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Jirků: This year’s November 17th should reflect global events

Today Masaryk University academia memorial services will be held at the Kounicovy dormitory, including wreath laying and candle lighting, to pay respects to the tortured and executed victims of Nazi crimes during WWII.

Chair of the Students’ Chamber of the Academic Senate Daniel Jirků

Acknowledging the courage to fight for freedom, the event begins at 3:45 p.m. with the score from the movie Schindler’s List. The event will be hosted by the Chair of the Students’ Chamber of the Academic Senate Daniel Jirků. In an interview, he emphasises the importance of recognizing the past and talks about the emotional aspects of reading of the 800 names of the victims at the site where the executions took place.

What does November 17th mean to you? Evidently, you did not live through the events of 1989 and 1939, and the current younger generation often views these events as a topic in history classes, or an event thanks to which they have a day off from work or school.
As a pupil and student I did indeed saw the day off the most, because when I went to school the year 1989 was still a relative recent event and nobody felt extra compelled to talk about it. And when I started to actually care about the things going on around me I started to become immersed in the historical context; and I felt it was a very important day, possibly one of the most important days of the year. I am a student and this is the International Students’ Day, and I am one of the people who are commemorated. I became proud of being one, and of the opportunity to study, which is again related to other values and symbols of freedom and change for the better in 1989. Thanks to these events I get to be a part of a group that played a significant role in the change and which allowed us to assemble in public, discuss politics and present various views and opinions. To me, November 17th is one of the days when I can decide to spend it doing things that remind me of its significance. I will admit I do not recall the events related to this date in recent years because I spent it at home. It is great to be able to remind ourselves of the symbol, to be active and to be able to go back to it.

November 17th is a special date in our history with respect to two separate events. The first was in 1939 when protests against the Nazi regime resulted in repressions against students, professors, faculty members and the entire tertiary education sector, when the occupying forces killed nine members of students’ associations. The second case was fifty years later when, as a result of students’ demonstrations, the communist regime fell. Which year do you see as the more significant one?
Naturally, I am more influenced by November 17th 1989 due to it being associated with “regime change” for the better, which was not the case of the former. Besides the year 1989 carries a symbolical element for my family because some of its members were not allowed to live according to their dreams and wisher prior to 1989. I started to feel strongly about the year 1939 in the university environment. This part of history is strongly linked to university life at Masaryk University. Even within the context of the memorial services at a dormitory where the tortured and executed people included students and employees of Masaryk University. So I feel strongly about it and I try to educate myself further on the topic.

This brings me to the next question about the humans and pure emotion. What is it like to read the names of the approximately 800 executed or tortured people? It takes a while and it must be an emotional rollercoaster.
It is a mix of sadness and anger; anger about the pain that somebody caused to innocent people. They were people just like me and you. They had the same lives: they woke up in the morning, they went to school to study, they wrote essays, they had hobbies, friends and families. And suddenly they were gone. When you realise that it is not just a name but a human life that you are reading just now, suddenly you feel all kinds of emotions that you did not feel or know before. It is similar to visiting Auschwitz or Terezín where the sadness is very much tangible and you can feel it every step you take. It is very important to me to keep the memory alive. As long as we remind ourselves what happened we have a greater change in fighting against tendencies that glorify these atrocities.

The feeling may be even stronger due to the fact that many of the victims share the same last name; which makes you wonder if they were relatives and family members.
Yes, period documentation proves that some of the victims executed at Kounicovy dormitory were husband and wife or father and son. I remember one year my father attended the event; he was born in 1935 so he does remember WWII. And as he was there I felt his memories of the war coming back. It was a very strong moment for me.

This year’s November 17th will be very specific because of the added backdrop of the worst military conflict in Europe since 1945. Do you think that it affects the significance of this year’s November 17th considering the fact that it is taking place basically around the corner?
The feeling is much stronger, especially in terms of the acknowledgment of the significance of freedom; that we are not in a situation when somebody would oppress us or even endanger our lives. I think it should be a major topic this year. This year’s November 17th should not be a celebration of students alone but also of those who are willing to protest in the streets and fight for it. This year it is not as much about the years 1939 or 1989 but about the year 2022. Being actively aware of the past is a must, but it should also be about the active support of the current events, and it should show more – in the programmes of individual celebrations or across the society.

We mentioned the word “freedom” several times. How high is freedom on your list of values, in terms of personal life but also the entire society?
I do not want to say it is at the very top, but it is very high, in terms of being a life-affecting matter. If I do not feel free and my freedom is somehow restricted I do not feel comfortable. It is a natural reaction. I know that some people might perceive freedom differently, but for me, it is the idea that forms my personality; a value that I regard highly.

Daniel Jirků at gathering of MU academic community in 2021

You will attend the event is the key role of the Chair of the Students’ Chamber of the Academic Senate, and you will also host the event. Is it an honour being at this event in this role?
I would not call it “honour” because, after all, we are paying respects to victims of torture and executions. I see it as my obligation and service towards the present-day society and the past one. It is a key issue for me. We must respect every person in the society, whether they are here now or they were here in the past. That is how I feel about it. Besides it is a symbolic moment of the coming together of the entire university. Representatives of all faculties will attend, as well as those from all academic senates. Students are very much involved in the preparation of this event.

