Franz Kafka and Milena Jesenska
Milena Jesenská (pronounced Mee-leh-nah Yeh-sen-skah) was born August 10, 1896 in Prague to Dr. Jan Jesenský, a dentist and professor of medicine at Charles University in Prague, and Milena (Hejzlarová) Jesenská (in Czech and other Slavic languages, women's last names have a feminine ending). Her family was a conservative Catholic one, and although she got along well with her mother, she feared and later rebelled against her severe, strict father, with whom she had major problems throughout her life, much like Franz Kafka's problems with his own father. When Milena was about three, a son was born to her parents but soon died. Her mother died when she was 16, leaving her alone with her father, whose fathering abilities were nonexistent, and after that she pretty much did what she liked. She was sent to the Minerva Girls' Academy in Prague, which turned out to be a hotbed of new ideas, such as feminism. She had a very dear friend, Staša Procházková, and they were so close in their teens that they were rumored to be lovers. Milena did her own thing, taking pills she stole from her father's office and trying cocaine, as well as going through her father's money like water.
She met Ernst Pollak when she was about 20, and soon fell head over heels in love with him, even though he was ten years older than she was. He worked as a translator in a bank, but his real occupation was sitting in the cafés of Prague and discussing art, literature, politics and other subjects with the other café habitués, some of them being Franz Kafka, Max Brod, Franz Werfel, and many others of their circle, although Kafka didn't take much notice of her at first. She would do things like decorate Ernst's apartment with basketfuls of flowers, leaving him a bit overwhelmed. According to her daughter, Jana Černá, after they had been going out for awhile, she became pregnant by him and had an abortion. Her father was a rabid anti-Semite and disapproved of her affair with the German-speaking Jew Pollak, and eventually had her locked her up in a mental hospital for nine months, from June to March 1918. After her release, she married Ernst and the couple moved to Vienna to live with him. She was pretty unhappy there, to say the least. Her knowledge of German was still not very good, she knew nobody in Vienna, but most importantly Ernst began to cheat on her almost immediately with practically any woman he could find—she would later say to Kafka that he cheated on her "a hundred times a year." She worked as a Czech tutor and porter in the railway station before she started writing and beginning to make a name for herself as a journalist, becoming the Viennese fashion correspondent for a Prague newspaper. But her life in Vienna was worse than ever. She became so miserable she began to take cocaine. But she wouldn't leave Ernst, at least not until she had become smitten by a strange and unearthly man.
In late 1919, she took notice of an interesting little story, Der Heizer (The Stoker), by a little-known Prague writer named Franz Kafka, and wrote to him, asking him for permission to translate it into Czech. This was the beginning of their correspondence, which would continue until early 1923. This relationship was conducted mostly through the mail, the only times they met being four days in Vienna and later a day in a town on the Czech/Austrian border, Gmünd. This turned out unhappily, though. Milena was still not strong enough to leave Ernst, and so Franz finally broke off the relationship. Milena saw very clearly that Frank, as she called him, was not going to live much longer. There was no real future for them together, Franz's morbid fears, especially of sex, his extreme sensitivity, and his worsening tuberculosis coming in between them. However, he trusted her completely, giving her all of his diaries in 1922. After he died Milena wrote a moving obituary for him, saying that "He was clear-sighted, too wise to live and too weak to fight," and that he was "condemned to see the world with such blinding clarity that he found it unbearable and went to his death.".
After the final break with Kafka, she managed to leave her husband and moved to Dresden and then back to Prague with her new lover, Count Xavier Schaffgotsch. Milena became the editor of the "Woman and Home" page of an important Prague newspaper, Národní listy, writing about fashion and interior decoration, and also editing a series of children's books. However, she and Schaffgotsch soon broke up, and in 1927 Milena met and married a Bauhaus architecht, Jaromír Krejcar. She was happier than she had ever been before, and when she became pregnant it was the fulfilment of her dreams. Unfortunately, she became very ill, and the birth of her daughter, Jana, on August 14, 1928 didn't add much to her happiness, Milena being so ill that it was thought that she would die. She recovered, having suffered damage to her right knee and was lamed for life, and she had also become addicted to morphine, and many years of hardship and failed attempts to quit followed until she finally managed to "kick the habit" in 1938..
