German Archive, Vying for Kafka Manuscripts, Presents Odd Claims in Court

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Ofer Aderet
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The last chapter in the long-running battle over the estate of Franz Kafka, which was revealed in Haaretz and is being played out in Tel Aviv Family Court, is being written now. Our story so far: The literary estate of the famous writer, who died in 1924, ended up in an apartment he never saw, owned by a woman he never met, in a city he never visited.

Two of the story's main characters are no longer alive: Kafka's lifelong friend, Max Brod, and Brod's secretary, Esther Hoffe. Her Israeli daughters, Eva Hoffe and Ruth Wiesler, are in possession of the literary estates of both men. In the middle are two world-class archives, the National Library of Israel, in Jerusalem, and the German Literature Archive, in Marbach, Germany, each of which wants the collection. Like any good Kafkaesque story there is another factor, whose name would certainly put a bitter grin on the late author's face: The State of Israel, or more precisely, the Custodian of Absentee Property, which is represented by counsel for the attorney general. For now this agency is mainly a bystander, but when it comes to Kafka one never knows.

Franz KafkaCredit: Archive

Now each party is submitting its summations, in anticipation of a ruling. Last week the Marbach archive, which seeks to move the estate from Israel to Germany, had its turn.

In a section titled "Interference from other parties and hidden interests," the archive's summation posits a well-planned conspiracy between the state and the National Library, which "collaborated to strip the heirs of their rightful inheritance." Haaretz, the German archive asserts, planted a reporter in the courtroom in order to sway the verdict.

The judge earlier ruled that the public good dictated that the case be held in open session because it dealt with one of the most important authors of the 20th century.

One might think that this great literary archive, which champions the cause of transparency and freedom of information, would recognize the importance of giving journalists access to the court - not only for Haaretz, but also for Der Spiegel, Die Zeit and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

Adding to the air of mystery, in its brief the Marbach archive questions why Haaretz was recruited to the cause of the Hoffe estate and suggests the possibility that "certain items in Max Brod's diary that are linked to the Schocken family [among the owners of Haaretz - O.E.] constitute an interest in [their] getting their hands on his estate."

It should be said that there were other arguments in the brief, although they too seem to have no connection to reality. The main one is that Esther Hoffe, Brod's secretary, was at the height of negotiations to sell these rare manuscripts to Germany when she fell ill and died.

"The archive knows that Hoffe intended to recover from her illness and finish transferring the estate to us," the brief from the Marbach archive reads. It forgot to mention however, that Hoffe was 102 when she died - 40 years after Brod, meaning she had 40 years in which to carry out his last request as stipulated in his will: to transfer the manuscripts to an official archive. First on the list was the National Library in Jerusalem, and only at the end did he mention the possibility of selling them to an archive outside of Israel.

The German archive also ignored a few chapters of its country's history in a bid to bolster its claims to the writings of Kafka and Brod, calling the latter "an unusual figure on the Eretz Israel landscape of the time, always dressed in suits and maintaining his European appearance."

In 1939, hours before the Nazis invaded Prague, Brod escaped from Czechoslovakia on the last train out, and fled to Palestine. He took just one suitcase, containing the writings of his friend, who had died of tuberculosis 15 months earlier.

Brod was indeed an odd duck in Tel Aviv, as were many of his generation, who were uprooted from their homes, their homelands and their families and forced to build a new home in this strange, hot land across the sea. Does the German Literature Archive need to be reminded about which state was responsible for this? And, speaking of memory, would this be an appropriate place to mention the circumstances of the murder of three of Kafka's sisters in the death camps?

In its final argument the representatives of the German archive say, "It is inconceivable that either Brod or Esther Hoffe asked to transfer the manuscripts to the [Israeli] National Library, since it did not exist in their lifetimes." The claim is an odd one: The library existed in some form or other since the late 19th century; Brod knew it as the National House of Books. In 2008 it received its current name, but for Germany the recent name change is enough for it to ask, "where did this 'National Library' suddenly come from?