After Lengthy Legal Battle, Franz Kafka and Max Brod Safety Deposit Boxes Being Opened

Nine remaining boxes in which the writers' manuscripts were hidden for decades are being opened in Tel Aviv and Zurich. The court has banned publication of their contents.

After months of legal wrangling, one of the 10 safe deposit boxes in which documents belonging to the writer Franz Kafka (1883-1924 ) and his close friend Max Brod (1884-1968 ) were hidden for 40 years was opened Monday in Tel Aviv.

A delegation of smartly dressed lawyers arrived at the entrance to the Kikar Hamedina branch of Discount Bank at 10 A.M., holding a court order stating the safe deposit box must be opened. The contents, however, cannot be publicly revealed as the owner of the deposit box, Eva Hoffe, petitioned the court for a ban on publication. Haaretz has requested that the court, through the law offices of Lieblich-Moser, lift the ban.

A year ago the Tel Aviv Family Court, where the case is being heard, accepted the newspaper's petition that the hearings be opened to the public; until then, they had been held behind closed doors.

Franz Kafka

The process of opening the safe deposit boxes will take a week. They are held in six different vaults in different banks in Tel Aviv, as well as four others vaults in a bank in the Swiss city of Zurich.

Witnesses who had been inside the bank at Kikar Hamedina when the team of lawyers arrived said Eva Hoffe burst into the building in an attempt to prevent the safe from being opened, shouting "It's mine, it's mine!"

The boxes are being opened in the presence of a battery of lawyers appointed by the court: the executors of the estates of Max Brod and his secretary and heir, Esther Hoffe; a representative of Hoffe's daughter, Eva; and a representative of the custodian general.

The team of lawyers will draw up an inventory of the documents they find in the boxes and present it to the Tel Aviv court. Judge Talia Pardo Kupelman will then determine the documents' status - whether they are the private property of the Hoffe sisters, who can then do with them whatever they want, or whether they constitute a literary treasure that must be transferred to a public archive.

Researchers and experts from Israel and Germany believe that some of the boxes may contain manuscripts by Kafka, widely considered one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, or documents that can shed additional light on the mysterious life of the artist who died of tuberculosis in a sanatorium near Vienna at the age of 40 and who is buried in the Jewish cemetery in Prague.

An emotional battle

"The contents of the vaults are the private business of [Eva] Hoffe and her sister, and at this stage no one else has permission to know of their contents," Hoffe's attorney, Uri Zfat, wrote to the court.

In her deposition to the court, Hoffe articulated her fear that once the boxes were opened and their contents revealed, "they will be disseminated to the public and in this way, my property, assets, rights, privacy and human dignity will be compromised."

Hoffe and her sister inherited the safety deposit boxes from their mother, Esther Hoffe - Max Brod's longtime secretary and friend. Esther Hoffe died about three years ago; since then an emotional legal battle ensued over the Jewish National and University Library's demand that Hoffe hand over the manuscripts. At the same time, the German Literature Archives in Marbach, Germany is also interested in obtaining the documents and has been negotiating with Hoffe to buy them.

The opening of the vaults was facilitated by the executors of Esther Hoffe's estate, Shmuel Cassouto, Dan Novhari, Rami Hadar and Dan Zimmerman, who were responsible for handling the technical and bureaucratic difficulties involved in carrying out the court order.

Dr. Aviad Stollman of the national library told Haaretz: "We are happy to hear that the process of revealing the contents of the vaults in which the manuscripts were hidden for decades has begun. We were sorry to learn that a request was submitted to prevent the contents of the vault from being revealed. It is a shame that Ms. Hoffe is not prepared to let the public be party to these important literary treasures, and that she is trying to thwart the clarification of the truth."