Jesenská, Milena (1896–1945)

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Jesenská, Milena (1896–1945)

Czech journalist and humanist who opposed the Nazis and was entrusted with the diaries of Franz Kafka. Name variations: Milena Jesenska; Milena Krějcárova or Milena Krejcarova. Born Milena Jesenská in Prague, Czechoslovakia in 1896; died in Ravensbrück concentration camp on May 17, 1945; daughter of Jan Jesensky (a dentist and professor at the Charles University in Prague); attended Minerva School for Girls; married Ernst Polak (a Jewish translator), in 1918 (divorced 1924); married Jaromír Krějcár (an architect), in 1927; children: (second marriage) Honza Krějcár (b. around 1928).

Milena Jesenská and Margarete Buber-Neumann first met in the women's concentration camp at Ravensbrück in October 1940. Jesenská, a journalist who had just arrived from Prague, wanted to confirm rumors that the Soviets had handed anti-fascist refugees over to the Nazis, so she sought out the German anti-Stalinist Buber-Neumann. "Her face was prison-gray, marked with suffering," wrote Buber-Neumann in her book Milena: The Story of a Remarkable Friendship. "But my impression of illness was dissipated by the light in her eyes and the force of her movements." Hers was an "unbroken spirit, a free woman in the midst of the insulted and injured."

They began to meet daily. While Milena interviewed Margarete about her experiences in the Soviet Union, they discussed their mutual disenchantment with Communism and its failings. They agreed to write a book together when freed, a book about two dictatorships: Germany and Soviet Russia, entitled "The Age of Concentration Camps." At first, Buber-Neumann had laughed; she couldn't write, she said. But Jesenská would have none of it and proceeded to parcel out chapter responsibilities.

There were those in the Czech Communist community of Ravensbrück that found Jesenská's alliance with the German "Trotskyite" Buber-Neumann threatening, and they gave Milena an ultimatum: either drop the friendship or lose membership in their community. Milena

chose friendship and paid with ostracism. "Deep friendship is always a great gift," wrote Buber-Neumann. "But if such good fortune is experienced in the desolation of a concentration camp, it can become the content of a life. During our time together Milena and I succeeded in defeating the unbearable reality. And because it was so strong, because it filled our whole beings, our friendship became something more, an open protest against the humiliations imposed on us."

By the end of November, they began walking arm-in-arm, a practice strictly forbidden by the SS. "For me nothing existed but Milena's hand on my arm and the wish that this walk might never end." They lived in different barracks. With the constant threat of discovery, they met secretly, climbing out barracks windows, going where they should not go. Milena was audacious. She would wave furtively from the windows of the infirmary where she was working while Buber-Neumann stood at roll call, or she would arrive for a secret meeting whistling softly, "It's a long way to Tipperary."

Born in Prague in 1896, Milena Jesenská lived on the sixth floor of a large house on Wenceslaus Square. Her mother, thought to be artistic, came from a well-to-do Czech family who owned a spa near Náchod named Bad Beloves. Though Milena and her mother often clashed, her mother never spanked her. Her father, however, had no such compunctions; his punishments could be brutal. A dentist and professor at Charles University in Prague, Jan Jesensky was an ultraconservative provincial with a mean temper who was proud of his Spartan virtues: he slept on a hard pallet, took cold baths, dressed impeccably, and did his best to break the spirit of his more than spirited daughter. She lived in terror of him.

For years, while her father dallied with affairs, her mother suffered from pernicious anemia. Milena nursed her until her death when Milena was 13. Within two years, Milena was mentally and physically running loose, defying her father, railing against his "pseudomorality." In the beginning, she was also at odds with her father's sisters, the writers Marie and Ružena Jesenská . Ružena disliked Milena's ways, while Milena, who had become an ardent reader, disliked Ružena's "sentimental" writing. In later life, after Milena had proved herself as a writer, they became close.

Jesenská attended Minerva School for Girls, a secondary school whose prominent graduates included Dr. Alice Garrigue Masaryk , daughter of Thomas Masaryk, the founder and president of the Czech Republic. Upon her graduation, Jan Jesensky enrolled his daughter in medical school and forced her to aid him in the treatment of soldiers with face wounds during World War I. Milena, who had far too much empathy for that sort of work, promptly dropped out of school. Fraternizing with all strata (she was oblivious to class lines, had great compassion, and could not stand to hurt anyone), Jesenská enjoyed the company of Czech and German intellectuals; she also became enmeshed in the bohemian feminist movement.

Franz Kafka, Briefe an Milena">

[Milena] has learned time and again from her own experience that she can save another through her own existence and in no other way.

—Franz Kafka, Briefe an Milena

Then, she met Ernst Polak at a concert and fell in love. He was ten years older, a Jew, a translator at a bank in Prague, and a mentor to many writers. Polak introduced Jesenská to Franz Kafka, Franz Werfel, Max Brod, Rudolf Fuchs, and Egon Erwin Kisch. She also became friends with Wilma Lövenbach , a friendship that would last for 20 years. (Wilma and Milena would compile an anthology of German translations of Czech verse, the first of its kind.) In June 1917, when her father learned of her affair with the Jewish Polak, he had her committed to a mental home at Veleslavin. While there, she wrote Max Brod: "Psychiatry is a terrible thing when misused. Anything can be interpreted as abnormal, and every word can provide the tormentor with a new weapon." Upon her release in March 1918, she married Polak and moved to Vienna. Jan Jesensky disinherited her and severed all connections.