How long does it take to prepare this event? Even writing a good speech that reflects the significance of the event may take days. I can understand the pressure of responsibility as the highest ranking members of the management of the university will attend; especially when one is not a professional host or actor.
It was not easy; it was quite a task but I like doing it. It is, most of all, a service to all these people, the university that I respect as its student. It takes weeks to prepare it; both the speech and the organisational aspects. Luckily I m not alone for it; I am in close contact with Chancellor Kišš and we are doing our best to ensure the programme is interesting and, at the same time, the genius loci of the place is preserved. And yes, I am not an actor, which is why the speech is important; I want it to show that I am familiar with the place and context; and I want to avoid any faux pas. To increase authenticity, I will also read a statement of one of the prisoners who experience the jail and escaped alive.

We have mentioned the words “freedom” and “service” several times. Is this how you see your role of the Chair of the Students’ Chamber of the Academic Senate?
I do. I think any elected representative should see their role primarily as a service, and any privilege should be secondary. I am not a person who feels the need to be seen or heard. I represent students and the students’ chamber and I defend its interests. I like teamwork, I like making decisions as a team and I like the proactive cooperation in the students’ chamber. I do not care about public image. It is important to me that the ideas which I came to the senate with, on behalf of students, are fulfilled. And it is best done through joint participation in other topics with other students.

What does it take to be the Chair of the Students’ Chamber of the Academic Senate? Only a handful of people at Masaryk University actually experience it, and basically nobody has real-life experience what the position entails and how time-consuming it is.
The academic senate is the supreme representative body of the university with academics and students as members. The Students’ Chamber is elected directly by students; its members’ role is to collectively help the university and its management in the optimisation of operations vis-à-vis the student body. Generally we can say that we represent the interests of students, but I do not want it to sound as an empty phrase. We have formal powers as per the applicable legislation; we elect the rector, we adopt internal regulations and directives, and we approve budgets and strategic plans. Of the 55 senators there are 22 members of the Students’ Chamber; and I represent the chamber externally and in some other bodies as its chair. And is it time-consuming? Well, it is tough to balance it with studies, but as I value teamwork, certain parts of the agenda we deal with are divided amongst all members of the chamber, so that everybody is involved. Some days, this agenda is all I do because I have to focus on the most pressing issue. If you want to be a public servant, you must expect this requirement.

And how much time does it take?
Oh (long sigh accompanied by a smile - note from the author), it's demanding. It's definitely a lot of work to juggle with studying, but I really pride myself on teamwork, so we try to spread some of the agenda we're dealing with across the student body so that everyone is involved. Sometimes it happens that some days I don't do anything else because I have to focus on what's the highest priority at the moment. If someone wants to be elected to public office, they have to expect it to take some time.

Do you enjoy it?
I want to do what I enjoy doing. So yes, I do enjoy it. I need support from my colleagues, because you cannot do it without it. I think it is important that the students’ voice is heard, and I am glad that it actually is and that it is respected, at least by the current rector. In order to understand each other, people have to talk to each other. This is the case of the university as well as the society in general. Plus it is indeed an interesting and diverse role. To enable students better understand the workings of the institution and its complexities, I am also a member of the Emergency Board, Security Emergency Board and the Student Grants Board. These bodies also take time. My role also entails formal representation of students at various events and ceremonies. While I do not really need to be seen at events where I am supposed to be, it makes sense for me to be there to be able to communicate with the management and other people in an informal setting because sometimes you find out at these events that we agree on something, and it makes our work easier going forward. We know who to talk to and it makes our work more efficient and the outcomes are ultimately better.

I think it is safe to say that a typical student at a university is there for the degree and then they do not really care about the operation of the university. So I have to ask whether you had always aimed for these roles, or were you actually talked into running, because it happens too.
I will admit to being talked into it. I started in the academic self-government at the Faculty of Social Studies where I was senator for four years, two of which as the Chair of the Students’ Chamber. I realized back than that I may have some qualities for this role. I do not think I would want to be a politician; but I am interested in politics and I understand why democratically elected representatives are important for a certain society, which I define as the most fundamental body where the individual represents it opinion and interests. I did think that I had some experience and knowledge of the workings of the system, but I urged my more experience colleagues to run, being the new guy. Ultimately I decided to run, having evaluated that the position can be held in an open and partnership-based manner. And my colleagues liked the idea. I am not a teamster or politician and I see my role as that of a critical partner of the university who is taking part in its self-administration. The students’ opinions improve the operation of the university, and being critical does not mean being negative, as Masaryk said.

DYou became Chair of the Students’ Chamber of the Academic Senate during the pandemic. Thanks to your status of member of the Emergency Board and other bodies you have the unique opportunity, possibly as the only representative of students, to take part in the management of a giant with almost 40,000 people in times of crises. Less than a year after your appointment the pandemic became overshadowed by the conflict in Ukraine and the influx of refugees. If you are supposed to be critical, how is the university doing in these challenging times?
I have to say I very much admire the university’s approach towards crises; be they related to society, health or the economy. It is evident the university is aware of its third role; it knows that its voice is heard in the society, which is why it actively communicates about its efforts: be they related to reducing energy burden or expression of the use of face masks and vaccination. And then there is the matter of active perception of freedom and fundamental constitutional symbols and ideas on which our society is based. I am happy to see the university defends and supports them. Programmes and grants were created for students from Ukraine as well as academics who have the opportunity to work here, and opposition to Putin’s regime is supported in the form of the arrival of professor Zubov. I think the approach of the university towards these problems is a rational one; it is aware of its role in society and acts accordingly. I see a key role of Rector Bareš in these efforts, and I agree with him in these issues and I am glad Masaryk University is able to present these issues to its students. Of course, you can never please everybody equally, but the things the university aims to do must benefit the majority. And I think the university is doing a good job in this regard.