Israel Demands Germany Give Back Kafka's 'Trial' Manuscript

Manuscript brought to Tel Aviv from Prague in 1939, sold to Germany in 1988 for about $2 million.

Israel is demanding that Germany return the original manuscript of Franz Kafka's novel "The Trial." It is currently kept in the German Museum of Modern Literature in Marbach.

Returning the manuscript to Israel would "correct an ongoing historic injustice," Israel National Library director Shmuel Har Noy told Haaretz yesterday.

The manuscript, which was brought to Tel Aviv from Prague in 1939, was sold to Germany in 1988 for about $2 million, the highest sum ever paid for a contemporary manuscript.

The National Library, which claims to be the single, rightful heir to the manuscript, will send its demand to the German archive next week.

Meir Heller, the library's attorney in the trial over the estate of Max Brod (who had been a close friend of Kafka's, and the executor of his will), accused the German archive of "duplicity in claiming to have obtained the manuscript legally."

The German archive was unavailable for comment by this article's closing.

The trial over Max Brod's literary estate began over a year ago following a series of articles in Haaretz about the two women in possession of the estate, Eva Hoffe and her sister Ruti Wisler, both living in Tel Aviv. The sisters inherited the papers from their mother, Esther Hoffe, Brod's assistant, companion and the beneficiary of his will, who died two years ago.

Esther Hoffe, who was believed to have had a romantic relationship with him, is said to have hoarded the collection and sold parts of it.

The National Library in Jerusalem filed suit against her daughter Eva Hoffe, claiming that Brod wanted his archive made available to libraries in Israel and Germany. Istead, she and her sister are accused of continuing to hoard and sell the texts.

At the beginning of the month the judge accepted a motion from Haaretz to lift reporting restrictions on the case, which until then was held behind closed doors.

During the last hearing it transpired that all the court-appointed executors of the estate were either fired or resigned after failing to carry out their task of sorting out the manuscripts. Despite the judge's order, Eva Hoffe refused to grant them access to the safes and apartments in which she keeps the papers.

Hoffe's lawyer Jeshayah Etgar evaded the judge's instructions to give the new executors access to the estate, saying he needed to study the material.

"I suspect that the heiress' refusal to hand over the keys to the safes is meant to enable her to hide some of the material," Heller said yesterday. "In the worst case scenario, some of the manuscripts will disappear. In another, they will be inadequately kept and suffer irrevocable damage."

Hungry and broke

Hoffe, who is adamant in her refusal to cooperate with the court, has asked the judge to release some of the NIS 4.5 million held in the estate, arguing that she is hungry and has to live off of charity.

But the National Library objects to releasing the money, which it claims Hoffe received for selling the manuscript of "The Trial" in 1988. It also alleges that she sold the manuscript contrary to Brod's will and against the law, which requires that important manuscripts be kept in Israel.

"The German archive knew there was a problem with this manuscript when it received it more than 20 years ago, but continues holding it sanctimoniously, claiming to have acquired it legally," Heller said.

Har Noy said, "In the past we've managed to retrieve manuscripts that were taken from us illegally. I'm quite certain the German archive will act according to the law, after checking and finding that there is no justification for continuing to keep that manuscript."

Hoffe's lawyers say the National Library is acting "greedily to get illegal access to property it does not own." Anyway, the library has "already proved that it is incapable of keeping important documents," they wrote in a letter to the parties.

Har Noy commented that the conditions and in which the library keeps rare collections are up to "every international standard."

'A very low price'

Max Brod, who inherited Kafka's works, overrode his friend's will and did not burn the manuscripts unread, as Kafka had requested. In 1925, a year after Kafka's death, Brod published "The Trial." He took the original manuscript of the novel to Palestine with him in a suitcase, along with Kafka's other papers and letters. When he died 40 years ago, he left Kafka's papers to his secretary Esther Hoffe.

In 1988, she sold the manuscript of "The Trial" at Sotheby's Auction House in London to a book merchant acting on behalf of the German government, who then sent the manuscript to the archive in Marbach.

"This is probably the most important literary work and Germany should have obtained it," the merchant told the media at the time.

"As far as I'm concerned, the price - $1.98 million - was very low," he said.

In his will, Brod asked to have all the manuscripts, letters and papers in his estate to be kept in the National Library in Jerusalem, or alternatively the Tel Aviv municipal library or any another public archive in Israel or abroad.

Franz Kafka, one of the major fiction writers of the 20th century, was born to a middle-class German-speaking Jewish family in Prague.

His writing, published mainly posthumously, is considered among the most important and influential in Western literature. His famous stories include "The Metamorphosis" (1912) and "In the Penal Colony" (1914), and his novels include "The Trial" (1925), "The Castle" (1926) and "Amerika" (1927).