A Kafkaesque Search for the Keys to Kafka's Tel Aviv Legacy

Secret protocols from Kafka estate revealed in court case; gag order on case documents has been lifted.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

"It's terribly symbolic that Judge K. is the one hearing the case, don't you think?," asked Judge Talia Pardo Kupelman Thursday, alluding to the protagonist of Franz Kafka's "The Trial" during deliberations over the writer's estate.

The small courtroom of Tel Aviv District Family Court, in Ramat Gan, could not hold all the lawyers in attendance, representing the National Library in Jerusalem, Germany's national library, the Custodian General and Haaretz, which petitioned to have the trial be open to the public.

On the rear bench, almost unnoticed, sat the real heroes of the story, which can only be called Kafkaesque - Eva Hoffe and her sister Ruti Wisler, both in their eighties, who hold the remnants of the great 20th-century author's estate.

On the docket was the Israel National Library's suit to gain possession of the literary portion of that estate, which is thought to contain manuscripts, letters, diaries and other documents related to Kafka and which have not been published in the 85 years since his death. Hoffe is keeping these materials in her home and bank safety deposit boxes; she refuses to hand them over to the library on the grounds that they are private property and their disposal is up to her.

Her mother, Esther Hoffe, had for decades been the personal secretary to and a close friend of Max Brod, Kafka's friend and literary executor, and when Brod died 40 years ago, Esther inherited his estate. She sold some of the items to Germany and guarded the remainder carefully. When she died two years ago at the age of 102, she willed that remainder to her daughters.

The judge's first action Thursday was to accept the request from Haaretz, filed by attorneys Tal Lieblich and Maly Magen of Lieblich-Moser, and to permit the newspaper to cover the trial. Kupelman rejected efforts by the inheritors' lawyers to eject the Haaretz reporter from the courtroom, which even included calling in the courtroom guards to remove him.

It was revealed during the proceedings that Eva Hoffe had prevented the court-appointed estate executor from accessing the safety deposit boxes and apartment containing the materials she controls. "I've been administering estates for decades and I've never had anything like this," said attorney Amoz Eliash, a former executive of the estate. He noted that Hoffe had threatened suicide if she was forced to give the National Library her Kafka items.

Attorney Dr. Meir Heller, counsel for the National Library, demanded that the keys to the safety deposit boxes be handed over immediately to the new executor. "Bring the keys," he shouted. Kupelman joined in, raising her voice. "Where are the keys to the boxes, where are the keys to the apartment? Where are the keys?"

The court then learned that the keys were held by Hoffe's attorney, Jeshayah Etgar, who was originally the estate administrator before crossing over to represent the defense. "I have the keys," Etgar said. He told the court he had been in the apartment where Hoffe kept some of the manuscripts but did not catalog them.

Executor Number 3, Yossef Granot, also asked to be relieved of his duties due to the inheritors' refusal to cooperate. "They didn't let my representatives see [the estate]," Granot said. "I wasn't aware of the fights and the earthquakes," he said, and formally submitted his resignation. "In light of the fact that I have not accomplished anything, I shall waive my fee."

Heller expressed concern that Hoffe would exploit the lack of supervision to hide or sell off some of the documents. "They'll take Kafka's things," he told the judge. In response, attorney Oded Cohen, one of Hoffe's lawyers, said: "They've already taken them, don't worry about it."

The courtroom atmosphere was tense, with occasional shouting and swearing, but eventually Kupelman managed to appoint two new executors in the hope that they could do what their three predecessors had not: to access the safety deposit boxes and the apartment where Eva Hoffe was hiding the remainder of Kafka's estate, and then to tell the court what was actually there.

Now that Haaretz's petition has been granted, the gag order on the case documents has been lifted. The most important of these, it turns out, is Esther Hoffe's will, in which she gave her daughters the remainder of the estate of Brod and Kafka and which clearly indicates that this included original manuscripts by Kafka himself.

"The drafts, the letters and the drawings by Kafka, given to me as a gift by the late Max Brod, I gave as a gift to my two daughters in 1970, in equal portions. Kafka's books from Brod's library remain in the possession of my two daughters," the will states. In it, Hoffe also divided Kafka's and Brod's writings between her daughters. "Each of my two daughters and my granddaughters has the right to take for herself 40 letters from Brod's estate, which Brod had received from authors and other figures," she wrote.

It is assumed that some of this material has already made its way to Germany. As reported in Friday's Haaretz Magazine, the affair took a surprising turn when the German Literature Archive in the city of Marbach joined the suit, asking for the writings of Kafka and Brod. For the first time in the proceedings, a representative of the archive, attorney Sa'ar Plinner, attended a session, Thursday.

He submitted to the court a statement from the director of the manuscripts department of the German archive, Dr. Ulrich von Bulow, claiming that Brod had visited the archive in the 1960s and explicitly stated that he wanted to will his estate to the institution. In a recent interview with Der Spiegel, Hoffe told the German weekly that the archive had offered to buy the estate from her not long ago. Representatives of the National Library argued that Brod had clearly wanted his literary estate to be in Jerusalem and explicitly mentioned the library in his will as the first of several places he wanted to have his manuscripts.

At one point during Thursday's proceedings Hoffe's attorneys argued that their client was destitute and asked Kupelman to release some of the money included in the estate. "How much money is there? I have no idea," the judge said. Then it was revealed that the heirs stand to receive NIS 4.5 million, part of which is from the proceeds of their mother's sale of the manuscript of "The Trial" to Germany, 20 years ago.