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189 JESENSKÁ, Milena (1896–1944) Czech journalist and translator who challenged gender stereotypes. Pseudonyms include ‘A. X. Nessey,’ ‘Marie Kubešová,’ ‘M.,’ ‘Mi.,’ ‘Milena,’ ‘Milena J.’ and ‘M. J.’ Milena Jesenská was born on 10 August 1896 in Prague. Her father, Jan Jesenský, a professor of dentistry at the Faculty of Medicine of Charles University, was one of the top professionals in his field and also a prominent member of Czech society in Prague. Milena Jesensk á’s childhood and youth were marked both by the illness of her mother (also Milena, born Hejzlarová), who was for a long time bedridden, and by the usurpatory and unbalanced love of her father. Milena was enrolled in the “Minerva” Czech high school for girls, attended by the first generation of emancipated and educated women. After completing the final exam in 1915, she began studying medicine, but soon interrupted her studies with a short intermezzo at the conservatoire, later embarking on an extravagant life-style as one of Prague’s ‘gilded youth’—none of this was unusual for a young woman of her social background, but it did bring her the criticism and condemnation of Prague social elites. Intellectual interest, inquisitiveness and resistance to her father’s nationalism directed Jesenská to a circle of German-Jewish writers (including Max Brod, F. Werfer, W. Haas and Franz Kafka) that met regularly at the Arco café. There, Jesenská met her future husband, Ernst Polak, a bank plenipotentiary who, though knowledgeable about literature, was not a writer himself. Intensified conflicts with her father, along with her ‘irreverent’ lifestyle on the margins of the law (arrested on one occasion for picking state-owned magnolias), resulted in Jesenská’s forced placement in a mental hospital in 1917. After she had legally come of age, and having obtained the agreement of her father, she married Ernst Polak and moved with him to Vienna. In the early months of post-war impoverishment, she began writing texts for Czech newspapers about life in Vienna: first for the Tribuna (Tribune) and later (probably with the help of her aunt, the writer Růžena Jesenská), for the important Prague daily newspaper Národní Listy (National paper). The intellectual environment of discussions in the cafés Herrenhof and Central became a school for this young journalist and significantly 190 influenced her style of writing. At that time, probably at the suggestion of Ernst Polak, she also started translating. Her work on a translation of Kafka’s short story “Topič” (The stoker) evolved into an intense romantic friendship with the writer, expressed in the form of “written kisses” in their mutual correspondence (1920–23). The later publication of Kafka’s Dopisy Mileně (Letters to Milena, 1961) made the addressee of his letters world famous. However Jesenská’s subsequent categorization as ‘Kafka’s friend Milena’ has also resulted in a prevailing ignorance of her life, particularly her work as a journalist, and her death in a Nazi concentration camp. After the break-up of her marriage with Ernst Polak, Jesenská spent a short time in Buchholz (near Dresden) with her new partner, the communist Count Xaver Schaffgotsch. There, they stayed at the home of Otta Rühle and his wife Alice Gerstl. By 1925, she was back in Prague. She was already well known as a journalist and established herself firmly within the Czech avant-garde camp organized around Devětsil (Butterbur), a radical group of artists. Through this circle, she met her second husband, the architect Jaromír Krejcar (whom she married in 1926). She wrote for the women’s section of the Národní Listy (National paper) and for the Lidové Noviny (People’s newspaper), cooperating with women such as Slávka Vondráčková on pioneering projects that advocated avant-garde ideas of emancipation in the spheres of modern housing design, lifestyle and fashion for women. Jesenská became one of the most prominent women journalists of her time, yet her sphere of influence was nevertheless limited to women’s sections in journals, newspapers and feuilletons. She later published her writings in two books: Cesta k jednoduchosti (The way to simplicity, 1926) and Člověk dělá šaty (Human makes dress, 1927). The birth of her daughter Honza in 1928, severe illness (resulting in a paralyzed right knee), together with a drug addiction, resulted in the decline of Jesenská’s career in journalism and also in the break-up of her second marriage in 1933. During the early 1930s, Jesenská’s life was marred by material...


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