Journalism fellowship program named for Milena Jesenska

Milena Jesenska

Milena Jesenska, a Czech writer and translator, died in a Nazi death camp in May 1944. Many know her name because Franz Kafka published a book dedicated to her entitled "Letters to Milena." For a number of years in the early 1920s Milena Jesenska and Franz Kafka were lovers. Much less known is the fact that Milena Jesenska was a talented journalist, though one important fellowship program based in Vienna honours her memory.

Symbolizing the connection between Prague and Vienna - cities in which Milena Jesenska lived nearly a century ago - Vienna's Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) is home-base for those who are awarded the Milena Jesenska Fellowship for journalists. These fellowships enable experienced European journalists working in print, broadcasting, and electronic media to work in Vienna for three months on projects of their own choice, free of daily duties and obligations.

Many of the journalists are from post-communist countries where media conditions are not always ideal: some of the recent fellows come from Belarus, Ukraine, and numerous Balkan states. One of the journalists who recently participated in the Milena Jesenska Fellowship program at the IWM is Romanian, and he describes the project that was the focus of his attention for three months:

"My project was focused on organized crime, more specifically on the inter-connection between the organized crime groups in eastern Europe and international organized crime groups. During my stay at the Institute in Vienna, I had a chance to travel to Columbia, for instance, to investigate the connections between Columbian organized crime groups and eastern European groups. I also had the time to study this phenomenon from a historical perspective, which I wasn't aware of until that point - or I only had glimpses into this. So my time here offered me scholarly insight into the organized crime issue, but I was also able to conduct field work. So from my point of view, the three months spent here were very well spent. These months planted the seed for investigative reports that I published afterwards, in the Romanian media and abroad. It was a good period."

Did you make any good contacts that you've been able to maintain?

"Yes, I have indeed. I made contact with Austrian newspapers in that period and we kept on cooperating. Vienna is very important from the organized crime point of view - it's a point where there is an organized crime junction in eastern Europe. I won't elaborate on that, but it's very important. So I was able to come back here to Vienna and with the help of journalists from Viennese newspapers I was able to investigate, for instance, a Romanian organized crime group that established itself in Vienna in the 19th district."

Journalists working in central Europe today have the benefit of better conditions than those that Milena Jesenska experienced. When the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in March 1939, Milena Jesenska turned her journalistic talents into a weapon and she paid the ultimate price: she died in Ravensbrucke concentration camp on May 17, 1944.