Jirí Orten

1919 –

On August 30, 1919 Jirí Ohrenstein was born in Kutná Hora, Central Bohemia, Jirí Orten was one of the finest writers of Czechoslovakia's "war generation." He was raised in a middle-class Jewish family; his father was a businessman and his mother acted in the local theater. As a teenager, Orten moved to Prague with his brother Ota to study drama. He began to publish poems in avant-garde journals and to act in experimental theater groups. Orten spent the summer of 1938 living in Paris. Shortly after he returned to Prague, the Germans occupied Bohemia and Moravia. As a Jew, he was forbidden further travel. His first book of poems, Cítanka jaor (Reader of Spring) was published in 1939.

In 1940, following the German occupation of Prague, Orten was expelled from school and forced to take odd jobs, such as clearing snow. For fear of denunciation from anti-Semitic newspapers, he published his poems under pseudonyms. His collections of poems from this time include Cesta k mrazu (The Journey towards Frost, 1940) and Ohnice (Charlock, 1941).

On his twenty-second birthday, Orten, while trying to cross the street to purchase cigarettes, was struck by a German ambulance. Because he was a Jew, the first hospital he went to refused to admit him. He died two days later.

His diaries, which contained not only all of his poems but also record many of his conversations, letters, and dreams, were published in three volumes after his death. In 1945, a group of friends and younger poets formed a group named after his first collection, Ohnice. Following the arrival of Communism and socialist realism in Czechoslovakia in 1948, however, his work was condemned as "degenerative muck." He would regain favor during the Prague Spring in the late 1960s. Orten's poems show a strong influence of both Czech folklore and surrealism. He most often wrote small, personal lyrics in very simple and direct language. Critics have suggested that his poems exist, both geographically and aesthetically, half way between Lorca and Pasternak.