Meanwhile Milena, who had never been very political before, became active in the Communist Party, writing for the party magazine Svít práce and believed fervently in the cause. However, she was unable to silence her doubts about the methods used for achieving this "revolution," and finally after the notorious "show trials" in the Soviet Union in 1936, she left the party, or rather, was expelled—she always marched to her own drummer..
Her marriage was long since over, Jaromír having moved to the Soviet Union in a burst of idealism, only to be disappointed with the reality, and when he came back he had a new lover. Milena herself was rumored to have many lovers, both male and female. She was now writing articles for the Prítomnost newspaper, exploring issues important to her. The threat of Nazism was in the air, and the Sudeten Germans on the border between Czechoslovakia and Germany were agitating for autonomy, and after the Munich Conference in 1938, where the Czechs were left out in the cold as their country was essentially handed over to the Nazis all became the subjects of passionately argued articles by Milena, who knew that the country had to resist with all its might. Even as Germans entered Prague in March 1939, she was still writing her articles. She also became involved in the underground movement to get prominent Czechs, both Jews and gentiles, out of the country, even enlisting little Honza (Jana's pet name) to carry messages and underground newspapers and wearing the yellow Jewish star..
Unfortunately, she was too friendly and chatty about her activities, and was soon arrested. In 1940 she was sent to the women's concentration camp at Ravensbrück in Germany, where she managed, despite her poor health, to become an inspiration to the other prisoners, who admired and even loved her (all except the Communists, who saw her as a traitor). She met Margarete Buber-Neumann, who was also a journalist and former Communist, and they became best friends. They promised to write a book together when they got out, and if only one lived, she would bear witness to the other. But Milena's health was failing. She had one of her kidneys removed after it became infected, but the other one soon failed as well, and she died on May 17, 1944 at the age of 47. Margarete kept her promise, writing Milenas Freundin Milena about her. And in 1995 she was honored at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem as one of the "Righteous Among the Nations" for her efforts in saving Jews from the Nazis. Some Quotes by MilenaAbout Franz Kafka: "He wrote the most significant works of modern German literature, which reflect the irony and prophetic vision of a man condemned to see the world with such blinding clarity that he found it unbearable and went to his death.".
"He sees life very differently from other people. . .To him any job—even his own—is as mysterious, as marvelous, as a locomotive is to a small child. The simplest things in the world are beyond him. . .Yes, this whole world is and remains a puzzle to him, a mystery. Something utterly beyond him, but which with his touchingly pure naiveté he admires for its efficiency. . . Franz can't live. He is incapable of living. Franz will never get well. Franz will die soon." "His books are amazing. He himself is infinitely more amazing. . .".
Milena's Obituary for Kafka: "An Obituary for Frank Kafka"Dr. Franz Kafka, a German writer who lived in Prague, died the day before yesterday in a sanatorium in Kierling at Klosterneuburg, near Vienna. Few people here knew him, for he was a solitary, wise person terrified by life. He suffered for years from lung disease. Although he did treat his illness medically, he also consciously encouraged it, and supported it with his thinking..
Once he wrote in a letter, "When the soul and the heart can no longer bear the burden, the lungs take over one half of it, so that the weight will at least be evenly distributed." That is how it was with his illness. It gave him an almost miraculous delicacy and a frighteningly uncompromising intellectual refinement. As a human being, however, he pushed all his fear of life onto his illness. He was shy, timid, gentle, and kind, but he wrote gruesome and painful books. He saw the world as full of invisible demons, who tear apart and destroy defenseless people. He was too clear-sighted and too wise to be able to live; he was too weak to fight, he had that weakness of noble, beautiful people who are not able to do battle against the fear of misunderstandings, unkindness, or intellectual lies. Such persons know beforehand that they are powerless and go down in defeat in such a way that they shame the victor. He knew people as only people of great sensitivity are able to know them, as somebody who is alone and sees people almost prophetically, from one flash of a face. He knew the world in a deep and extraordinary manner. He was himself a deep and extraordinary world..
