Court to Hear Arguments on Ownership of Kafka Archive

Today will be two years to the passing of poet Esther Hoffe. Few readers will today remember Hoffe's poetry, and her death was not dramatic - Hoffe passed away in ripe old age. But ever since her death, her estate has been in the center of a fierce court battle between her family and the Jewish National & University library. The reason is that a substantial part of the archive consists of yet unstudied original manuscripts by Franz Kafka and his closest friend, Max Brod. This week the matter is expected to come before the High Court of Justice.

The existence of the archive was revealed by Haaretz shortly after Hoffe's death. The Jewish National & University Library launched a lawsuit against the family, demanding that the archive be released from private ownership and made open to the public. The process has been going on for two years, in Tel Aviv Family Court. Recently, Hoffe's daughters, Hava, 75, and Ruthie, 80, appealed to the Supreme Court to expedite the process.

Esther Hoffe inherited the archive from the Czech-Jewish writer's closest friend, the writer and journalist Max Brod. Brod had defied Kafka's request that all his archive be destroyed after his death, and in he 1939 brought the archive to then-Mandatory Palestine, when he fled the German occupation of Czechoslovakia. Brod employed Hoffe as a secretary and personal assistant. In his will he left the Kafka papers to her, with the request she turn them over to a public archive, where they would be accessible to researchers and readers.

The Hoffe family, however, held on to the archive, occasionally selling items from it at public auction. In 1988, Hoffe sold the original manuscript of Kafka's 1925 novel "The Trial" to a German archive for $2 million - the largest sum paid for a modern manuscript before or since. Although many other pieces in the archive have been sold over the years, large parts of it still remain in the family's possession, including Brod's own diaries and Kafka-related correspondence. The family has consistently refused to make this material available to researchers or for publication.

A leading contender for the Kafka-Brod papers is the German Literature Archive in Marbach, where most of Kafka's manuscripts are concentrated (Kafka wrote in German). However, Israel's Archives Law forbids the removal from the country of archival items of importance to the history and culture of the Jewish people without inspection and supervision.