Jesenská, Ružena (1863–1940)

Czech writer. Name variations: Ruzena Jesenska. Born in 1863; died in 1940; sister ofMarie Jesenská (a writer); aunt ofMilena Jesenská .

Ružena Jesenská wrote more than 50 collections of poetry, volumes of short stories, novels, plays and children's books.

The marriage had problems from the start. Polak believed in free love and indulged in numerous affairs; Milena, who tried to be broad-minded, was deeply in love with him but missed Prague. While she gave Czech language lessons to pay the rent, Polak avidly participated in Viennese café society. Jesenská began writing articles and became the fashion correspondent for the Czech daily Tribuna. She also translated the works of Franz Kafka—The Stoker, The Judgment, Metamorphosis, and Contemplation—from German to Czech, and sent one of the translations to his publisher.

When Jesenská received a reply from Kafka, who was then taking the cure for tuberculosis in Meran, she journeyed there. She would write of their meeting in The Way to Simplicity (1926), a book she dedicated to her father, in hopes that he would begin to understand her. To Milena, Franz Kafka was a truly good man, despite his faults. Her father was cruel, despite his virtues. "Rigorously virtuous people are not necessarily the kindest," she observed, "but often on the contrary are dangerous and evil, whereas men with so-called faults are not infrequently far kinder and more tolerant."

The love affair between Kafka and Jesenská began at that meeting in Meran and lasted several years. Though she believed she "belonged" to her husband and could not leave him, Jesenská struck up a lively, intimate correspondence with Kafka, and they met once in Vienna and once in the Austrian town of Gmünd on the Czech border. But Kafka was frightened of love and there was no sexual consummation. The affair was "confined to letters," until Kafka's illness grew worse and, always fearful of life and its offerings, he asked her to stop writing. Jesenská was devastated. Though she stopped writing regularly, she continued to send postcards off and on. For two years, she arrived daily at the general delivery postal window in Vienna, hoping for a letter from him. Meanwhile, Kafka wrote Max Brod:

You will talk with Milena, I shall never again have that joy. When you talk to her about me, speak as if I were dead.… When Ehrenstein came to see me recently, he said more or less that in M. life was holding out a hand to me and I had the choice between life and death, that was a little too high-sounding, not in regard to Milena but to me, but essentially true; the only stupid part was that he seemed to believe that a choice was open to me.

Despite this, Milena began to visit Kafka in later years, especially in 1922, when he was gravely ill, and he eventually entrusted her with his diaries. When he died in 1924, she wrote his obituary for Vienna's Forum, then put an end to her sham marriage. The following year, she returned to Prague, partially reconciled with her father, and began writing articles for his party paper, Národní Listy, eventually editing the women's page.

Now an established reporter, Jesenská was welcomed into Prague society but still preferred the company of intellectuals and artists. She fell in love with Jaromír Krějcár, a young architect who would go on to earn a worldwide reputation. They were married in 1927. For the next few years, Milena was truly happy, and their house was a gathering of architects, artists, and writers. Between 1926 and 1928, she published three books and edited, with a friend, the illustrated magazine, Pestrý Týden. Their tastes were a little too avant-garde, however, and they were replaced the following year.

With her first pregnancy came pain and a visit to a doctor; he assured Milena that there was nothing wrong and advised her not to be a "sissy." But after eight months of the same pain, she came down with chills and fever, was diagnosed with septicemia, and gave birth to a daughter (Honza). As Milena lay near death, her father sat by her bedside, ordering up morphine for his daughter, and never left. After a year of convalescence at a sanatarium, Milena recovered, but her left knee lost its flexibility and she walked with a limp. She had also become a morphine addict. One night, amid pain, sweat, and convulsions as she attempted to withdraw cold turkey, she saw a revolver on the table near her bed. Convinced that it was a not-so-veiled suggestion from Jaromír, who had been involved in numerous affairs, her heart hardened toward him. Much later, she realized that it might have been a hallucination. Feeling her life was meaningless, she stopped writing for her father's paper, joined the staff of a liberal paper, and in 1931 joined the Communist Party. Still fighting the morphine, she twice volunteered for detoxification. By 1936, Jesenská was disillusioned by the party, especially with Stalin's 1936 purges following his Moscow show trials, while the party, just as disillusioned with her unorthodox temperament, had her expelled.

Throughout their marriage, Jesenská and her husband had been in debt. In 1934, invited to design a home for convalescent workers in the Caucasus, Krějcár had gone to Russia, while Milena and Honza stayed behind. While there, he too grew disenchanted with the Soviets but fell in love with a Jewish Latvian named Riva. Two years later (1936), he divorced Milena and married Riva. Even so, he set aside a beautiful apartment for his ex-wife and daughter in one of his buildings in Prague.

