After Bitter Battle Over Kafka's Papers, a Daunting Task: Tracking Them Down

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Letter written by Franz Kafka.Credit: Dodo Hunziker / eikon-suedwest

The afterword to Franz Kafka’s “The Trial” features a letter he wrote to his friend Max Brod, in which he explained why he had chosen to refrain from publishing his manuscripts. “What’s the point in saving such works, which are failures ‘even’ in artistic terms? Only in the hope they will join something complete, some court of appeal – at whose gates I will be able to knock at a time of distress. Because I know there’s no chance of salvation there, what should I do with the things? Since they are unable to save me, should I let them cause damage?”

Last week, the Tel Aviv District Court cited Kafka’s letter when it ruled that Eva Hoffe must release all the Kafka papers in her possession and give them to the National Library of Israel, Jerusalem.

In his concluding remarks, Judge Dr. Kobi Vardi wrote, “I believe and hope this court of appeal, on whose gates someone knocked, even if it did not bring salvation offered a chance to open a door that will enable the public and history to judge and see Kafka’s works, after Kafka’s death, with their great ethical and artistic worth – and not, as Kafka sometimes saw them in his lifetime, as ‘failed works’ there was no point preserving.”

The court took its job seriously, comparing it to the decision made by Brod 90 years ago, upon Kafka’s death, when he decided to violate his friend’s instruction to burn all of his writings. Brod published them instead, and posthumously turned the Czech-Jewish writer into one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century.

“Kafka didn’t know Hoffe, didn’t speak to her and never met her,” noted Judge Hagai Brenner, referring to Esther Hoffe, Brod’s secretary. After Brod’s death in 1968, she inherited his estate, sold part of it and, after her own death in 2007, bequeathed the rest to her septuagenarian daughters, Eva and Ruth (the latter dying in 2012). “Kafka and Hoffe lived and died in different countries. The only link between them is that Kafka’s writings somehow ended up in Hoffe’s hands,” added the judge, leveling criticism at Hoffe’s treatment of his writings. “As far as Kafka is concerned, is the sale of his personal writings – which he instructed to have destroyed – at public auction, to the highest bidder, by the secretary of his friend and by her daughters something that accords with justice?” he wondered.

Attorney Eli Zohar, who represented the Hoffe family, criticized the decision. “Brod was a family member and there’s no question that, in his will, he expressed the desire to show respect to the family, in the belief it would know how to take care of his literary legacy in the best possible way.”

National treasure

The National Library now has much hard work ahead of it to carry out the court’s instructions. The most important issue facing the library will be to locate the manuscripts. There are thousands of papers, written in German – some of them over 100 years old – which were kept in an unsatisfactory condition for decades.

First, the library will have to collect the manuscripts that were held in the Hoffes’ bank vaults in Zurich and Tel Aviv. However, to date nobody knows precisely what they contain. “Unfortunately, the 10 vaults we have managed to locate include only part of the items of the estate. Many valuable items that we know exist in the estate are missing from the vaults we have found,” said Anat Perry, a Kafka expert who helped the library during the trial.

“I’m concerned that important items in the estate will be concealed and smuggled for sale to the highest bidder,” she added. One of the most important items supposed to be in Brod’s estate, but which has seemingly disappeared, are his diaries from 1913-1924 – the period when Kafka was writing. Perry fears these diaries “were transferred by the Hoffe family to a secret place.”

Attorney Ehud Sol, the executor of Brod’s estate, recalled the moment when he opened the vaults. “In Switzerland, they took us to huge vault rooms, where the branch manager and staff were waiting for us, aware they were witnesses to an historic event. When we opened the vaults – and this is conduct unbecoming a lawyer – we had tears in our eyes,” he recalls. Sol says the court was unable to compile a complete list of the manuscripts. “We had to do everything really quickly. I wanted to peruse every manuscript, in order to try to understand,” he said.

The vaults are but one part of the story, though. Even now, eight years after Esther Hoffe’s death, nobody outside the Hoffe family knows which manuscripts the family kept at home or elsewhere outside the vaults. Hoffe herself contributed to the concern about their fate when she claimed unknown persons had broken into her Tel Aviv apartment during the trial. To this day, it’s not clear what was stolen from her apartment, if anything.

But that won’t be the end of the National Library’s task. The judges noted that some of the manuscripts, which the Hoffe family sold at public auction in previous decades, didn’t even belong to Hoffe. Will the National Library now embark on an international crusade for the return of these manuscripts? Time will tell.

One of Esther Hoffe’s “customers” was the German Literature Archive, in Marbach. In 1988, Hoffe sold the manuscript of “The Trial” for some 1 million pounds sterling (about $1.5 million, at today’s exchange rate) at Sotheby’s in London. The buyer, a Swiss manuscripts dealer, later transferred it to the archive in Marbach. This circuitous deal violated Brod’s will: He ordered that his estate be given to a public archive – rather than being sold at public auction to the highest bidder – and even mentioned the National Library as a preferred recipient.

A “special account” to settle

The court accepted the viewpoint of the National Library, to the effect that Brod didn’t want his estate to be sent to Germany. “He would have categorically rejected the possibility that his literary estate be transferred to an archive located in Germany,” wrote the judges, noting that Brod’s brother, wife and daughter, as well as Kafka’s three sisters, were murdered by the Nazis.

Attorney Meir Heller, acting for the library, presented the court with archival documents indicating that Brod called the Germans an “accursed nation,” and said he had a “special account” to settle with Germany.

Beyond the special case of Kafka’s writings, the court also discussed a matter of principle: the way in which cultural assets should be preserved. “In my opinion, these things can’t be nationalized. When it belongs to someone, it belongs to someone – certainly if he created it,” said attorney Yossi Ashkenazi, the deputy executor of Brod’s estate. “Here, however, there’s a more complex question: When you have something in your possession that belongs to another artist, is it really your own private property?” Zohar warned that, in its ruling, “the court is in effect nationalizing private assets.”

Supreme Court justices also discussed the issue last month. The case before them was the battle between the Viennese Jewish community and the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, in Jerusalem. The court rejected the Austrian demand for the return of manuscripts deposited in Jerusalem decades ago, when they were in danger in Europe.

Like Kafka’s estate, which Brod smuggled out of Prague in a suitcase in 1939, the papers of the Viennese Jews arrived in Israel after being rescued from the Nazis. Justice Elyakim Rubinstein didn’t take that lightly. “We do not exist in a vacuum,” he noted. “What was done all over occupied Europe by the Nazis and their helpers during the dark days of the Holocaust is what caused the transfer of the material to the Jewish state, Israel, which arose from the ashes of the Holocaust – instead of it being tossed aside. In terms of history, hasn’t the archive found its rightful home?” he wondered.

Justice Hanan Melcer also found a direct link between the two cases, ruling that the importance of “cultural assets” is so great that even their legal owners have no right to do as they please with them. “This is the place to emphasize that the value of a ‘cultural asset’ is, for the most part, so great that even the person with the possessory or ethical right to it cannot order its destruction,” he wrote. “To use an analogy, I will mention that, considering the fact that Kafka’s writings have been recognized as ‘cultural assets,’ there was no justification for obeying Kafka’s instructions to have his writings burned.”

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