The Tug-of-War Over Kafka

By Robin Jacobson.  

In March 1939, Max Brod fled his home in Czechoslovakia, just ahead of the Nazi invasion. Boarding the last train out of Prague before the borders closed, Brod clutched a bulging, cracked-leather suitcase containing the manuscripts, letters, and diaries of his late friend, Franz Kafka, the Czech Jewish author of 20th Century masterworks.

Brod made his way to Tel Aviv, toting his precious suitcase, an emigration that led seven decades later to a dramatic, nine-year legal battle in Israel over the rightful inheritor of the Kafka materials. Kafka’s Last Trial: The Case of a Literary Legacy, by Benjamin Balint (2018), tells the fascinating, tangled tale of competing interests among the parties to the case: the National Library of Israel; Eva Hoffe, the daughter of Brod’s late secretary; and the German Literature Archive in Marbach, Germany. As Balint perceptively and provocatively explores, the trauma of the Holocaust and the rivalry between Israel and Germany over a shared literary heritage often overshadowed the case’s complex legal issues.

A Fateful Friendship

The literary fame of Franz Kafka (1883-1924) owes everything to his best friend, Max Brod (1884-1968). Brod’s escape from Prague with Kafka’s writings was not his first rescue of those materials. In 1924, when Kafka died of tuberculosis at age 40, Brod defied Kafka’s explicit instructions to burn unread, all his manuscripts, notebooks, and letters. Afflicted with self-doubt, Kafka had published little during his lifetime; most of his work existed only in manuscript form. Certain of Kafka’s genius, Brod, himself an acclaimed author, devoted his life to editing, publishing, and promoting Kafka’s work.

After many years in Tel Aviv, Brod died, leaving his literary estate, including the original Kafka writings, to his devoted secretary, Esther Hoffe. His will, in one view, reflected the expectation that she would place the papers with a library or other scholarly institution. Instead, Hoffe hoarded most of the papers in safe deposit boxes and in her apartment that she shared with her daughter Eva and their many cats, much to the consternation of Kafka scholars. After Esther Hoffe died in 2007, Eva Hoffe negotiated to sell Kafka’s papers to the German Literature Archive, a renowned institution for modern German literature.

Germany or Israel?

Germany and Israel each claimed Kafka as a literary native son. The German Literature Archive saw Kafka’s work as an integral part of the German literary canon, noting that Kafka wrote in German and immersed himself in classic German literature. Kafka’s stories and novels do not mention Jews and are best understood, the Archive contended, as universal human parables. Furthermore, the Archive had the necessary expertise in German literature and linguistics to properly analyze Kafka’s papers.

The National Library of Israel countered that Kafka’s work is a cultural asset of the Jewish people. Although Kafka’s fiction does not directly reference Jews, his diaries and letters document his study of Hebrew and his ongoing reflections about Judaism and Zionism. Moreover, many scholars read his stories as allegories of the European Jewish experience of belonging neither to traditional Judaism nor to European society.

The highly charged question looming over the court was whether Germany had forfeited any right to claim Kafka. Kafka’s three sisters died in Nazi death camps, a terrible fate Kafka escaped by dying young. Indeed, Kafka’s papers were in Israel because Brod fled from the Germans occupying Czechoslovakia.

Ultimately in 2016, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that Kafka’s papers belonged to the State of Israel, and not to Eva Hoffe, who therefore had no right to sell them to the German Archive. Nonetheless, the Kafka material will be available to all; the National Library of Israel pledged to digitize and put it online.