Milena Jesenska

And now it's time for this week' edition of Czechs in History, in which we look at some of the great figures in the history of the Czech Lands. This week, Nick Carey takes a look at journalist Milena Jesenska...

When most people hear the name Milena Jesenska, they automatically associate her with the writer Franz Kafka, for they maintained a love affair via letters for some time. Kafka's letters to Milena were published after her death. Although this has given her international fame, there is so much more to Milena Jesenska's story that not many people know about. Amongst other things she was a journalist covering various genres, she headed a resistance movement against the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, and she spent four years in a Nazi concentration camp until her death in 1944...

Milena Jesenska was born in Prague on August 10th 1896. Her father was a dentist and a famous professor at Charles University, a man with a very strong character and strict ways. Milena's mother died when she was thirteen, leaving her alone with her father. Mary Hockaday, a journalist at the BBC, and the author of a book on Milena Jesenska, Kafka, Love and Courage, described their relationship:

One influence on Milena Jesenska's life at this point came from her experiences at a high school for girls she attended in Prague, as Eduard Goldstuker, a diplomat and scholar who knew Milena personally, told me:

A few of these girls became involved with the literary community in Prague, Milena Jesenka included, and they were amongst the very few Czechs who crossed over the boundary between the Czech and the German-speaking community, especially the Jewish community. Milena began seeing the Jewish writer Ernst Pollak, much against her father's wishes. As a result, he had Milena committed to a mental institution for nine months. Eventually, he consented to let Milana marry Ernst Pollak in 1918, but one of the conditions was that they leave Prague. Milena Jesenska and Ernst Pollak moved to Vienna. Their marriage was apparently not a happy one.

Milena began writing articles for Czech magazines, and wrote to Franz Kafka, with an offer to translate his novel America from German into Czech. As Mary Hockaday told me, things took off from there between them:

Milena and Franz Kafka met twice during this relationship, but after this the passion in their letters faded, and the correspondence ended. Milena divorced Ernst Pollak in 1924, and moved to Prague, and it was here that her career in journalism began in earnest.

Milena Jesenska spent some of her time translating from German, French, English, Russian and Hungarian into Czech. Most of her work, however, was dedicated to writing articles about fashion and relationships for women's magazines, and various essays for a number of other publications. Milena moved more and more from this style of writing to political journalism. Her political leanings were to the left, and she was a member of the Communist Party. I asked Eduard Goldstuker what it was that attracted Milena to the Communist Party:

It was through her second husband, Jaromir Krejcar, a leading Communist architect, with whom she had a daughter Jana, that Milena became disenchanted with the Stalinism of the Czechoslovak Communists. Mary Hockaday:

Milena Jesenska was formally removed from the Communist Party in 1935, and condemned as a Trotskyite. She was also accused by the Communists of being promiscuous, as she had had two husbands, and a number of lovers, which the party suddenly found unacceptable.

Throughout the 1930s, Milena's articles began to deal more and more with the mounting pressure between Nazi Germany and Czechoslovakia. She travelled to the Sudeten Lands, and reported on the increase in Nazism there, but also on the plight of ordinary Germans who opposed the Nazis. Where did she obtain this balanced approach? Eduard Goldstuker:

Milena aided refugees from Germany and Austria, and then those from the Sudeten Lands after the Munich Agreement was signed in September 1938. When the Nazis occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, Milena continued to write articles, at first for the magazine Pritomnost, to which had contributed for some time, and once Pritomnost was closed down, she wrote for the underground magazine V Boj. She also became the head of a resistance movement, helping refugees to leave the country. Milena's actions, according to Mary Hockaday, don't really come as a surprise:

The Gestapo arrested Milena Jesenska on November 11th 1939, and was sent to the Ravensbruck concentration camp, where she lived until her death on June 5th 1944. She was by all accounts brave and optimistic throughout her time at the camp, and helped out her fellow inmates when she could, as Margarete Buber-Neumann, who was also at Ravensbruck, recalled in a book on Milena Jesenska.

After the war, none of what happened during the Second World War had dampened the Communist Party's dislike for Milena, as Eduard Golstuker told me:

Ten years after the Velvet Revolution, much more information is available on Milena Jesenska, and many people have come forward to defend her, as the few who argued in her favour during the Communist regime, Eduard Goldstuker included, were themselves attacked. What do the Czechs feel about Milena Jesenska, now that they know more about her?: