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The Little Prussian Who Loved the Little Czech : MILENA by Margarete Buber-Neumann translated by Ralph Manheim (Seaver Books: $17.95; 213 pp.)

June 05, 1988|Wendy Wilder Larsen | Larsen is co-author with Tran Thi Nga of "Shallow Graves: Two Women and Vietnam" (Harper & Row), the story of a friendship between an American and a Vietnamese woman

In 1940, the horrors of war brought two extraordinary women together in Ravensbruck concentration camp in Germany. Milena Jesensky was a Czechoslovakian journalist imprisoned for her anti-Nazi articles; Margarete Buber-Neumann, a Prussian writer who had spent years in prisons in the Soviet Union before she was sent to Ravensbruck. It was in the camp that the two women began a friendship which was to sustain them through four terrible years as political prisoners.

They had planned to write a book together, but Jesensky never got out. Shortly before she died, she said to Buber-Neumann, "I know that you at least will not forget me." Buber-Neumann did not forget. Her book, "Milena" is a testament to her friend and to the immortality of love.

From their first meeting, a deep bond was forged between "the little Czech" and "the little Prussian," as they called each other. At the risk of death, Jesensky, who always took risks, would sneak to Buber-Neumann's barracks and climb through the window. As the boots of the SS guards crunched on the gravel outside, they told each other their life stories.

Born in Prague in 1896, Milena took care of her sick mother, who died when she was 13, leaving her to be reared by her father, Dr. Jan Jesensky, a cruel man she both loved and hated. Though always a generous friend, Milena was an independent spirit and a leader. A friend said, "The most striking thing about her was her gait. . . . In long flowing robes a la Duncan with loose hair and an armful of flowers, she was vividly, strikingly beautiful despite her exaggerated disregard for what people thought."

Buber-Neumann tells us that Milena, eager to break from old patterns, was drawn to the German and Jewish intellectuals living in Prague. Her first love was Ernst Polak, 10 years her senior. Her father was so disgraced that she has having an affair with a German Jew that he had her committed to a mental home. After she was released, she married Polak, and they went to live in Vienna, where he led her into a terrible life by having affairs with other women.

Milena began writing articles and translating. She first met Franz Kafka in 1920 when she was translating his work. She was only 24. She worshiped him, but their affair ended tragically when he forbade her to contact him. His letters to her make intriguing reading. In a letter to Max Brod, she said Kafka is afraid of love and added: "He marvels at everything including women and typewriters."

Returning to Prague, Milena began to edit the women's page of a national conservative newspaper. She lived with Count Schaffgotsch, a Communist. She told Buber-Neumann, "I seem to be fated to love weak men." Her only good relationship was with Jaromir Krejcar, the well-known architect. When she almost died of septicemia while having their child, her father was summoned. He gave her so many morphine shots that she became an addict.

She was able to break the habit and began writing her lyrical pieces for an outstanding political and literary monthly. She wrote of the Czech anthem, "It is not a battle hymn, it merely celebrates the countryside of Bohemia with its . . . birches, willows and shade lindens." When the war got closer, her articles got more political. She wrote against the Nazis, put out an underground journal, helped hide Jews from the authorities. Her apartment became a secret meeting place. When it was reported that the National Socialists were forcing Polish Jews to wear yellow stars, she sewed a Star of David on her clothes. In 1939, she was arrested in the presence of her daughter.

As if Milena's story is not poignant enough, Buber-Neumann makes it more so by cutting back and forth from the narrative to scenes in the camp. The book is Buber-Neumann's story too. We learn about the death of her husband, her disillusionment with communism. She tells us what it takes to survive in a camp with 25,000 other women, many of whom hate each other. Freezing, starving, drilled all day like dogs, she says a person could only keep her balance by finding a meaning in this new life, terrible as it was.

Buber-Neumann and Jesensky found that meaning in each other. Buber-Neumann writes, "The SS could prohibit everything, they could treat us as disembodied numbers, threaten us with death, enslave us--in our feeling for each other we remained free and unassailable."

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