Milena – Franz Kafka's Love
I see you more clearly, the movements of your body, your hands, so quick, so determined, it's almost a meeting, although when I try to raise my eyes to your face, what breaks into the flow of the letter...is fire and I see nothing but fire.
(from a letter by Franz Kafka to Milena Jesenská)
Milena Jesenská was born August 10, 1896 in Prague. Her father was a dentist and professor of medicine at Charles University in Prague, a conservative Catholic who was a Czech patriot, with whom she had a tense relationship. Her mother died when she was 13, and her adolescence was marked by rebellion and an urge to break away with old patterns. She graduated from the Minerva school, a very prestigious educational institution, began medical studies, but dropped out after several semesters.
When she was about 20, she fell in love with Ernst Pollak. He worked as a translator in a bank, but was in the circle of Czech intellectuals, and introduced Milena to Franz Kafka, Max Brod, Franz Werfel and others. Her father disapproved of her affair with the German-speaking Jew Pollak, and eventually had her locked up in a mental hospital for nine months, from June 1917 to March 1918. When she married Pollak after her release from the mental asylum, her father withdrew his financial support and broke off with his daughter. The couple moved to Vienna. She worked as a Czech tutor and started working as a journalist, becoming the Viennese fashion correspondent for a Prague newspaper. Her years in Vienna were unhappy and her marriage was not working. It was in Vienna that she read Kafka's first stories, and wrote to him, asking him for permission to translate it into Czech. This was the beginning of a passionate correspondence, which would continue until early 1923. Their relationship was conducted mostly through mail, and their love affair had no real future. Kafka finally broke off the relationship. After he died in 1924, Milena published an obituary in Národní Listy, saying that he was "condemned to see the world with such blinding clarity that he found it unbearable and went to his death.".
After Kafka's death Milena left her husband. She moved first to Dresden and then back to Prague, and became an editor in Národní listy and eventually in Přítomnost. Her work as editor established her among a group of Czech writers and journalists, of Jewish and also German descent. In 1927 Milena married a Bauhaus architect, Jaromír Krejcar, and in 1928 her daughter Jana was born. She became active in the Communist Party, writing for the party magazine Svít práce, but following the "show trials" in the Soviet Union in 1936, she left the party.
The annexation of Sudetenland by the Germans in the fall of 1938 brought a mass of refugees, especially Jewish, to Prague. Milena, as well as many others, estimated that the Nazis would soon conquer the whole country and that the ideological dissidents residing there, mainly Jews, would be the first to be persecuted. Milena Jesenská therefore began to encourage her Jewish colleagues to cross the border to Poland and head to the west. The problem became more acute with the German invasion in the spring of 1939. Then, Milena’s good friend, Count Joachim von Zedtwitz, of German descent, told her about an escape route that had been prepared for Czech pilots wanting to flee to France. It involved crossing the border near Moravská Ostrava with the help of local guides and then continuing on to Katowice, Poland. A British-run office located there helped those escaping get to England. Jesenská and Zedtwitz decided to use this route to smuggle out threatened compatriots. Very soon, Jesenská’s apartment became a temporary way station for those in flight. While they stayed in her house, Milena took care of their needs and supplied them with food and the false papers that they would need on the journey. In his letter to Yad Vashem from 8 April 1945, Zedtwitz wrote: "I met many people in her apartment in Kourmska 6. There they found shelter and were preparing for their flight over the border to Poland. For conspiratorial reasons I never knew their names, and I may have forgotten some. Milena and I soon agreed that I could help her with this activity. Usually I would take people with my car, an Aero two-seater, from Milena's apartment and drive them to Moravská Ostrava near the Polish border." Zedtwitz was also recognized as Righteous Among the Nations.
The Jewish, communist journalist Eugen Klinger was one among many other refugees that hid in Jesenská’s apartment and was then rescued with Jesenská and Zedtwitz’s help. Klinger survived the war in London. While still in Prague, Klinger had tried to persuade Jesenská to escape to the west, but she refused. Jesenská believed the danger that she faced as an anti-fascist was less than the danger faced by her Jewish friends and, therefore, that she should continue with the rescue activities for as long as possible. This proved to be a fatal error.
On November 11, 1939, the Gestapo arrested Jesenská. Three letters from Zedtwitz found in her apartment contained information that led to his arrest and detention for 15 months. After being detained in several prisons, Jesenská was deported to Ravensbrück concentration camp for women. In the camp she met a fellow prisoner, Margarete Buber-Neuamnn, who had previously been married to Martin Buber's son. A rare friendship developed between the two. Due to the camp conditions Milena's health deteriorated and she died on May 17, 1944, three weeks before D-Day.
On December 14, 1994, Yad Vashem recognized Milena Jesenská as Righteous Among the Nations.