In 1937, Ferdinand Peroutka, asked her to contribute to his liberal democratic journal, Přítomnost (The Present). A highly respected monthly, it became her salvation. She wrote of the rise in anti-Semitism and the death of Karel Capek; she wrote of Czech spirit and the need to unite; she wrote of Stalin's Great Purge and questioned the Soviets as to the whereabouts of Czech Communist workers who had gone to Russia and had yet to be heard from. She was now denouncing all threats to freedom—national socialism, fascism, and communism. Unlike many of her friends, she saw the handwriting on the wall.

In March 1939, Hitler's minions crossed the border into Czechoslovakia. At daybreak, Jesenská went out on the street to watch the taking of Prague:

At half-past seven swarms of children were on their way to school as usual. Workers were on their way to their jobs as usual. The streetcars were packed as usual. Only the people were different. They stood there in silence. I have never heard so many people being so profoundly silent. No crowds formed. In the offices no one looked up from his desk. … At 9:35 the vanguard of Hitler's army reached the city center, German army trucks rumbled down Narodni Trida, the main street of Old Prague. As usual, the sidewalks were full of people, but no one turned to look. … I can't explain how it came about that thousands of people suddenly behaved in exactly the same way, that so many hearts, quite unknown to one another, beat in the same rhythm. … The German army was welcomed only by the German population of Prague.

As she watched the Germans invade the city, she said to a friend, "This is nothing. Just wait till the Russians get here."

Peroutka was quickly arrested, and Jesenská took over the editorship of the Přítomnost. She wrote cautiously, inserting warnings and subtleties into her articles, determined to keep the journal from being suppressed. She also founded an underground journal, Vboj! (On with the Struggle!), where her thoughts were less subtle. Her apartment became a hiding place for Jews, Czech officers, and aviators. Soon, it was a central meeting place, sometimes housing as many as ten. Wrote a friend, "Milena, who always wore a blue dress and welcomed every new arrival with a sweeping gesture of hospitality, comforted them all. She did it just by being there. In her presence, people somehow behaved better."

Nevertheless, she was far from careful and a little too defiant to make a good underground agent. When the Jews of Czechoslovakia were told to wear the Star of David, she sewed one on her clothes. In June 1939, she was told to cease publishing, though she continued to edit until August. But she began to worry about little Honza, now a mature 11, who had been distributing underground newspapers, and set about securing a safe haven for her daughter. It was too late. Soon after, while Honza was distributing papers, the Nazis followed her home. They arrested Milena and sent her to Pankrac Prison in Prague. Honza, who went to stay with Mile-na's father, would visit her mother periodically. A year later, Jesenská was sent to Ravensbrück. She never saw her daughter again.

While sequestered at Ravensbrück, Buber-Neumann and Jesenská kept their eyes open, mentally documenting everything around them, determined they would write their book. They met and talked of freedom. Buber-Neumann "saw a grassy path through the woods, sprinkled with bright spots of light." "What an incurable girl scout you are," cracked Jesenská. "I am an inveterate city slicker. My idea of freedom is a little restaurant somewhere in the Old Town of Prague."

For a breach of camp discipline (she had pushed some bread to the men's side through a crack in the wall), Buber-Neumann lost her job as Blockälteste and was transferred to Barracks No. 1, where she "lived under the same roof as Milena and slept in the bed next to hers." In October 1942, Margarete began working as secretary to SS Senior Overseer Johanna Langefeld (1900–1974), a decent woman who tried to retain some semblance of humanity. Buber-Neu-mann became her confidant and began using her position to help other inmates. For this, Lange-feld was put under house arrest and separated from her child, while Buber-Neumann was thrown in solitary for 15 weeks and fed every four days.

Meanwhile, Jesenská, who had always suffered from poor health, had her first attack of nephritis. During the winter of 1944 as Buber-Neumann sat in solitary, Milena grew sicker. When one of her kidneys became ulcerated, the infirmary doctor convinced Milena that her only hope was to have it removed. For four months, she was bedridden in the infirmary, while Buber-Neumann, who had been released, broke rule after rule to visit her daily for a quarter hour. In April 1945, Jesenská's other kidney became ulcerated, and she died on May 17. "Life had lost all meaning for me," wrote Buber-Neumann: "I recovered my freedom and carried out Milena's last will by writing our book about concentration camps. Shortly before her death she had said to me one day: 'I know that you at least will not forget me. Through you I shall live.'"


Buber-Neumann, Margarete. Milena: The Story of a Remarkable Friendship. Trans. from the German by Ralph Manheim. NY: Seaver Books, 1988.

Glatzer, Nahum N. The Loves of Franz Kafka. NY: Schocken Books, 1986.

Kafka, Franz. Letters to Milena. Edited by Willi Haas. Trans. by Tania and James Stern. NY: Schocken Books, 1965.

suggested reading:

Hockaday, Mary. Kafka, Love and Courage: The Life of Milena Jesenská. Overlook, 1997.