Kafkaesque fight for his pa­pers is over

Is­rael li­brary shows off writer’s files it won in le­gal saga

Baltimore Sun - - NATION & WORLD - By Ruth Eglash and James McAu­ley

JERUSALEM — The le­gal bat­tle for the own­er­ship of Franz Kafka’s pa­pers was a trial the likes of which only Kafka could have imag­ined: opaque, end­less, ab­surd.

On one side was the 85-year-old for­mer El Al ground crew mem­ber who had never met Kafka but who nev­er­the­less in­her­ited his pa­pers, which she kept for decades in a cramped, cat-filled apart­ment in Tel Aviv. On the other side was the state of Is­rael, which de­manded the rights to the archive of a writer who had never set foot in Is­rael or the re­gion of Pales­tine and whose re­la­tion­ship to Zion­ism was — in typ­i­cal Kafka fash­ion — fraught.

Eva Hoffe, who had the pa­pers, lost her ar­gu­ment af­ter ap­peal­ing to Is­rael’s Supreme Court in 2016. Is­rael’s Na­tional Li­brary won pos­ses­sion of the mas­sive trove she had hoarded in her apart­ment and in safe-de­posit boxes in Is­rael and Switzer­land.

On Aug. 7, the li­brary un­veiled the fi­nal batch of these pa­pers, a col­lec­tion that in­cludes let­ters and draw­ings that have never be­fore been seen in the orig­i­nal hand­writ­ing.

Ste­fan Litt, the li­brary’s ar­chiv­ist re­spon­si­ble for the archive, dis­played a mix of sin­gle pages and en­tire note­books of Kafka’s works, in­clud­ing let­ters, post­cards, jour­nals and rough drafts of nov­els in progress. What drew the most smiles that day was a frag­ment of an au­to­bi­og­ra­phy Kafka be­gan in 1909: “Out of all the chil­dren in my school, I was stupid but I was not the most stupid.”

“We are de­lighted to have reached the end of this chap­ter,” said Litt. The li­brary spent more than a a quar­ter-mil­lion dol­lars on over a decade of con­tentious lit­i­ga­tion that saw schol­ars from Is­rael, Ger­many and the United States fiercely de­bate ques­tions of na­tion­al­ity, re­li­gion and own­er­ship.

Be­fore she died in 2018, Hoffe blasted the Is­raeli gov­ern­ment for de­pict­ing her as a crazy cat lady out to make a profit.

“They made me out to be a liar, a mil­lion­aire, greedy, not nor­mal, with­out prin­ci­ples,” she told the Is­raeli news­pa­per Haaretz.

She also strongly ob­jected to the sub­text of Is­rael’s claim on the pa­pers, which was that the post­hu­mous legacy of Kafka, as a Jewish writer, be­longed in the Jewish state.

“The at­tempt to por­tray Kafka as a Jewish writer is ridicu­lous,” Hoffe told the scholar Ben­jamin Balint, an episode he records in “Kafka’s Last Trial,” his 2018 book on the case. “He did not love his Jewish­ness. He wrote from his heart, in­wardly. He didn’t have a di­a­logue with God.”

Talia Kopel­man-Pardo, the judge who eval­u­ated an ear­lier it­er­a­tion of the case in Tel Aviv Dis­trict Court in 2012, dis­missed that crit­i­cism. “The ques­tion of (Kafka’s) na­tion­al­ity or his re­li­gion wasn’t an is­sue at all and never came up in court,” she said. “(Hoffe) didn’t raise it there.”

But Meir Heller, the lawyer who rep­re­sented the Na­tional Li­brary, ar­gued at times that many of Kafka’s rel­a­tives were killed in the Holo­caust.

“In ev­ery case, there are sev­eral lay­ers of ar­gu­ments and jus­ti­fi­ca­tions to the end re­sult,” he said in an in­ter­view. “I can tell you that as a Jew and an Is­raeli, in a gen­eral way here in Is­rael, when we are dis­cussing is­sues from that time pe­riod, it’s al­ways on our mind.”

The vi­cis­si­tudes of Kafka’s iden­tity re­main a mat­ter of aca­demic de­bate. As Kafka him­self once wrote: “What do I have in com­mon with Jews? I hardly have any­thing in com­mon with my­self.”

How the pa­pers came into Hoffe’s pos­ses­sion was a plot twist straight from the nov­el­ist’s fic­tion.

Hoffe’s mother, Es­ther Hoffe, had been the sec­re­tary to Max Brod, a pro­lific Ger­man-speak­ing Czech writer who was Kafka’s clos­est friend and ap­pointed lit­er­ary ex­ecu­tor.

It was Brod who re­ceived Kafka’s re­main­ing let­ters and manuscript­s when Kafka died in 1924 from tu­ber­cu­lo­sis; he had been asked to de­stroy them all.

“Dear­est Max,” Kafka wrote to Brod, “My last request: Ev­ery­thing I leave be­hind me . . . in the way of di­aries, manuscript­s, let­ters (my own and oth­ers’), sketches and so on, to be burned un­read.”

Brod ig­nored that wish, pub­lish­ing clas­sics such as “The Trial (1925), “The Cas­tle” (1926) and “Amerika” (1927) and cre­at­ing the mys­tique of Kafka the spec­tral enigma, the al­most mys­ti­cal per­sona who fades in and out of view at the cen­ter of 20th-cen­tury lit­er­a­ture.

When the Nazis came to power in 1939, Brod shoved Kafka’s pre­cious archive into suit­cases and car­ried them to Pales­tine, where he later be­came a fix­ture of Is­raeli cul­tural life and re­mained the rest of his life. When he died in 1968, he left his lit­er­ary es­tate — in­clud­ing Kafka’s pa­pers — to Es­ther Hoffe, and his will stip­u­lated that the es­tate would even­tu­ally be de­posited, at Hoffe’s dis­cre­tion, in “the li­brary of the He­brew Uni­ver­sity of Jerusalem, the Mu­nic­i­pal Li­brary of Tel Aviv, or an­other pub­lic archive in Is­rael or abroad.”

But Es­ther Hoffe, who died in 2007, never chose an archive to house the pa­pers, and even sold rare pieces in high-pro­file in­ter­na­tional auc­tions — most no­tably the man­u­script of Kafka’s “The Trial,” which she sold at auc­tion at Lon­don’s Sotheby’s in 1988 for $2 mil­lion.

Her will­ing­ness to sell off parts of the es­tate would later un­der­mine her daugh­ter Eva’s at­tempt to es­tab­lish her own right to the pa­pers. Eva Hoffe had been in­ter­ested in sell­ing a por­tion of the pa­pers to Ger­many’s Na­tional Lit­er­ary Archive in Mar­bach, where the pa­pers of many other Ger­man-speak­ing Cen­tral Euro­pean writ­ers are de­posited.

In its 2016 rul­ing, Is­rael’s Supreme Court de­clared t he f ol­low­ing: “Brod wanted his es­tate to end up in the trusted hands of a body that was ap­pro­pri­ate to his am­bi­tions as a writer. He did not want his es­tate, and ev­ery­thing in it, to be sold to the high­est bid­der.”


Ste­fan Litt, an ar­chiv­ist at Is­rael’s Na­tional Li­brary, last week dis­plays some draw­ings by nov­el­ist Franz Kafka.

Is­rael laid claim to what Kafka asked a friend to burn af­ter his 1924 death. The files ended up with a Tel Aviv woman.

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