Czechs Share their Memories of November 17, 1989

Read these stories, some inspiring some humorous, of the events leading up to the Velvet Revolution

The student uprising of November 17, 1989, commemorated each year on this date as the Day of Struggle for Freedom and Democracy, began with riot police suppressing a student demonstration and ended with the toppling of the communist regime forever known as the Velvet Revolution.

In the current political climate, remembering the fortitude of those who brought about change through non-violent dissent remains a lesson for our modern times. We asked some of those who were there to share their memories of the era:

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Jan Vlček, 44, film architect

Jan Vlček was at Slavia Café on 11/17/89
Jan Vlček was at Slavia Café on 11/17/89

It is Friday afternoon, me and several of my pals, classmates from art school and bandmates in punk groups, we are sitting in Slavia café and talking about the fact that the gathering of students on Albertov is organized by the communist students’ organization and therefore f*ck it we should go to Wenceslas Square instead and make a really big noise.

We were feeling slightly funny among the other young people in the streets as we were veterans having already been blasted by water cannons during the previous events of 1988 and early 1989.

Suddenly, there was a crowd of demonstrators heading evidently toward Wenceslas Square. We couldn’t help it, we went out. I remember a pretty girl sitting in the tram, I dragged her out to join us. No idea how she ended up.

Everybody knows what followed. I ended up, with another 15 people, quite battered in a police interrogation room at Karlovo náměstí and what happened that day earned me repeat offers, throughout the years, from Charta 77 for a spa recovery stay. 

My professor called me and insisted on us not making a mess of things on Monday. “I cannot promise it,” I said and put the receiver down. It started on Monday. (I never went to the spa.)

Jan Macola, 37, film producer, director Kino Pilotů

Jan Macola was in the Orlické mountains
Jan Macola was in the Orlické mountains

I think November 17, 1989 must have been a weekend. We were with our relatives at a cottage in the Orlické mountains. In the evening, I entered the main room. All ten adults sat around a radio and looked serious. Radio Free Europe announced that a student had died at Národní třída. On the second day, they brought down a newspaper from the attic, dated August 1968. Then nothing was the same again. Luckily.

Dominika Jaginová, 35, publicist

I was only 5 years old when the Velvet Revolution took place. My parents remember a sense of being afraid but also knowing that things will change, they saw that the Soviet machine wasn’t working all that well. When my dad started teaching at Sorbonne in Paris (1989 as well) my mom was constantly in fear that someone is going to come for us and deport us. No one ever came, just the postman to whom my mom refused to open the door, that was how scared she was. It’s history, people should remember, recall so we never step back.

Vladimír Zahradníček, 70, music dramaturge, Czech Radio

Vladimír Zahradníček was in extreme pain!
Vladimír Zahradníček was in extreme pain!

I remember that Friday well, my wife turned 40 and after an intense week of work I collapsed and realized I couldn’t move due to extreme spinal pain. So instead of celebrating, we had to find an afterhours doctor. Our local doctor was the only one available and she rode over on her purple three-wheeler bike. Instead of rushing up to the flat she spent 20 minutes locking up her bike as my wife anxiously watched from the window. When she finally came inside she pumped me full of calcium shots. We had to distract our boys from my howling with a trilogy of Vinnetou tapes, that we smuggled from Croatia, on our fancy VHS player. Needless to say, we didn’t find out what was happening until my father-in-law called us the next day.

Miroslav Purkrábek, 59, transport engineer

I was at work on the November 17, 1989, and remember seeing people outside, several famous actors from a nearby theater close to Senovážné náměstí, talking enthusiastically and a busier-than-usual street activity. I immediately realized that something important was taking place. I did not attend the demonstrations on the day, but joined those at Letná a couple days later.

Jan Obermann, 40, light technician

I do not know how my parents succeeded in doing so but they got every necessary paper and permit to leave the Republic [that day] and I went skiing for the first time in my life in Kaprun [Austria]. I will remember forever the view from the funicular over the incredible number of ski tracks and shining snow under the clear sky. 


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