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A true reason for living amidst horror

· ​A friendship in a concentration camp ·

“We met in the women’s concentration camp of Ravensbrück. Milena had got to know of my tribulations from a German woman who had arrived at the camp travelling in the same convoy […]. She met me during the walk of the ‘new arrivals’ along the narrow passageway between the blocks and the high wall of the camp surmounted by electrified barbed wire at high tension, the wall that divided us from freedom. In introducing herself, she said: “‘Milena of Prague’.” It was in this way, in a concentration camp, that the friendship between two exceptional women, Margarete Buber-Neumann and Milena Jesenska began, a friendship that was destined to endure in the camp until Milena’s death in 1944. Margarete Buber-Neumann (Grete) instead was to survive and in order to remember her Milena wrote a biography of her friend which was published in 1977. For Milena Jesenska was the woman to whom Kafka had dedicated his Letters to Milena and on Kafka’s death Milena wrote a very beautiful memoir of him.

Milena Jesenska and Margarete Buber-Neumann in a photomontage based on photographs of the women interned at Ravensbrück

Milena was a journalist and writer from Prague, born in 1896. She was 47 years old when she died in Ravensbrück. Margarete, a German Jew and a Communist, was three years younger. She had married Martin Buber’s son (hence the surname Buber) with whom she had two daughters and from whom she obtained a divorce in 1929. At this phase of her life Margarete was a diehard Communist. Indeed the reasons for her separation from Buber lay in his distancing himself from the Communist Party and it had been in the name of her ideology that she had lost her daughters, who had been entrusted to her mother-in-law and emigrated to Palestine in 1938.

After her divorce from Buber Margrete married Heinz Neumann, a Communist politician. In 1933 they fled to Spain, then to Switzerland and finally to the Soviet Union. They lived at the Hotel Lux in Moscow, the residence for foreign Communists. It was here, in 1937, by then in the climate of the great purges, that Neumann was arrested by the police and shot. Margarete was arrested the following year and condemned to five years in a gulag. She was sent to the Karaganda Camp in Kazakhstan. Two years later the Soviet Union, now bound to Germany by the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, handed all the German refugees over to the Nazis, regardless of whether they were Jews or Communists. “We stopped, keeping our gaze focused on the shore opposite the railway bridge which defined the boundary between the Polish zone, occupied by the Germans, and the zone under Russian control. Moreover a soldier was walking slowly towards us. When he got closer we recognized his SS beret”, Margarete Buber-Neumann recounts. In this manner, on the Bridge of Brest-Litovsk she was handed over to the Nazis who sent her to Ravensbrück, where a camp for women had been opened in 1939.

Milena Jesenska was one of the best known figures of the Prague intelligentsia, a sort of sprite, full of life, courted and loved by many, not only by Kafka with whom she had an unhappy and passionate love affair. Like so many other intellectuals, she too joined the Communist Party but soon left it and was expelled in 1936. Milena was a successful journalist and wrote for Pritomnost, the most prestigious political and cultural journal. The articles she wrote from 1938 to 1939 give us a clear look at the events in Czechoslovakia, the betrayal of the democracies in Munich and the invasion. She had one daughter, Jana Honza. When the invasion began Milena flung herself into the Resistance but was arrested in November 1939. A year later she was sent to Ravensbrück which she therefore entered as a political prisoner. She was to remain there for four years, until her death.

Thus it was in the concentration camp of Ravensbrück that these two women met. It was a concentration camp for women only, functioning from 1939 to 1945 and located about 100 kilometres north of Berlin. Initially it held 2,000 women, all German and Austrian political prisoners, but by the end their numbers had increased to reach 45,000. Except for a few times, particularly in the final period, the prisoners were mainly political, asocials, gypsies or women accused of having had relations with Jews and thereby polluting the race. Jewish women did not account for more than 10 per cent. The number of women estimated to have died there varies according to the different historians from 30,000 to 90,000. The overall number of women who were imprisoned there exceeded 100.000 million. As from the autumn of 1944, when the gas chambers at Auschwitz ceased to be used, the camp was equipped with one or perhaps two gas chambers and functioned as an extermination camp. Ravensbrück was liberated by the Red Army on 30 April 1945.

