Nov 172018

Today is International Students’ Day, an international observance of the student community, held annually on November 17th commemorating the anniversary of the 1939 Nazi storming of the University of Prague after demonstrations against the German occupation of Czechoslovakia and the killings of Jan Opletal and worker Václav Sedláček.

In late 1939 the Nazi authorities in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia suppressed a demonstration in Prague held by students of the Medical Faculty of Charles University. The demonstration was held on 28th October to commemorate the anniversary of the independence of the Czechoslovak Republic (1918). During this demonstration the student Jan Opletal was shot, and later died from his injuries on 11th November. On 15th November his body was supposed to be transported from Prague to his home in Moravia. His funeral procession consisted of thousands of students, who turned the event into an anti-Nazi demonstration. However, the Nazi authorities took drastic measures in response, closing all Czech higher education institutions, arresting more than 1,200 students, who were then sent to concentration camps, executing nine students and professors without trial on 17th November. Historians speculate that the Nazis granted permission for the funeral procession already expecting a violent outcome, in order to use that as a pretext for closing down universities and purging anti-fascist dissidents.

Jan Opletal

The nine students and professors executed on 17th November in Prague were:

Josef Matoušek (historian and associate professor; participated in the organization of Opletal’s funeral)

Jaroslav Klíma (student of law; Chairman of the National Association of Czech Students in Bohemia and Moravia, requested the release of students arrested by the Gestapo during Opletal’s funeral)

Jan Weinert (student of Bohemian and German culture; requested the release of students arrested by the Gestapo during Opletal’s funeral)

Josef Adamec (student of law; secretary of the National Association of Czech Students in Bohemia and Moravia)

Jan Černý (student of medicine; requested the release of students arrested by the Gestapo during Opletal’s funeral)

Marek Frauwirth (student of economics; as an employee of the Slovak embassy in Prague, he was issuing false passports to Jews trying to flee from the Nazis)

Bedřich Koula (student of law; secretary of the Association of Czech students in Bohemia)

Václav Šafránek (student of architecture; record-keeper of the National Association of Czech Students in Bohemia and Moravia)

František Skorkovský (student of law; Director of a Committee of the Confédération Internationale des Étudiants, Chairman of the Foreign Department of the National Association of Czech Students in Bohemia and Moravia)

An initial idea to commemorate the atrocities inflicted on students in German-occupied Czechoslovakia was discussed among Czechoslovak Army troops in England in 1940. A small group of soldiers, former elected student officials, decided to renew the Central Association of Czechoslovak Students (USCS) which had been disbanded by the German Protectorate in Czechoslovakia. The idea of commemorating the November 17th tragedy was discussed with the British National Union of Students of England and Wales and other foreign students fighting the Nazis from England. With the support of Edvard Benes, President-in-Exile of Czechoslovakia, the USCS was reestablished in London on 17th November 1940, one year after the events at the Czech universities.

Throughout 1941 efforts were made to convince students of other nations to acknowledge November 17th as a day of commemoration, celebrating and encouraging resistance against the Nazis and the fight for freedom and democracy in all nations. These negotiating efforts were mostly carried out by Zink, Palecek, Kavan and Lena Chivers, Vice President of the NUS. Fourteen countries eventually agreed and signed the following proclamation:

We, students of Great Britain and its territories and India, North and South America, the USSR, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, France, Greece, China, Holland, Norway, Poland, Yugoslavia and all free nations, to honour and commemorate the tortured and executed students who were the first to raise their voices to reject Nazi oppression and condemn the occupation of 1939, proclaim November 17 as International Students’ Day.

The inaugural meeting was held in London’s Caxton Hall on 16th November 1941, with support from President Benes. The proclamation was read and accepted by all attendees, among them representatives of all governments who were in exile in London. The meeting was presided over by USCS Chairman Palecek; the key speakers were Sergej Ingr, Czechoslovak Secretary of Defence; Lena Chivers and Elizabeth Shields-Collins of the UK; Olav Rytter of Norway; Claude Guy of France, A. Vlajcic representing Yugoslavia.

