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by Karla Hartl

Milena Jesenska was born in Prague on August 10, 1896. Jesenska's father Jan Jesensky was a dental surgeon and professor at the Charles University;[1] her mother Milena Hejzlarova died when Milena was 16. Jesenska studied at Minerva, the first academic gymnasium for girls in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.[2] After graduation from Minerva, she enrolled briefly at the Prague Conservatory and also at the Faculty of Medicine but abandoned her studies after two semesters. In 1918, she married Ernst Pollak, a Jewish intellectual and literary critic whom she met in Prague's literary circles, and moved with him to Vienna. The marriage, which led her to break off relations with her father for several years,[3] was an unhappy one.

Since Pollak's earnings were initially inadequate to support the pair in the city's war-torn economy, Jesenska had to supplement their household income by working as a tutor and translator. In 1919, she came across a short story (The Stoker) by Prague writer Franz Kafka, and wrote him to ask for permission to translate it from German to Czech. The letter launched an intense and increasingly passionate correspondence. Jesenska and Kafka met twice: they spent four days in Vienna and a day in Gmünd. In the end, Kafka broke off the relationship, partly because Jesenska was unable to leave her husband, and their correspondence eventually ceased. They continued holding each other in great esteem, however, and both treasured the memories of their relationship which was in many respects unparalleled to any other in their lives. [4] Jesenska's translation of The Stoker was a first translation of Kafka's writings into Czech (and as a matter of fact, into any foreign language); later she translated two other short stories of Kafka and also texts by Hermann Broch, Franz Werfel, Upton Sinclair, and many others.[5]

In Vienna, Jesenska also began to write herself, contributing articles and later also editorials to women's columns in some of the best known Prague dailies and magazines. For example, she contributed to Tribuna, and between 1923 and 1926, she wrote for Narodni listy, Pestry tyden, and Lidove noviny. In 1925, Jesenska divorced Pollak and moved back to Prague, where she later met and married avant-garde Czech architect Jaromir Krejcar. In Prague she continued working as journalist, writing for dailies and magazines, and also as children's books editor and translator. Some of her articles from the period were published in two separate collections by the Prague Publishing House Topic.[6]

In the 1930s, Jesenska became attracted to communism (like many other Czech intellectuals of the period), but eventually abandoned her sympathies for the ideology altogether in 1936, when she grew aware of excesses of Stalinism. [7] In October 1934, her marriage ended - she gave a consent to divorce Krejcar so that he could marry a Latvian interpreter whom he met during his visit to the Soviet Union.[8] Between 1938 and 1939, Jesenska edited the prestigious Czech magazine for politics and culture Pritomnost (The Presence), founded and published in Prague by the esteemed political commentator and democrat Ferdinand Peroutka. Here she wrote editorials and visionary commentaries on the rise of the NSDAP in Germany, the Anschluss of Austria to Nazi Germany and the possible consequences this was to have for Czechoslovakia. As the political situation grew more serious, so did the depth, foresight and power of her writing.[9] After the occupation of Czechoslovakia by the German army, Jesenska organized the rescue of many Jewish and political refugees whom she hid in her appartment, fed, supplied with false papers, and helped to emigrate abroad, aided in her courageous efforts by her friend Joachim von Zedtwitz. She herself, however, decided to stay in her now occupied country, despite the possible consequences. In November 1939, she was arrested by the Gestapo and imprisoned first in Prague's Pankrac and later in Dresden. In October 1940, Jesenska was deported to the Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany. Here she provided moral and psychological support to other prisoners and befriended Margarete Buber-Neumann who wrote her first biography after the war. Jesenska died of kidney failure in Ravensbrück on May 17, 1944.[10]

Notes:
[1] Her father's family believed to descend from Jan Jesenius, the first professor of medicine at Prague's Charles University who was among the 27 Bohemian luminaries executed in the Old Town Square in Prague on June 21, 1621 for defying the authority of the Habsburgs. However, this part of the family history has been challenged as an unfounded hypothesis (Hockaday, 1997, 2; Markova-Kotykova, 1993, 17).
[2] Wagnerova, 1996, 33
[3] Wagnerova, 1996, Hockaday, 1997; disputed by Markova-Kotykova, 1993
[4] Hockaday, 1997; Jesenska's correspondence with Max Brod (Wagnerova, 1998).
[5] Dressler, 1982; Wagnerova, 1996; Markova-Kotykova, 1993
[6] Markova-Kotykova, 1993
[7] Dressler, 1982
[8] Hockaday, 1997, 155
[9] Dressler, 1982; Hockaday, 1997
[10] Hockaday, 1997

Anthologies of Jesenska's texts:

Published during her lifetime:

  • Cesta k jednoduchosti (The Road to Simplicity). Praha: Topic, 1926.
  • Clovek dela saty (Man Makes Clothes). Praha: Topic, 1927.

    Published after her death:

  • Burian, Vaclav, ed. Nad nase sily: Cesi, zide a Nemci 1937-1939. (Articles from Pritomnost.) Olomouc: Votobia, 1997.
  • Hayes, Kathleen, ed. The Journalism of Milena Jesenska: A Critical Voice in Interwar Central Europe. Translated from Czech and with an introduction by Kathleen Hayes. New York: Berghahn Books, 2003.
  • Hegnerova, Ludmila, ed. Milena Jesenska zvenci a zevnitr: Antologie textu Mileny Jesenske. (Selection of articles.) Praha: Prostor, 1996.
  • Jiraskova, Marie, ed. Milena Jesenska: Krizovatky. Vybor z dila. (Collected Works.) Praha: Torst, 2016.

    Bibliography:

    Biographies:

  • Buber-Neumann, Margarete. Milena: The Tragic Story of Kafka's Great Love. Arcade Publishing, 1997.
  • Cerna, Jana. Adresat Milena. Praha: Torst, 2014.
  • Dressler, Jaroslav. Kafkova Milena. Archa, 1982.
  • Hockaday, Mary. Kafka, Love, and Courage: The Life of Milena Jesenska. New York: The Overlook Press, 1997.
  • Markova-Kotykova, Marta. Mytus Milena: Milena Jesenska jinak. Praha: Primus, 1993.
  • Sem-Sandberg, Steve. Ravensbrück. Stockholm: Albert Bonniers Forlag, 2003. Trans. Dagmar Hartlova. Ravensbrück. Pribeh Mileny Jesenske. Praha: Paseka, 2012.
  • Wagnerova, Alena. Milena Jesenska. Prague: Prostor, 1996.

    Other relevant texts:

  • Kafka, Franz. Letters to Milena. Edited by Willy Haas; translated by Tania and James Stern. New York: Schocken Books, 1954
  • Kafka, Franz. Dopisy Milene. (Letters to Milena). Translated into Czech by Hana Zantovska. Praha: Cesky spisovatel, 1993.
  • Wagnerova, Alena, ed. Dopisy Mileny Jesenske. (Letters by Jesenska.) Prague: Prostor, 1998.

    Links:
    Pritomnost 36 (1938) and Pritomnost 41 (1938) - two essays by Milena Jesenska (in Czech) online
    Milena Jesenska Fellowships for Journalists
    Righteous among the nations: Milena Jesenska



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