He wrote books that belong to the most outstanding works of German literature. They express the struggles of today's generation, but without any tendentious words. They are truthful, naked, and painful, so that even where they speak symbolically, they are almost naturalistic. They are full of dry mockery and the sensitive gaze of a person who has seen the world so clearly that he could not bear it and had to die; he did not want to retreat and save himself, as others do, even by the noblest intellectual subconscious errors..
Dr. Franz Kafka wrote the fragment "The Stoker" (published in Czech in Neumann's [magazine] Červen (June), [actually in Kmen (The Stem)] which is the first chapter of a beautiful novel of which the rest has not yet been published; The Judgment, about the conflict between Twogenerations; The Metamorphosis, the most powerful book of modern German literature; The Penal Colony, and the sketches Reflections and A Country Doctor. His last novel, The Trial, exists in manuscript; it has been ready for the press for years. It is one of those books that give one the sense of a totally encompassed world, so that after we have finished reading them, we feel not a single word needs to be added. All his books depict the horrors of mysterious misunderstandings and of undeserved human guilt. He was a man and a writer with such a fearful conscience that he heard things where others were deaf and felt safe..
6 June 1924, Národní listy.
letter from Milená Jesenská.
In 1919 the Jewish Czech writer Franz Kafka, recuperating from tuberculosis in a sanatorium, received a letter from a 24 year old journalist from Vienna, Milená Jesenská. She wanted to translate his enigmatic stories into Czech. Early in 1920 she sent him her first translations, and they bean a tormented Twoyear passion that was conducted almost entirely by correspondence. for Kafka, Milená'a letters were.
"...the most beautiful thing that ever happened in my life.".
Those letters have been lost. Kafka's own undated letters, preserved by Milená and hidden in Prague during World War II, tell a story with few fixed points. The letter printed here is from near the end of their relationship. The paranoia and uncertainty it expresses--about Milená's husband finding out, and about the potential sexuality of the relationship--typify Kafka's state of mind throughout the affair..
Initially they wrote in German, Kafka's native language. He later insisted that Milená write in Czech, since he could only capture her whole personality through her native tongue. After the first Czech letter, Kafka wrote:.
"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.".
Kafka found her intensity intriguing, but felt that the fire in her personality burned mainly for her husband, Ernst Polak. In fact, Milená's relationship with her husband was disintegrating at the time. He excluded her from his social and intellectual life, and made no attempt to hide his affairs with other women. In the face of Ernst's infidelities she reached completely to the sensitive personality that came across in her prose:.
"One leans right back and drinks the letters, oblivious of everything except that one doesn't want to stop drinking.".
She was not the first woman in Kafka's life, and he tried to be objective about their future together:.
"I've been engaged twice (three times, if you wish, that's to say twice to the same girl), so I've been separated three times from marriage by only a few days. The first one is completely over...the second is without any prospect of marriage...".
He wanted to marry, he explained, but feared it would affect his writing. For Kafka, marriage was not a way out of loneliness but a vision of security, a vocation in itself:.
"Marrying, founding a family, accepting all the children that come, supporting them in this insecure world and perhaps even guiding them a little, is I am convinced, the utmost a human being can succeed in doing at all.".
Such ordinary happiness was beyond Kafka. He was well liked, thoughtful, and generous, but his real life was a surreal fabric of the mind, beset by anxieties. He analyzed every move until no move was possible. In one of his stories he wrote about a man who is fascinated by a spinning top and wants to know how it works. Yet every time he grabs it, it goes dead in his hands. So too, it turned out, with his and Milená's relationship; it was beautiful in the abstract, but failed to work once it involved physical realities.