Kafkaesque Conundrum

Scholars and lawyers have been poring over the contents of 10 bank vaults opened this summer in Tel Aviv and Zurich: manuscripts written in the hands of Franz Kafka and Max Brod. Their opinions may sway the outcome of the bitter tug-of-war over the men's estates.

"The quantity is incomprehensible. The material here is worth a fortune. It is a treasure," said one source, recently, who is close to the ongoing legal battle over the Franz Kafka estate. He was referring to the manuscripts that turned up this past summer in the vaults of several banks in Tel Aviv and Zurich. "There are hundreds of letters that the writer sent and received from all over the world. The list is endless. It seems as though people at that time wrote to one another on a daily basis; they were really crazy about writing."

Franz Kafka

It's been two years since Haaretz first published news of the secret estate of the Czech-Jewish writer, who lived from 1883 to 1924. In short, the upshot was that, 85 years after Kafka's death, many of his manuscripts are stashed away, far from the public eye, in conditions described by some experts as inadequate. The story had a worldwide impact, and this quickly led to the opening of a trial that is still under way, albeit slowly, in the Tel Aviv Family Court.

In one corner stands Eva Hoffe, who inherited Kafka's literary treasures from her mother, Esther, who was the secretary of writer Max Brod, Kafka's soul mate and literary executor. Hoffe, who is 80 years old, maintains that her mother gave her Kafka's writings as a present, and that they are, indeed, her private property. Opposite her is the Jewish National Library in Jerusalem. The library insists that the material must be entrusted to it, and that its demand is based on the last will and testament of Max Brod. Forty years ago he asked that the material be transferred to a public archive for safekeeping.

There are additional parties to the dispute. The German Literary Archive, in Marbach, Germany, is also trying to lay its hands on the manuscripts. It argues that since Kafka wrote in German, he and his work belong to that country's "cultural environment." Another lawyer involved represents the State of Israel's custodian general, who administers all inheritances and estates here.

A year ago the court acceded to a Haaretz request and opened the hearings to the public. Until then, the trial had taken place behind closed doors, like most cases heard before the family court. This summer, after endless appeals and hearings, the vaults of 10 banks - six in Tel Aviv and four in Zurich - were finally opened. That is where the remnants of Kafka's estate have been held for decades. Supervising the opening of the safes was Ilan Harati, an expert on manuscript preservation; some of the papers inside are more than a century old.

The court appointed a team to arrange and catalog the material in the vaults, and its members have been conducting their work under a cloak of secrecy. Prof. Itta Shedletzky, an expert on German literature at Hebrew University, is in charge of the project. She has spent much of recent weeks poring over thousands of papers and documents written in German.

"I do not want to talk to journalists and would rather do my job away from the media's sight," Shedletzky told Haaretz.

Also participating in the effort is a team of lawyers, appointed by the court to serve as executors of the estates whose ownership is in dispute. The work is divided up in a way that can almost be described as "Kafkaesque."

Attorneys Shmulik Cassouto and Dan Novhari are the most important figures of the group. Their hard work led to the opening of the safety-deposit box. Together with Rami Hadar and Dan Zimmerman, they are responsible for Esther Hoffe's estate. Subsumed within her estate is that of Max Brod, and it is represented by attorneys Ehud Sol and Yossi Ashkenazi. Franz Kafka himself, who had a law degree, is not represented at all: His estate is locked up within the two other estates. Soon the group is supposed to report its findings to the court.

Sources close to the case provided Haaretz with a partial, preliminary list of items found in the safes. All the items are original manuscripts, in Kafka's handwriting as well as in the handwriting of other contemporary writers. It is not yet clear how many items there are, which are unknown to scholars, and which may be previously unpublished manuscripts by him.

Many more months will be needed to methodically go over all the material. Collectors estimated the manuscripts' initial value at hundreds of thousands of dollars. If Kafka's handwriting is found on a new manuscript, its value would soar to millions.

According to the information that reached Haaretz, the most interesting and important items found in the safes are a notebook in Kafka's handwriting that was used in his study of Hebrew. Alongside it is part of Max Brod's secret diary that was never published and might contain other details about Kafka's private life. There is also the manuscript of a short story by Kafka, "Wedding Preparations in the Country," comments by Kafka on the novel "The Castle," drafts of the unfinished book "Richard and Samuel," which Kafka and Brod wrote jointly, and correspondence between the friends, and between them and a long list of other writers and intellectuals of the period.

