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Orten, Jiří

(Ohrenstein; 1919–1941), poet. Jiří Ohrenstein was the second of three sons of an assimilated Jewish family in the town of Kutná Hora near Prague. His parents owned a haberdashery; his father’s death in 1936 further intensified Jiří’s close relationship to his mother, an amateur actress who passed some of her theatrical talent and character on to her sons. In 1937 Jiří began drama school in Prague, after having failed the entrance exams the previous year. As a student, he began publishing in literary magazines, taking in 1936 the pseudonym Orten; he also participated in theatrical life, acting, adapting texts for the stage, and conceiving a fateful and futile love for the actress Věra Fingerová. Poetry, however, gradually emerged as his first love and true calling.

Orten’s poems mixed a childlike desire for tenderness with a disciplined yearning for purity and a matter-of-fact intimacy with the idea of his own death; these features immediately captured the imagination of critics and poets much older than he, who enabled him to continue publishing even during the Nazi occupation. Orten’s first collection, Čítanka jaro (Spring Reader), came out in 1939, with the support of his greatest patron, the Czech poet František Halas; it was followed by Cesta k mrazu (Journey to Frost) in 1940, and Jeremiásův pláč (Jeremiah’s Lament) and Ohnice (Wild Radish) in 1941. All were published under pseudonyms (Karel Jílek, Jiří Jakub) to mask his Jewish origin. (Halas famously ended his postwar elegy to Orten with the lines “When fish swim in the cathedrals / will this poet / be called by name.”)

Nearly as important as Orten’s poems were his distinctive diaries, three notebooks he called simply Blue Book, Striped Book, and Red Book, according to their covers. He kept them from 1938 until his death, but they were not published until 1958. Although they mention in passing the ever-tightening Nazi restrictions on Jews, they are less a register of external events than a record of Orten’s phenomenally extensive reading and above all a seismograph of his emotional life and creative output (they contain all the poems he later published in book form).

Orten was hit by an ambulance in Prague on his twenty-second birthday, and died two days later, on 1 September 1941. His early death threw the maturity of his verse into even greater relief. Two posthumous poetry collections, Elegie (Elegies; 1946) and Scestí (Straying; 1947), secured his place as one of the most influential Czech poets of the century.

Suggested Reading

Václav Černý, První a druhý sešit o existencialismu (Prague, 1992); Jan Grossman, Analýzy, ed. Jiří Holý and Terezie Pokorná (Prague, 1991); Zdeněk Kožmín and Jiří Trávnícek, Na tvrdém loži z psího vína: Česká poezie od 40. let do současnosti (Brno, 1998); Jiří Orten, Spisy, ed. Marie Rút Křížková and Ota Ornest, 7 vols. (Prague, 1992–2002), two more volumes are projected.