Text size

On a quiet street in the heart of Tel Aviv, not far from Ben-Gurion Boulevard, stands an old apartment building with a well-tended garden in front. The exterior does not reveal the exciting story that has been hidden for decades inside the building, to which the eyes of scholars and lovers of literature are now turned: Many researchers believe that in a ground-floor apartment there can be found the remnants of the estate of the great 20th-century writer Franz Kafka, whose 125th birthday was celebrated on July 3.

What have documents, letters, postcards, sketches and other personal items of the famous Czech writer been doing for decades in a private apartment in Tel Aviv? Why have they not been transferred to the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem? What has been their fate and where are they today?

The story of the estate begins back in 1924, after Kafka died of tuberculosis in Vienna, at the age of 41. His friend, Czech Jewish writer Max Brod, took responsibility for his estate, which included manuscripts of great works that had not yet been published. Despite Kafka's explicit request that his writings be burned, Brod kept them, and edited and published some - thus bringing Kafka international fame. The international publication rights were purchased by Salman Schocken.

When the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia, Brod fled with one suitcase containing Kafka's property. In 1939 he settled in Tel Aviv. Eventually he transferred some of the materials in his possession to archives - among them the manuscripts of "The Castle," "The Metamorphosis" and "Amerika," but he retained in his possession a great deal of varied material that had belonged to Kafka. Brod and his wife had no children and after his wife died, shortly after they arrived in Palestine, he lived alone, but had close relationships with a number of women. One of them was his married secretary, Ilse Esther Hoffe. Before his death in 1968 at the age of 84, Brod bequeathed his estate to Hoffe.

Hoffe jealously held on to the estate until her death last year. Over the years she almost always refused to show it to the public or to transfer it for preservation to any institution. She sold some of Kafka's writings at auctions abroad, others she stored in safes in Israel and abroad, and the rest she kept in her apartment in Tel Aviv in unsuitable conditions, exposed to the elements and to sanitation-related hazards.

Journalists who tried to make contact with her met with grumpy and bad-tempered responses.

"Everyone was trying to get to this material, but came away empty-handed," relates Nurit Pagi, who is currently writing her doctorate on Brod at the University of Haifa. "It's like a Kafkaesque detective puzzle that someone doesn't want solved. All the people who are doing research on Brod are telling each other: If you hear anything, let me know."

Dr. Zohar Maor, who teaches in the history department at Bar-Ilan University, confirms what Palgi says. "This is a hidden treasure that the entire civilized world would be happy to discover," he says. "Its value is incalculable."

Twenty years ago a rare glimpse of the literary treasure in the Tel Aviv apartment was permitted when Hoffe took out one of the rarest and most important items in the estate - the manuscript of "The Trial" - and offered it for sale at an auction in London. The manuscript was sold for about $2 million, the highest sum ever paid for a modern manuscript. The buyer transferred it to a public library in Germany. A few years earlier researchers and academics tried to persuade Hoffe to give the manuscripts in her possession to the national library in Jerusalem, but to no avail.

"We saw that there was no way this would happen and stopped trying. It caused us a great deal of frustration," recalls Prof. Mark Gelber, head of the center for German Studies at Ben-Gurion University.

While only partially and only temporarily, the Israel State Archives, which is attached to the Prime Minister's Office, did in fact succeed in gaining access to the estate that Hoffe held. In 1974, the archive people brought about her arrest at Ben-Gurion International Airport while she was en route abroad with some of Kafka's letters and his travel journal. The excuse for the arrest was suspicion of a violation of the Archives Law, which prohibits the removal from Israel of valuable archival material before the state facility has registered and copied it. In the wake of this incident Hoffe agreed to the registration of all of the documents and objects in her private collection. However, the archive staff later claimed that she continued to conceal the really valuable material and had even smuggled some of it abroad.

In 1993 the German news magazine Der Spiegel reported that Hoffe had removed from her apartment another item from Max Brod's estate: his private diaries. At that time the material was transferred to a safe at a bank in Tel Aviv, where apparently it remains to this day. Associates of Brod said at the time that there are a number of intimate details in the diaries that Hoffe preferred to keep from the public eye. Academic experts, however, say the diaries contain very valuable material that would cast light on Kafka's life and work.

"It's scandalous, truly horrible," says Pagi. "Brod's diaries are very important for research and they must not remain confidential."

In 1994, Prof. Freddy Rokem, a lecturer in theater arts at Tel Aviv University, organized a conference in honor of the 100th anniversary of Brod's birth. Hoffe refused to cooperate with him and did not attend.

"This is a story from another dimension," says Rokem today. "Things are being done in a secretive way, and it is clear there is a lot of money in this business."

Other interpretation

Along with academics, publishers also have had serious complaints in the past about Hoffe and the use she made of the estate of Kafka and Brod. In the 1980s the German publisher Artemis & Winkler purchased from her the rights to publish Brod's diaries, but even after she was paid a five-figure advance, she did not transfer the diaries to the publishing house. Since then, the small publishing house folded and was bought by a larger publisher; it is presently negotiating with Hoffe's heirs to complete the deal.

"Esther (Hoffe) was always afraid that someone would steal these materials from her," recalls Avital Ben Horin, widow of writer Shlomo Ben Horin, who was close to Brod. "The problem is that the whole estate is located in an unsuitable place and this is a big mistake. The humidity in Tel Aviv is not a proper environment in which to keep manuscripts, but it was impossible to convince her."

Two years ago the situation got so bad that the residents of the building where Hoffe lived applied to the Tel Aviv municipality with complaints about the stench that was coming from the apartment. Municipal inspectors were astonished to find dozens of cats and several dogs there, and took the animals away.

And what happened to the estate? No one at the municipality knows. "This residence is not owned by the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality, and therefore the municipality has no information about the owners of the property, nor does it have the authority to take action concerning it, or to enter the place," a municipal source said a few days ago.

Last year Hoffe died at the age of 101. The rare legacy she had been keeping has been transferred to her two daughters, Ruth and Hava. Hava, the younger one, who is now 74, is living in the apartment where her mother lived and kept the estate. However, all attempts to contact her have failed. Neighbors who live nearby describe her as a woman who is "charming, but naive."

Elad Yakobowicz, an Israeli living in Berlin and a sworn Kafka enthusiast, has discussed this situation recently with author Hans Koch, who is in touch with the Hoffe sisters. In an e-mail, Koch told Yakobwicz the estate is now being examined "by proper authorities" in Tel Aviv. This process, he wrote, will take a long time and in the end the daughters will consider handing it over to an archive.

In the meantime, there are those who offer a "national" interpretation of this Kafkaesque story. Prof. Jakob Hessing, who lectures on German literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, claims that the failure of various elements and institutions, including the state archives, to deal properly with the preservation of Kafka's estate reflects the complex attitude in Israel toward everything that has to do with Germany.

Hessing: "For reasons that everyone knows, it isn't pleasant for us to recall the German connection in our national identity. However, with all the repression, this isn't going to do us any good and it is better that we deal with it in a direct way."

On the occasion of his 125th birthday, maybe we can take a page from Kafka himself. Maybe he can help us in this mission. After all, he was something of an expert in bringing the repressed into consciousness.