The outstanding names in the list are: German writer and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature Thomas Mann, the Austrian-Jewish writer Stefan Zweig, Czech comic writer Jaroslav Hasek (author of "The Good Soldier Svejk" ), the German-Jewish writer and journalist Kurt Tucholsky, Austrian-Jewish playwright Arthur Schnitzler, the Austrian poet and writer Franz Werfel, and the Polish-born Israeli poet and writer S. Shalom. There is also correspondence between Brod and Chaim Weizmann - at the time one of the heads of the Zionist movement and later Israel's first president.

The Zionist idea preoccupied Kafka and Brod. "Kafka learned Hebrew and dreamt of immigrating to Palestine," says Nurit Pagi, a doctoral student in literature at the University of Haifa. "Brod fought bitterly over Kafka's Jewish identity and the materials found in the safes, the diaries and the letters, might finally confirm his interpretations of Kafka's writings."

Pagi, who is writing her doctoral dissertation about Brod, says that he "is very important to Zionist history. He changed from an artist who believed he was a scion of the exalted German culture into an ardent Zionist. He was one of the known leaders of the Zionist movement in Czechoslovakia, and the material in the safes might shed light on his political activities that so far have hardly been researched."

Acting on behalf of the national library, its Judaica collections curator Dr. Aviad Stollman recently assumed responsibility for the Kafka file.

"We hope the archives of Brod and Kafka, which are of great national and international importance, will soon reach Jerusalem," Stollman says. "Not just because Brod asked for that in his will, but also because these archives are the only ones that can provide the overall context of these documents."

A harsher and less diplomatic approach is expressed by Ilana Haber, who heads the library's archives department. The library's collections contain 500 personal archives, most of which belonged to Jews: S.Y. Agnon, Martin Buber, Shmuel Hugo Bergman and Else Lasker-Schueler are only a few of the names.

"I want to ask the Germans," says Haber, rhetorically: "If Kafka who died in 1924, had lived longer, what would have happened to him?"

She immediately answers her own question: "He would have been sent to Auschwitz like his sisters and many of his family members. It was his luck that he died of tuberculosis."

In March, Reiner Stach, Kafka's most important German biographer, told the German daily Tagesspiegel that "Israel lacks experts in the language and the environment of the texts that were written in German [and that are] part of the culture of those days." He added: "To speak here of an Israeli cultural legacy seems to me totally out of place. In Israel today there is neither one [Hebrew] edition of all of Kafka's writings nor one street named after him. And if you want to look for a book in Hebrew by Brod, you will have to go to an antiquarian bookstore."

"Here at the national library we have a huge archive of German Jews' [works]. Those that they did not succeed in killing," retorts Haber. "The National and University Library is the cultural curator of every Jew, wherever he is. Not just from Israel but from the entire Diaspora. Kafka was certainly one of them. These are matters that belong to the entire community; to the Jewish people in this country and abroad."

Just this week, she adds, "there were people here from The New York Times and the Russian media" - all with the same request: to take a look, even a brief one, at Kafka's manuscripts.

Haber is reluctant to reveal how the manuscripts, which have been held by the library for dozens of years, came into its hands, precisely when and with whose help. "We did not buy it," she says. "In those days, buying manuscripts was not fashionable. It was not acceptable."

"It is not hers," Haber protests vehemently, when Eva Hoffe's name is mentioned. "Her mother was supposed to give us those manuscripts, but had the audacity to bequeath them to her daughters. It is not theirs, period." ( Esther Hoffe had two daughters, Eva Hoffe and Ruth Wiesler. )

In his will, Brod appointed his secretary as the executor of his estate, but ordered that , "All the manuscripts, letters, papers and other documents ... are to be given over for safeguarding at the Hebrew University's library in Jerusalem or to the municipal library in Tel Aviv or to another public archive, be it in this country or abroad," wrote Brod, who died in Tel Aviv in 1968.

More than four decades have passed since Brod's death. "She violated his will," Haber continues, speaking again of Hoffe. "She gave the manuscripts to her daughters and sold a few of them. And now to whom does her daughter want to sell what is left of the estate? To Marbach."