On 17th November 1941, members of the USCS Executive Committee had a long audience with President Benes, and similar meetings with the President took place annually on November 17th throughout World War II. The BBC’s Czechoslovakian department prepared a special report for November 17th which was broadcast to occupied Czechoslovakia. Many British universities interrupted their schedule to commemorate the events in Prague two years earlier, by reading the proclamation of November 17th. Among them were Manchester, Reading, Exeter, Bristol, Aberystwyth, Leicester, London, Holloway College, Bournemouth, Sheffield, King’s College London, Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool, Bangor, Cardiff, Glasgow, and Edinburgh. During the war Oxford University extended assistance to the closed Charles University, allowing dozens of Czechoslovak students in exile to graduate.

In 1989 independent student leaders together with the Socialist Union of Youth (SSM/SZM) organized a mass demonstration to commemorate International Students’ Day. The students used this 50th-anniversary event to express their dissatisfaction with the ruling Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. By nightfall, what had begun as a peaceful commemorative event turned violent, with many participants brutally beaten by riot police, red berets, and other members of law enforcement agencies. About 15,000 people took part in this demonstration. The only person left lying where the beatings took place was thought to be the body of a student, but in fact turned out to be an undercover agent. The rumor that a student had died due to the police brutality triggered further actions; the same night, students and theater actors agreed to go on strike. The events linked to the International Students’ Day of 17th November 1989 helped spark the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. Struggle for Freedom and Democracy Day is today observed as an official holiday in both the Czech Republic (since 2000, following a campaign by the Czech Student Chamber of the Council of Higher Education Institutions) and Slovakia.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the resulting crisis within the International Union of Students, celebrations for 17th November were held in only a few countries without any international coordination. During the World Social Forum held in Mumbai, India, in 2004, some international student unions such as the Organization of Caribbean and Latin American Students (OCLAE) and some national unions such as the Italian Unione degli Studenti decided to re-launch the date and to call for a global demonstration on 17th November 2004. Student movements in many countries mobilized again that year and continued observing International Students’ Day in following years with the support of the Organising Bureau of European School Student Unions (OBESSU) and the European Students’ Union (ESU).

In 2009, on the 70th anniversary of 17th November 1939, OBESSU and ESU promoted a number of initiatives throughout Europe to commemorate the date. An event was held from 16th to 18th November at the University of Brussels, focusing on the history of the students’ movement and its role in promoting active citizenship against authoritarian regimes, and followed by an assembly discussing the role of student unions today and the need for the recognition of a European Student Rights Charter. The conference gathered around 100 students representing national students and student unions from over 30 European countries, as well as some international delegations.

I am always impressed by the activism and heroism of students in totalitarian regimes, and, in contrast, decidedly unimpressed for what passed for activism in my student days in England and at my university in New York. It was limp wristed at best, and mostly concerned issues such as increased tuition costs and similar self-interested projects. Once or twice I was able to stir my students to social action, but it was fleeting, and inconsequential in the long run. Certainly I am grateful that I was not involved in Nazi or Stalinist regimes, but there were more than enough social issues to be engaged with if they had wanted to be. For the most part, they could not be bothered. So, today I salute those students who could be bothered, and put their lives on the line for social justice.

Bryndzové Halušky (potato dumplings with sheep cheese) is one of the national dishes in Slovakia, and also popular in the Czech Republic. It is a hearty meal consisting of halušky (boiled pieces of potato dough similar to gnocchi) and bryndza (a soft sheep cheese), optionally sprinkled with cooked bits of smoked pork fat or bacon.

Bryndzové Halušky


2 medium potatoes, peeled and grated

1 cup flour

1 tsp salt

150 gm smoked or regular bacon, cubed from a block

½ tbsp vegetable oil

125 gm bryndza

50 ml cream (optional)


Mix the flour and salt with the grated potatoes until you get a thick, sticky dough.

Heat the oil over low heat in a large skillet and fry the bacon until crisp and brown.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add salt to taste.

Test a small spoonful of the halusky mix in the boiling water. If the mix does not hold together when cooking, add more flour.

Put the dough on a cutting board and cut small dumplings (about 1 x 2 cm) directly into the boiling water. Drop several halusky dumplings in at a time. They will sink to the bottom so give them a quick stir. Cook the halusky until they float to the top and have changed color. Remove them with a slotted spoon and place them in a colander to drain. Repeat the boiling process until all the batter is cooked.

When all the halusky are cooked make sure they are properly drained, then put them in a large bowl and mix in the cheese until evenly coated. If you like you can mix in some whipping or heavy cream.

Divide the halusky between plates and top with the fried bacon.

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