Franz Kafka, an aspiring, unknown Czech Jewish writer living in Prague, was a clerk by day, toiling anonymously over personal injury claims for the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute.
Writing at night, after a long day’s work, he published a few short stories and finished his novella, The Metamorphosis, before his untimely death on June 3, 1924.
Prior to succumbing to tuberculosis in a Vienna sanatorium, Kafka penned a letter to his friend, Max Brod, a journalist, author and composer whom he had met in 1902 when they were both students at Charles University. The letter, discovered in his desk in Prague, took the form of a request. “Dearest Max,” Kafka wrote. “Everything I leave behind me… in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters, sketches and so on, to be burned.”
Kafka had already burned most of his personal documents, but had not gotten around to disposing of his unpublished novels. Brod ignored his friend’s last wish, justifying his decision on the basis of a letter he had sent to Kafka in 1921 in which he had said he would definitely not burn his papers.
Brod had enormous faith in Kafka’s talents, though Kafka himself was doubtful about his abilities. Brod, therefore, decided to prepare Kafka’s novels for posthumous publication.
Since Kafka’s German-language novels were unfinished, Brod tinkered with them, altering punctuation, changing the order of chapters and the like.
Thanks to Brod’s belief in Kafka, and his skills as an editor, three of Kafka’s seminal novels, The Trial, The Castle and Amerika, were published in the 1920s.
Brod, a Zionist, departed for Palestine in 1939, leaving Prague literally minutes before Germany closed the Czech border. Packed into one of his suitcases were the rest of Kafka’s papers.
More than 70 years on, the contents of Brod’s suitcase have become the object of a literary cause célèbre, the hub of legal wrangling and the subject of a new Israel documentary, Kafka’s Last Story, which was screened at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival recently.
After arriving in Palestine, Brod and his wife, Elsa Taussig, settled down in Tel Aviv, where they lived until the end of their lives. Brod, a dramaturge for the Habimah Theatre, grew close to Otto and Esther Hoffe, a couple he had met after his wife’s death in 1942. Brod, supposedly an extrovert and a womanizer, employed Esther as a secretary, but she was probably his lover as well.
With Brod’s passing in 1968, his valued trove of Kafka papers was passed to Esther, who kept them in an apartment she shared with dozens of cats.
In fact, Esther was in possession of one-third of the papers, Brod having sent two-thirds of the cache to Switzerland in 1956 to Kafka’s four nieces.
One of the nieces, Marianna Steiner, bequeathed the bulk of the papers to Oxford University’s Bodleian Library so that the first critical edition of her uncle’s writings could be published.
During the following years, she and her relatives donated yet more of the papers to the library. Today, they are jointly owned by Oxford University and one of the daughters of Kafka’s sister.
The Oxford University collection consists of diaries, letters, postcards, drawings, doodles, photographs and notebooks in which Kafka practised Hebrew and wrote some of his novels and short stories.
In 1988, 19 years before she died, Esther sold the original manuscript of The Trial to the German Literature Archive in Marbach, Germany, for close to $2 million. The sale prompted the American novelist Philip Roth to quip that a “Kafkaesque irony” had been inflicted on the world because Kafka’s three sisters had been murdered during the Holocaust.
With Esther’s death in 2007, her two daughters, Eva Hoffe and Ruth Wiesler, assumed ownership of the papers.
But due to ambiguities in Brod’s will, the National Library in Jerusalem claimed a right to them, contending that Brod had left the papers to Esther as an executor rather than as a beneficiary.
In his will, Brod stipulated that his literary estate should be placed in the National Library, Tel Aviv’s municipal library “or another public archive in Israel or abroad.” Since the Tel Aviv library renounced its claim, the National Library remains the only claimant.
This past April, Israeli Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein ruled that the papers belong to the public and should be held in public trust by the National Library, noting that Brod’s wishes should be respected.
Weinstein in his verdict stated, “It seems that the deceased, who was Jewish and a Zionist and who came to Israel after Prague was taken over by the Nazis, would have wanted his literary estate to be kept by the State of Israel, which was the centre of his life and was where he died.”
In closing, he claimed that Eva Hoffe and Ruth Wiesler (who died last May) had not proven that they had received the manuscripts from their mother as a gift.
Several months ago, the director-general of the National Library, Oren Weinberg, announced that he would make the papers available on the Internet and would publish Brod’s works, most of which have not been translated into Hebrew.
In the meantime, however, they remain in Tel Aviv, scattered between Esther’s apartment on Spinoza Street in the centre of the city and several safety deposit boxes in banks. It will be left to a court in Tel Aviv to decide whether the papers are the property of Eva Hoffe and her late sister, Ruth, the National Library or the German archive.
The drama over the final disposition of the Kafka papers has consumed Israeli filmmaker Sagi Bornstein, whose documentary rehashes the controversy.
“It’s a great story to tell,” he said in an interview while the Toronto Jewish Film Festival was in progress.
Bornstein declined to say which of the parties in the dispute has a rightful claim to the papers.
“What’s important now is that they be digitized for everyone to see. It’s not a big deal who actually owns them.”
He intends to make a sequel to Kafka’s Last Story once the case has been definitively resolved by the court.
“There is still no end to it,” he said. “There is still a lot of unfinished business.”
Bornstein’s opinion of Kafka remains undimmed. “He had an amazing imagination. He was a genius.”