To whom does Kafka belong?

In telling the story of Kafka's papers, Benjamin Balint’s new book explores a larger issue: who owns Kafka?

David Herman

Max Brod, Kafka’s executor (right), pictured in 1942 in Palestine with theatre directors
Barukh Chemerinsky and Zvi Friedland: Like Kafka, he was a “Zwischenmensch” (GOVERNMENT PRESS OFFICE ISRAEL, CC BY-SA 3.0. PHOTO: ZOLTAN KLUGER)

At 9 p.m. on Tuesday, March 14, 1939, Max Brod and his wife stood at Platform 2 of Prague’s Wilson Station. He carried a bulky leather suitcase stuffed with loose bundles of papers: manuscripts, journals, travel diaries, rough drafts and hundreds of letters, all written by Brod’s closest friend, Franz Kafka, who had died 15 years before.

The Nazis had just marched into Prague and the Brods were fleeing to Palestine on the last train to cross the Czech-Polish border before it was closed. Travelling by train and ship they eventually reached Tel Aviv, where Brod lived until his death in 1968. Kafka’s papers were then passed on to his assistant and close friend, Esther Hoffe, a fellow Czech Jew, and when she died at 101 in 2007, she in turn passed them on to her two daughters, Eva and Ruth (Ruth died of cancer in 2012).

Then a series of trials began which lasted for over a decade from 2007 as Eva and Ruth tried to defend their claim to the Kafka and Brod papers against the National Library of Israel, on the one hand, and the German Literature Archive at Marbach in Germany, on the other. Benjamin Balint’s fascinating book, Kafka’s Last Trial, tells the story of these trials but also explores the larger issues at stake: who owns Kafka?

Did Esther Hoffe’s daughters have a legitimate claim? Their mother had inherited the papers from Max Brod who had brought them from Prague. But would they be able to look after the papers properly or would they be at risk in Eva Hoffe’s cat-infested apartment and could the sisters be trusted to provide full access to researchers and academics? A number of key figures, including Reiner Stach, author of the definitive three-volume biography of Kafka, thought not.

Worse still, might they sell off these precious manuscripts at the first opportunity, possibly to private buyers? In 1988 Esther Hoffe put the original 1914 manuscript of The Trial up for auction at Sotheby’s and it was sold for £1 million. The previous year, Kafka’s 500 letters to Felice Bauer (1912-17) were sold at Sotheby’s in New York for $605,000.

There were other issues than whether the Hoffe sisters should be allowed to keep the Kafka papers. The National Library of Israel claimed that because Kafka was one of the greatest Jewish writers of the 20th century, these papers belonged in Israel. Kafka’s three sisters had been killed by the Nazis during the Holocaust and had Kafka not already died in 1924, he would surely have been murdered too. Brod was fortunate to escape from Nazi-occupied Prague as a refugee. More to the point, he was a passionate Zionist who had spent almost 30 years of his life in Palestine, later Israel.

Eva Hoffe, however, argued that there was no reason why Kafka’s papers should go to an Israeli state library. As she pointed out, “Natan Alterman’s archives are in London and Yehuda Amichai’s are in New Haven”, referring to two of Israel’s most beloved poets, just as countless British writers including Kingsley Amis and Tom Stoppard have sold their archives to American libraries.

If the Israeli claim was based on Kafka’s Jewishness, how Jewish was Kafka? He never set foot in Palestine. He spoke of going to Palestine but loved it at a distance. As Balint observes astutely, “Marriage and the Promised Land: two forms of happiness deferred, yearned for but not possessed.” Kafka attended the 11th World Zionist Congress in Vienna in 1913 but wrote to Brod, “I sat in the Zionist congress as if it were an event totally alien to me.” He studied Hebrew but wrote, “What is Hebrew but news from far away?” And even if his Jewishness was important to him, does that give Israel the right to claim ownership of the papers of a writer who spent his entire life in the diaspora?

The German Literature Archive is the world’s largest archive of modern German literature. It claimed that although Kafka was a Czech Jew, he was also the greatest modern writer in German. Hannah Arendt wrote that Kafka’s work “speaks the purest German prose of the century.” George Steiner praised “the translucency of Kafka’s German, its stainless quiet”. In addition, the archive in Marbach already owned the second largest collection of Kafka manuscripts in the world, including The Trial. Crucially, Marbach did not claim legal ownership of the manuscripts; it simply wished to be granted the right to bid for them.

There were other arguments for placing Kafka’s papers in a German archive. Supporters of Marbach, like the Kafka biographer Reiner Stach, argued that in Israel, “there is neither a complete edition of Kafka’s works, nor a single street named after him. And if you wish to look for Brod in Hebrew, you have to go to a second-hand bookshop.”

As if this wasn’t already complicated enough, it is not clear that Brod had a legitimate claim to these papers in the first place. Kafka had famously instructed his friend to burn his remaining manuscripts, diaries and letters unread, and Brod disobeyed him. Secondly, Kafka has a living heir, Michael Steiner, who lives in London and arguably has a greater claim.

This wasn’t just a legal battle between different claimants. Over all of the legal proceedings hung the shadow of the Holocaust, of German guilt and Jewish suffering. How could a German archive claim the ownership of the original manuscripts of a Jewish writer when Germans had murdered his sisters and many of his closest circle and would surely have murdered him?

This is a minefield and Balint handles these complicated claims and counter-claims with great care. He has read widely in the literature about Kafka and provides a fascinating account of the Jewish world of early 20th century Prague, which formed Kafka and Brod and their interests in Zionism and Yiddish culture, especially Yiddish theatre.

Above all, he brings Brod to life. Today, Brod is largely known, especially in the English-speaking world, as the man who championed Kafka and preserved his reputation after his death. In 1913, Brod published Kafka’s breakthrough story, The Judgment. “I wrested from Kafka nearly everything he published either by persuasion or by guile,” he later recalled.

But Brod was a prolific poet, novelist and critic in his own right. He published almost 90 titles. His best-known novel was published in 1916 in a printing of 100,000 copies. By his mid-twenties, writes Balint, “Brod was corresponding with Hermann Hesse, Hugo von Hofmannstahl, Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Rainer Maria Rilke and other leading literary lights.” In 1912 Brod and Einstein played a violin sonata together. He and Kafka visited brothels in Prague, Milan, Leipzig and Paris. Like Kafka, Brod was a “Zwischenmensch”, betwixt-and-between German, Czech and Jewish cultures.

Balint is an extremely interesting writer and critic. He has written a book on the American magazine Commentary, and has co-written Jerusalem: City of the Book (due out in 2019). Recently he wrote a superb review article about yet another Zwischenmensch,  Gershom Scholem. Based in Jerusalem, he is familiar with Israeli culture and politics. He has interviewed all the key players, has no axe to grind (unlike the anti-Zionist academic Judith Butler, who wrote a long, tendentious essay on this story in 2011) and is remarkably even-handed throughout.

He moves effortlessly between the three main trials, ending at the Israel Supreme Court, and the lives of Kafka, Brod, Esther Hoffe and her daughters. If you don’t know the final verdict, I won’t spoil it for you here. The book is a fascinating page-turner. It is also cultural history at its best.

Balint gives the final word to Kafka. In 1916, Kafka wrote in a letter to his fiancée Felice Bauer, “Won’t you tell me what I really am? In the last Neue Rundschau the writer says: ‘There is something fundamentally German about K’s narrative art.’ In Max’s article on the other hand: ‘K’s stories are among the most typically Jewish documents of our time’.”

Kafka concludes: “A difficult case. Am I a circus rider on two horses? Alas, I am no rider, but lie prostrate on the ground.” 

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