She was born in a family that belonged to the bourgeoise and during many years she was only known as “the woman Kafka was in love with”. Women remain forgotten by literary history. Women remain invisible, in books, in history lessons, everywhere. Or we remind them like Milena, a woman someone much greater was in love with, or the woman behind somebody’s great successes.
But the fact is Milena was much more than that: she was a writer, a translator, a teacher. She was a woman who fought for her love to marry her first husband, the writer Ernst Pollak, a Jewish intellectual with whom she lived in Vienna.
In 1919 she first read Kafka’s short stories. She fell in love with them instantly and personally asked Kafka to translate them into Czech. And that is how their love story begun: they wrote to each other, endlessly, passionately. They only met twice during the two years that lasted their literary affair but their love was a great as any other. Milena was trapped in a marriage that humiliated her and Kafka somehow healed the enormous pain she felt at the time. But their story wouldn’t be long, just two years after their correspondence stopped, Kafka died.
But back to her: Milena was jewish. Milena was a communist. Milena was Czech and a patriot. Milena supported the resistance to the Nazism. Milena was a feminist. Milena was a miraculous woman. She did everything to survive, she strove to keep afloat. And Milena died in a concentration camp not far away from Berlin, in Ravensbrück. But her strength remains in all those who met her.
The concentration camps represent the horror of the 20th century. They are a symbol of what human beings are capable of doing. They make us realize how wicked minds can be. But they also stand for solidarity between people. They are also a clear referent of friendship, love, companionship and resilience. Resilience like the showed by Milena Jesenská.
She became really good friends with Margarete Buber-Neumann, who would write a book about her after all the suffering ended. Margarete described her as an “unbroken spirit, a free woman in the midst of the insulted and the injured”. They met in the death camps and smiled and laughed and forged a wonderful friendship. They walked hand in hand against everything. And one of them survived to tell her story and the story of the women she met there.
Milena’s story is not another woman’s story. Milena’s story is a story of survival and love. She was definitely more than “someone else’s greater love”. She died but in my mind she’ll always be another survivor of the Nazi horror. Her ideas brought her to the death camps and her ideas have made her immortal.