Friday 24 June 2016


a book review of Milena, by Margarete Buber-Neumann

I’ve decided to save impressions of occasional books I read from oblivion. I won’t feign journalistic neutrality: I’ll shamelessly mix in my own experience and sensibility.

I picked up Milena while browsing through the shelves of a local used bookshop, L’ivre Livre, on a pedestrian street of medieval Foix. As usual, I gravitated towards the sections on history and autobiography. My eye was on the lookout for anything to do with the Nazi concentration camps and genocide. I strongly dislike the word “holocaust” as it takes the brutal de-humanisation, shooting, gassing and burning of millions and raises it to the level of a religious offering – which is exactly how the Nazi leaders would like us to see it. The word “shoah” is inappropriate in that it is modern Israeli, whereas the vast majority of Jewish victims spoke Yiddish. The Yiddish word, “khurbm”, is too little known to be of use in everyday conversation. So I will stick to “Nazi genocide” to describe my small but growing library of books covering the period, mostly first-hand accounts by victims, with Primo Levi holding a place of honour.

Milena, by Margarete Buber-Neumann

When I saw the name of Margarete Buber-Neumann on the shelves of L’ivre Livre, I paused. I had been browsing the Internet for books that could be of interest a few months earlier, and recognised the name as that of a woman who had been a prisoner in both Stalin’s and Hitler’s camps. So I picked the book off the shelf, curious (like one picks a ripe fruit off a tree?). This French translation of a book first published in German in 1966 was indeed written by a German ex-communist whom had been delivered by Stalin to Hitler along with many other political prisoners in 1940, following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. It recounts the author’s friendship, in the desperate conditions of the Ravensbruck concentration camp, with a certain Milena – who had briefly been Kafka’s lover, and who had kept up an epistolary love affair with him throughout the remainder of his short life. I delved deeper: Kafka had been one of my late teenage obsessions, and I had a near religious veneration for the Metamorphosis and the Trial. In little time, the book was mine.

Milena Jesenská reached maturity in interwar Prague, a fascinating city in its period of greatest hope and worst deception. The country was experiencing its first period of independence after three centuries of Austrian domination. Strangely (for a Czech city), it was home to a number of highly original German-speaking authors, who lived in Prague as foreigners with hardly a readership, among them Franz Werfel (whom I know mostly for his book on the Armenian genocide, The forty days of Musa Dagh), and of course, Franz Kafka. Milena was one of a generation of young cultured Czech woman who found inspiration among both these avant garde German-language authors, and a loose group of burgeoning Czech poets, critics, artists and architects, and often served as a liaison between the two.

The book captures in surprising detail the bohemian lifestyle of interwar Prague, all centred around Milena, who is passionate, enigmatic, generous, warm-hearted and naturally elegant. The richness of this life, and especially of the fruitful exchange between cultures – Czech, Austrian and Jewish – is delightful as it is short-lived and tragic. Milena herself ends up in an unhappy marriage, and emerges from it only by devoting herself to a sort of personal, popular, but very honest journalism. I was struck by the descriptions of Kafka himself – the dedicated office clerk, who, even at the age of ten, had tortured himself for hours by trying to find the best way to give a sum of money he had earned to a beggar without being noticed. He was in love with Milena, but horrified by physical love. He seems both keenly observant and childishly naïve, and his books certainly gain their power from this strange combination that permeates them.

Franz Kafka in 1906

I was also struck by Milena’s behaviour among the everyday horrors of Ravensbruck. Her rebellion lay simply in her refusal to become just another prisoner, but instead to keep her humanity and individuality throughout her stay in these horrid surroundings, and up to her death. She consistently broke camp rules in small ways, but small ways that could easily lead to a death sentence, and miraculously got away with everything she did. She seemed to stroll around the camp and take the time to salute her friends amiably, instead of marching senselessly from one task to the next like the vast majority of inmates. Her platonic friendship with Buber-Neumann was intensely passionate. For Buber-Neumann, Milena’s “little Prussian”, the very possibility of loving another human in the camp allowed her to survive, even during several weeks of dark solitary confinement with only a single chunk of bread to eat every four days. The description of the communist prisoners in the camp is pitiless, and that of the Jehovah’s witnesses as well. To Buber-Neumann, both of these groups made ideal prisoners for the Nazis, and helped keep the camps running smoothly as no other groups could have. They are completely at home in the utter lack of freedom the camp provides them, and stand in stark contrast to the lively, passionate Milena.

Milena is a book which does its best to keep a woman whom the author loved out of oblivion. By writing down and sharing my own impressions of the book, I’m doing my small bit to help her in her desperate task. The time must be ripe to pick up my old copies of Kafka again, and re-discover the art produced during this brief period of sparkling life that inhabited Prague between the wars. And maybe, at the same time, to re-discover my easily excited and naïve self in those long forgotten late teenage years.

Pencil sketch of Margarete Buber-Neumann.

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