worse, when people began bending their backs again and being self-critical and things like that. And in the middle of this there came Jan Palach, a little light in the darkness, a breath of pure air. After I learned about his deed, I kept pacing in my flat and thinking how I would live on, that I could not just let it be. Grave thoughts were swirling in my head, but it occurred to me that I could do him a service, which not everybody was capable of – to take his death-mask, because while in grammar school, our entire graduating class had made such a group portrait for our class, with plaster masks of everyone’s faces.”

  • Full recordings
  • 1

    Praha, 10.02.2010

    (audio)
    duration: 01:44:07
    media recorded in project Portraits of Prague citizens
  • 2

    Praha, 29.10.2015

    (audio)
    duration: 01:40:35
Full recordings are available only for logged users.

Into the dismal atmosphere of this bending before them and forgetting, Jan Palach’s act came like a flash of light.

Olbram Zoubek
Olbram Zoubek
photo: Výstava: My jsme to nevzdali (2009)

  Olbram Zoubek was born on April 21, 1926 in Prague. He had a C in his drawing class in the first year of grammar school, but later his teachers discovered his talent for the arts. Before his graduation in 1945, he experienced forced labour as well as fighting at the barricades of Prague. After his studies at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague, he became a successful sculptor. Like many others, he had great expectations of the reform process in 1968; however, it was followed by the occupation and resignation on the reformist ideals. The dismal atmosphere was interrupted in January 1969 by the act of Jan Palach. Olbram Zoubek decided to pay his last duty to Jan Palach and to take his death-mask. He then carried one of the casts to Wenceslas Square for students who were holding a memorial meeting for Jan. After Palach’s death, 1,600,000 Czech Crowns were collected in public donations for his monument. The advancing normalization, however, made it clear that no monument would be permitted. In spite of that, Olbram Zoubek designed a bronze tombstone with Jan’s relief, but he had to pay the 60,000 for its casting from his own pocket, as the money gathered ‘got lost’ in the meantime. On June 1, 1970, they secretly set the tombstone on Palach’s grave in the Olšany Cemetery in Prague. However, shortly thereafter, a notice came that the tombstone had to be removed the very same day. No postponing was allowed, nor a petition to President Ludvík Svoboda helped. The tombstone was thus removed from the tomb. At night, the tombstone was cut into pieces and melted in furnaces. Eventually Palach’s body had to be removed from the Olšany Cemetery as well. His grave was still attracting attention, much to the dislike of the normalization government. After the Velvet Revolution, Jan Palach’s body returned to the Olšany Cemetery, and so did the original relief of Zoubek’s. The sculptor also created a new memorial plaque for the building of the Faculty of Arts. He is the author of the Monument to the Victims of Communism in Újezd in Prague, among others. Olbram Zoubek passed away on June, the 15th, 2017.