Marbach is the picturesque small town in southwest Germany where the German national literary archives is located. Its directors are doing everything in their power to obtain the Kafka manuscripts held by Hoffe. During the course of the trial, which has been preceding at a leisurely pace Hoffe's lawyer acknowledged that she is negotiating to sell the documents to the German institution.

Underground, at a site Haber calls the "rare storeroom," is the secret vault where the national library keeps Kafka's manuscripts - together with priceless works by Isaac Newton and Maimonides. "I do not let anyone in there, never, not even journalists," she says. "They must not know where it is, how much, why or what."

From her briefcase, Haber draws a large folder that holds the rare documents she has removed from the safe and brought aboveground. She puts on gloves as she begins to recount the stories of the papers and photos that she carefully places on the table.

First stop is Kafka's class photo from the Altstadter Deutsches Gymnasium, the high school in Prague from which he graduated in 1901, at age 18. A classmate who also appears in the photo is future philosopher Shmuel Hugo Bergman, who eventually became the Hebrew University's first rector.

Haber pulls out the unique archival item in the list: Kafka's Hebrew studies notebook. "The person who taught Kafka Hebrew was a young woman from Eretz Israel, Puah Menczel," she says. "She studied in Jerusalem and received a scholarship to study in Prague."

Bergman's mother, who hosted Menczel, introduced her to the young writer, who left behind six notebooks he had used for Hebrew studies when he died. One of them remains in Hoffe's safe. Another notebook in the series is on the table in front of us. In cramped handwriting, Kafka practiced the new words he studied under Menczel, with whom he read from the novel "Shkhol Vekishalon" ("Breakdown and Bereavement" ) by Yosef Haim Brenner. The new vocabulary includes: hit'onenut (complaining ), halvayat hamet (funeral ), retiha (boiling ), rat'han (hot-tempered, ) zeriha (dawn ), timtum (stupidity ), silsel (trill or curl ).

Until the court hands down its ruling, Eva Hoffe continues to do everything she can to persuade it that the manuscripts are her private property. Even though she was forbidden from attending the opening of the safes, she showed up at the branches of the various banks in Tel Aviv and Zurich, and tried to persuade the lawyers and the bank clerks to let her supervise the process. In some instances, said eyewitnesses, Hoffe shouted loudly.

"We are sorry that the executors did not let Mrs. Hoffe attend the opening of the safes, something that increased her anger and humiliation," her lawyers Oded Hacohen and Uri Zfat told Haaretz in a statement. "Hoffe's pain is great. Strangers are meddling with her property."

The two have grave complaints about the executors. "They are handling the estate as though it belongs to them, and have not gone to the trouble to pass on to us, despite our requests, a list of the [safes'] contents even though weeks have passed since they visited those safes," they claim. "They took the liberty of smearing an unknown chemical element on the documents in the safe, without any permission. Worse still, they violated the court's orders and took documents from the safes without permission and without authority."

The executors flatly deny the claims. "The safes were opened in the presence of Hoffe's representatives and in accordance with the court's orders," attorney Dan Novhari told Haaretz. Regarding the chemicals, he said that, "since these are very old manuscripts, whose cultural and possibly also economic value is high, in addition to the importance of checking the safes' contents, it was also very important to check the [documents'] physical state and the conditions in which the manuscripts are held."

He said that "the chemical test was done by a preservation expert, who applied a drop of an evaporating chemical substance on a corner of the document, in a way that does not cause it any damage, [and this was done] in the presence of Hoffe's representatives and without any objection on their part. The minute Miss Hoffe requested it, the test was stopped."

Regarding the withdrawal of documents from the safes, Novhari said that it was done in accordance with the court's directives, to the effect that several original documents should be transferred to a specialist who should check their authenticity. He said the documents that were taken were not part of Kafka's and Brod's estates, and that they have no literary or historical value. Novhari even noted that Hoffe's sister supported the removal of the documents, and expressed his belief that "the fuss seems artificial and incomprehensible."

Beyond what was found in the banks, the executors suspect Hoffe is holding in her apartment additional manuscripts from Kafka and Brod. Hoffe, for her part, signed an affidavit in which she stated that she had nothing in her home that was written in Kafka's hand.

"The way events have proceeded in this case is an absurdity that increases day by day," concluded Hoffe's lawyers. "It is an absurdity that has no parallel even the works of Kafka."