The Soviet Union had tolerated the liberalizing policies of Czechoslovakia long enough. On August 21, 1968 armed troops and tanks rolled into Bratislava, Czechoslovakia. Shots were fired on the Safarikovo Square near where the old bridge crosses the Danube. A 17-year-old girl died. Citizens screamed, cried, fainted. “Socialism with a human face” was over. A young photographer, Ladislav (Laco) Bielik, did what came naturally. He raised his camera and shot back. One of his pictures, “The Bare-chested Man in Front of the Occupiers Tank”, became the shot heard round the world – the most renowned of the 187 photos Bielik took that day. The Soviets tolerated verbal stories of their bullying. Word of mouth traveled slowly and could be denied. But within days, Bielik’s photo splashed across the front page of major newspapers globally. This iconic photo produced indisputable evidence to the iron-fisted response to any challenge of Soviet control.
Four days earlier, within sight of the square and at the famous Blue Church, Laco Bielik had married Alica Mala. Both were journalists at the popular youth daily newspaper, Smena. Laco, with his think black hair and sideburns and Alica with her blond good looks were nicknamed “Tom Jones and Brigitte Bardot” by friends. Life in Bratislava was improving – a more liberal government was lessening censorship, allowing more and more privileges. Pictures of their wedding showed a laughing young couple – smiling and carefree. Trying to calm his wife and lighten an increasingly concerned mood, Ladislav joked, “Don’t worry, this will make us famous. The whole Warsaw pact came to congratulate us for our marriage”.
The photo symbolically captured a David and Goliathan conflict. Small Czechoslovakia was crushed under the heels of the omnipotent Soviet juggernaut. In the picture a local plumber, Emil Gallo, rips open his shirt defying a Soviet tank to shoot – his bare chest thrust out towards the tank gun barrel; his face contorted in a scream. That night, a second and clandestine version of Smena was printed with this photo and others by Bielik. A German student, Peter Lutz, and his Slovak fiancée took a copy of the freely distributed newspaper when they left the country. They delivered a copy of the paper, and by extension the photo, to Munich giving it to the German Press Agency DPA and the American UPI. From this source, copies of the photograph exploded, mushrooming around the globe. On August 26, 1968, the photo ran in the New York Times with an article erroneously claiming the man in the photo was shot and killed just after the picture was taken. Details blurred, but the message of Soviet domination was never clearer. In no paper was the photo accurately credited to Ladislav Bielik.
Consequently, the situation for Bielik in Bratislava was grave. Ladislav was bullied, pressured to give the police the negatives. Time passed, but annually the police tormented Bielik; “Where is the photo, where are the negatives?”. Ladislav Bielik was blacklisted – unable to work in a country where work is mandatory. He pleaded with the local authorities to allow him to regain his livelihood, support his wife and two sons. Ironically, outside of Bratislava, the photo was attributed to Peter Lutz, other names, or to no one at all. Locally, it was known to be the works of Bielik and the consequences of this knowledge were destroying his life, shackling his career.
Three years after the photo, Emil Gallo died by his own hand a tormented man. In 1984, Ladlislav Bielik died photographing a car race in Budapest. Six others perished with him as a race car tragically careened off the track and into the spectator area. His early sports photographic skills had allowed him to cobble together work, but until his death he lived at the whim of the Soviet regime. At the time of his death, the negatives were still in hiding – the photo still often attributed to the wrong place, the wrong time, the wrong name. Some claimed it as 1956 Hungary; others attributed the photo to Prague. But the impact of the photo was never in question. It was selected one of “100 Photographs That Changed the World” by Time Life (though still not attributed to Bielik). In 1989, coinciding with the fall of communism, the family located the negatives in a moldy suitcase hidden in the basement of their home. Proof positive was finally unveiled of Ladislav’s role as the creator of the image which illuminated the extent of Soviet aggression throughout the west. The long process of litigation – correcting years of misinformation regarding the photo – began.
Today, Ladislav’s son, Peter Bielik – a journalist himself, is the ambassador of his father’s work. Peter was nine years old when Ladislav died – an age where father is still indisputably equated with hero. Peter is an impassioned advocate of his father, tirelessly fighting those who continue to print Bielik’s photos with inaccurate credit and without approval, working with global venues to display the collection of his father’s photographs, forcing all to correct past wrongs and give credit where it is due. Peter’s mother still lives in Bratislava not far from her son. A part of their legacy is the story of Ladislav Bielik, his photos, and his role in informing the world – the core goal of the profession of journalist. Peter is pleased his father is finally getting the credit he deserves, the notoriety lacking during his life and at the time of his death. In a different time, there would be a different ending. Ladislav Bielik would become a renowned photographer; his work would be honored and encouraged. But Czechoslovakia was not that place and 1968 Soviet Russia was not that time. However, Ladislav Bielik’s legacy perpetually will be intertwined with the ultimate downfall of communism in Czechoslovakia. I asked Peter what his father would think of today’s Slovakia, would he be pleased. Peter smiled and replied, “Of course.”
Note: The photograph is included in my blog with approval from Peter Bielik. Many thanks to Peter for the time he spent with me to get the facts in this blog correct. He controls approval of all usage of this photograph.