The Journalism of Milena Jesenská: A Critical Voice in Interwar Central Europe

The Journalism of Milena Jesenská: A Critical Voice in Interwar Central Europe

The Journalism of Milena Jesenská: A Critical Voice in Interwar Central Europe

The Journalism of Milena Jesenská: A Critical Voice in Interwar Central Europe


Milena Jesenská, born in Prague in 1896, is most famous as one of Franz Kafka's great loves. Although their relationship lasted only a short time, it won the attention of the literary world with the 1952 publication of Kafka's letters to Milena. Her own letters did not survive. Later biographies showed her as a fascinating personality in her own right. In the Czech Republic, she is remembered as one of the most prominent journalists of the interwar period and as a brave one: in 1939 she was arrested for her work in the resistance after the German occupation of Bohemia and Moravia, and died in Ravensbrück concentration camp in 1944. It is estimated that Jesenská wrote well over 1,000 articles but only a handful have been translated into English. In this book her own writings provide a new perspective on her personality, as well as the changes in Central Europe between the two world wars as these were perceived by a woman of letters. The articles in this volume cover a wide range of topics, including her perceptions of Kafka, her understanding of social and cultural changes during this period, the threat of Nazism, and the plight of the Jews in the 1930s.


The publication of Franz Kafka’s letters to Milena Jesenská in 1952 established the myth of Milena, the ‘living fire’ as Kafka described her, in the imagination of the public. Her letters to him were lost. Biographies and a few collections of Jesenská’s newspaper articles gradually filled out the contours of this myth. a portrait of an unusual person emerged, one whose life was emblematic of a generation that came of age at the end of the First World War and saw its ideals destroyed by the Second World War.

Jesenská was born in Prague on 10 August 1896, at a time when the Austro-Hungarian Empire was plagued by nationality conflicts. She studied at the Minerva, the first grammar school for girls in the monarchy, opened in 1890. It was probably largely because of her education that she rejected the traditional role of mother and housewife, which defined the place of women in Czech society at that time. She took it for granted that the world of culture and employment was open to her. Her mother, Milena née Hejzlarová, who might have provided a counterbalancing conservative role model, died in 1913 when Jesenská was sixteen.

Jesenská’s adolescence was more tumultuous than most, acted out in rebellion against her father, Jan Jesenský (1870–1947), a professor of dentistry. She rejected his Czech nationalism and antiSemitism, cultivating acquaintances in German and Jewish circles in a city that was divided along ethnic lines. According to various testimonies, she spent her father’s money freely and experimented with drugs that she stole from his clinic. It is rumoured that she had an abortion. in June 1917, her father had her committed to the Veleslavín psychiatric clinic. This was probably his last attempt to put an end to his daughter’s relationship with the Jew Ernst Pollak (1886–1947). in spite of her father’s disapproval, Jesenská married Pollak in March 1918 upon her release from Veleslavín and the couple moved to Vienna.

Her new life in Vienna could hardly have been less idyllic. Pollak’s infidelities put a strain on their marriage. Jesenská had no close friends in the city and she felt out of place in Pollak’s jaded social circle. She was also isolated by language; to begin with, her command of German was not perfect. As her husband’s salary could . . .

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