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MARBACH, Germany - Prof. Ulrich Raulff, the director of the German Literature Archive in Marbach, has a letter from Israel on his desk. "I wish to draw your attention to the Archives Law, which prohibits the removal from Israel of material that are important to the history and culture of the Jewish people, without my approval," wrote Israel's state archivist, Dr. Yehoshua Freundlich.

The letter was sent to the archive in the quiet German town in the wake of the interest it expressed in acquiring the remnants of the estates of Franz Kafka and Max Brod. As first published in Haaretz, the estates are currently in Tel Aviv and privately held. "We will not violate any Israeli law," Raulff is quick to reassure, but adds, "this is private property and to the best of my understanding, the law does not prevent us from purchasing the material and displaying it to the public."

He is right. The Archives Law does not allow Israel to block the removal of privately owned documents even if they are deemed particularly important, as in the case of Max Brod's estate. The legal heirs to the material are Hava and Ruth Hoffe, the daughters of Esther Hoffe, who died last year and was the significant other of author and playwright Max Brod, Kafka's good friend.

A competitive budget

Marbach, on the banks of the Neckar River, is a 35-minute train ride from Stuttgart, in southwestern Germany. At the German Literature Archive in the heart of the city, Germany keeps its Kafka and Brod manuscripts. The archive, which is privately owned, has a collection of tens of thousands of works by renowned German writers from the 18th century to contemporary times. In addition to works by such figures as Alfred Doblin, Hermann Hesse, Arthur Schnitzler and Kurt Tucholsky, there are crates and drawers full of the manuscripts by Kafka and Brod, which were donated or sold to the archive during its 53 years of operation.

Now, following the Haaretz report, its managers hope to expand the existing collection to include correspondence, manuscripts, notes and illustrations by Brod and perhaps also by Kafka, which may still be held in Tel Aviv and whose fate is to be determined soon. "We will pay the market price. We know how valuable Kafka's writings are," says the archive director. "If the owners are not satisfied, we will allow them to consult with an outside expert to get an estimate," he adds.

The annual budget of the archive (which also covers the Schiller Museum) is 10 million euros, most of which comes from the federal government and the government of the state of Baden-Wurttemberg, in whose jurisdiction it is located. Raulff is aware of the criticism in Israel of the possibility that Kafka and Brod's estates will be taken out of its borders and transferred to Germany and is quick to reassure: "We have no personal or national interest in acquiring the material.

We serve the research community, and our mission is to preserve the material for international research. We work on behalf of the public."

The archive's data indicate that nearly half of its 10,000 annual visitors come from other countries. A tour of the vaults with the director of the manuscripts department, Ulrich von Bulow, reveals what look like subterranean bunkers. There, in the optimal temperature and conditions, lie rare manuscripts by Kafka and Brod. Thousands of pages of tightly packed writing, including letters, drafts, stories and ideas, can be found there. The piles of material hide a real literary treasure trove, including a manuscript of the unfinished story, "The Village Teacher," which Kafka wrote in late 1914-early 1915; the letter Kafka wrote his father in 1919, and letters Kafka sent to Max Brod and to his lover, the Czech writer, Milena Jesenska.

The archives also contain a stamped postcard that Jesenska sent to Kafka. When the letters are placed side by side, one can easily see the difference between Kafka's long and detailed writing and the terse response sent by his beloved Milena. In addition, there are collections of letters Kafka sent to the Austrian author, Robert Musil and to philosopher Felix Weltsch.

Under the name Max Brod, there are also hundreds of letters from all over the world that the prolific writer and playwright wrote and received. Many of them feature his Tel Aviv address and at first glance it is hard not to wonder how and why these letters made their way from Tel Aviv to Marbach.

The centerpiece of the archive is stored carefully in a separate vault: the original manuscript of the novel, "The Trial," which Esther Hoffe sold at a London auction in 1988. The buyer, who paid $1.98 million for it, transferred it to the archive in Marbach. This is the highest sum ever paid for a modern manuscript, making it the most valuable item in the archive. Archive workers relate that in terms of value, Kafka is followed by Albert Einstein and Adolf Hitler (who is defined as a "writer," because of "Mein Kampf"). Von Bulow also hopes the remains of the estate from Tel Aviv will make their way to Germany soon. "Everything has to be together, in one place," he says, as we continue along the narrow corridors in the cellars of the archive.

Many of the letters from Kafka and from Brod's estate were in Tel Aviv in the 1940s, but by the end of the previous century, most of them had made their way abroad: some were sold in public auctions and dispersed all over the world; others were transferred to archives in Britain and Germany; and some of the material was preserved in safes in Switzerland and in the Tel Aviv apartment. After Brod died in 1968, his significant other and legal heir to his estate, Esther Hoffe, sped up the sale of items in her possession and raked in millions of dollars. But she did not manage, agree or want to sell all of the material.

A literary crime

After Hoffe's death last year, her possessions, which included Brod's journals and correspondence, were transferred to her daughters, who are now in the process of deciding their fate. Prof. Mark Gelber, of the Center for German Studies at Ben-Gurion University argues that removing the writings of Kafka and Brod from Israel is "a literary crime" and is calling for the remainder of the estate still in Tel Aviv to be transferred to the National Library in Jerusalem. "It is important for the public to be aware of the connection between Kafka and Zionism," he says.

However, until now, no Israeli individual or institution has come forward to express an interest in acquiring the material from the private estate in Tel Aviv and in maintaining them in Israel. This, in contrast to some in Germany, who are already preparing to purchase the estate.

Most of the correspondence has in any case already been taken out of the country, and sold to the highest bidder. Now it remains to be seen what will become of the rest of the estate, which includes Max Brod's journals, which have their own literary and research value. Will they also be sold to the German archive in Marbach, will they fall into the hands of commercial entities abroad who will publish them and also take in huge sums as a result? Or will they remain within Israel as a national asset that will become the object of pilgrimages by researchers, admirers and interested parties from all over the world?