As chief of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ block, Greta wore a green band on her arm which permitted her a certain freedom of movement. Milena, who had recently arrived and had been allocated to the block for new arrivals, could have a short daily stroll, and it was thanks to this circumstance that the two prisoners began to see each other every day in the narrow passage which divided the block for new arrivals from the high wall of the camp, protected by a high-tension electric current, a passage that Milena nicknamed “the weeping wall”. Milena questioned Grete at length about her history in Stalin’s Russia and her relations with Communism. It was a story that she found very interesting as a journalist, but also personally since she too, like Grete, had passed through the Communist ideology and was now boycotted by the political Communist inmates and considered a traitor. Among the persistent hatreds and excommunications in the concentration camps, in the prisons, in internment camps too, this is a tragic story which concerns the entire Communist universe of that epoch, in the times of the tremendous purges by Stalin and of the agreement between the Soviet Union and Germany, but also later. Let us not forget that Stalin had the majority of the soldiers and officers of the Red Army who had survived in the forced labour camps deported to concentration camps, because they were “suspected” of treason.

From these long conversations at the beginning of their friendship was born a project to write a book together, once they were released from Ravensbrück, on their two experiences of the concentration camp, gulag and lager. They planned to call it “The Era of the Concentration Camps”. Half a century had to pass before this perspective, foreseen by them, became possible. This was the beginning of their friendship, which was to last until Milena’s death and which for the two prisoners became a real reason for living amidst the horror of the camp. “When we were together”, Grete wrote, “Milena and I managed to put up with the unbearable present”. But because of its force and exclusivity our friendship became far more, it turned into an open protest against debasement. The SS could forbid us anything, degrade us in numbers, threaten us with death, reduce us to slavery, but in our feelings towards each other Milena and I were free, we were untouchable.

The Ravensbrück Camp in an illustration by Olena Wityk Wojtowycz (1988)

Making the most of Grete’s position of greater freedom, the two women would meet almost every day, talk to each other and tell each other things. Grete helped Milena, trying with all her might to support as best she could the weakest and the neediest, a very strong trait of her character which even in the concentration camp did not desert her. Their friendship became ever closer, while around them the camp became ever harsher, with the enormous increase in the number of prisoners, the medical experiments and finally, from 1944, the construction of a gas chamber. The female friendships in the camp were very important, Grete tells us. Among the political prisoners, relations of friendship, however intense, remained for the most part platonic, while between the asocials and the criminals they assumed a lesbian character which was violently repressed by the SS.

Milena also wrote in the camp, in spite of the fact that this was one of the most severely forbidden activities: poetry, letters to Grete – which to her deep chagrin she had subsequently to destroy for fear of them being discovered. It was easy for her to write, she even wrote a short page of introduction to the book they were planning to write together. Of all that Milena wrote in Ravensbrück nothing has survived. In the winter of 1943-1944 Milena fell seriously ill. Grete managed to see her for a few minutes every day, in secret, and sometimes to bring her something to eat. Milena died on 17 May 1944, and thus did not live to see the transformation of the camp into an extermination camp, in the autumn of 1944, with the construction of the gas chamber in which, since she was ill, she would in all likelihood have ended.

Grete survived and in 1949 recounted her detention in the gulag, when she gave evidence on behalf of Viktor Kravenko in libel suit brought by the Russian author of the book I Chose Freedom, against the Communist periodical Les Lettres Françaises. Many years later Grete wrote the book about Milena, an extraordinary tribute to the friend she had lost. She died in 1989, in the year of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Anna Foa




St. Peter’s Square

Dec. 14, 2019