MILENA by Margarete Buber-Neumann


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A biography of Milena Jesenska, a Czech anti-Nazi journalist who as a free-spirited young woman was briefly Franz Kafka's lover. Written by the daughter-in-law of Martin Buber, the book promises to be more moving and revelatory than it in fact is. The author and her subject met as fellow prisoners at the Ravensbruck concentration camp in 1940. During the next four years, Jesenska and Buber-Neumann developed a deep friendship that enabled the two to confront their inhuman fate. The author herself was not unfamiliar with totalitarian brutality, having earlier been incarcerated in the Russian gulag, Karaganda, and then handed over to the Nazis during the period of the Hitler-Stalin Pact. It was Jesenska's refusal to be crashed that in large measure sustained Buber-Neumann through her ordeal. In delineating this friendship, the author creates many pages that are both heartbreaking and heartwarming, by far the most successful sections in the book. Buber-Neumann is on shakier ground, however, when she recounts the events in Milena's life before their meeting in Ravensbruck. Much of the problem lies in the sketchiness of the details of life in prewar Prague, where Milena was a combination ""new woman"" and social activist. The general reader, unfamiliar with the tangle of political and artistic loyalties during this period of Slavic foment, is likely to be frustrated by the paucity of information in this section. Milena herself and those around her remain largely ciphers. The editors provide Biographical Notes at the end that identify many of the dramatis personae but do not ultimately flesh out the narrative. Nonetheless, the pages depicting camp lite and describing the emotional bonds that linked the two women make this an important testimonial. Jesenska died in Ravensbruck in 1943. Here, her friend has produced a disappointingly flawed but still moving tribute to her.

Pub Date: May 6th, 1988
Publisher: Henry Holt