Eva Hoffe, Original Heiress of Kafka Letters Forced to Give Them to Israel’s National Library, Dies at 85

After prolonged legal battles and a Supreme Court ruling, Eva Hoffe had to relinquish Czech-Jewish novelist's papers, many still stuck in safes in Israel and abroad

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Eva Hoffe in her youth.
Eva Hoffe in her youth. Credit: Eva Hoffe's family archives
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Eva Hoffe, the Israeli woman who inherited the writer Franz Kafka’s papers, then lost them in court to the National Library of Israel, died yesterday at 85, according to a relative’s Facebook post.

Hoffe’s death comes as the National Library continues its efforts, in keeping with a 2016 Supreme Court ruling, to take possession of the Czech-Jewish novelist’s papers, which are still locked up in bank vaults in Israel and abroad.

Hoffe was born in Prague in 1933. At the age of 6, after the Nazi takeover, she, her parents and an elder sister fled to Palestine. She attended school at the Ben Shemen Youth Village and after her army service worked as an El Al flight attendant for many years.

>>The son Kafka never knew he had

Hoffe’s mother, Esther (Ilsa) Hoffe, was the secretary of Max Brod, who was Kafka’s good friend and who also fled Prague in 1939. Brod took with him a suitcase with remnants of works by Kafka, who died in 1924, thus saving them from the Nazis. From Brod’s new home in Tel Aviv, he worked to publish those writings.

Brod’s wife died at a young age, and the couple never had children. After Brod’s death in 1968, a decades-long, complex legal saga ensued, at the center of which was the fate of Kafka’s papers, which Brod had kept over the years and then given to his secretary, Esther, Eva’s mother.

Esther Hoffe chose not to carry out the terms of Brod’s will, by which his own estate, including the remnants of Kafka’s literary works, would be handed over to a public archive. Instead, she sold them at auction throughout the world, becoming wealthy as a result.

Franz Kafka in Prague's Old Town Square, 1920-21.Credit: Sovfoto, UIG via Getty Images

For example, in 1988, Hoffe sold a manuscript of Kafka’s best-known novel, “The Trial,” for $2 million – a huge sum at the time. The buyer gave the manuscript to the German Literature Archive in Marbach, Germany, where it remains in a vault to this day.

After the death of Esther Hoffe in 2007, Haaretz published information from extensive investigative reports on the affair, revealing a succession of illegal activities and testaments that were ignored, at the heart of which were substantial business dealings – orchestrated by the Hoffe family – involving Kafka’s literary estate. Following the reports in Haaretz, the National Library sued the Hoffe family, demanding that it be given the writings.

Three different legal instances in the country – family and district courts, as well as the Supreme Court – rejected the demand by Eva Hoffe and her sister to retain possession of the documents, and instructed them to turn them over to the National Library. The Tel Aviv District Court ruled that the sisters’ mother, Esther, had caused an “outrageous injustice” to Kafka’s literary estate by her actions. The Hoffe family had held on to the writings “illegally,” the judges noted, and harshly criticized Eva Hoffe for persisting in her demand to retain them.

“It seems that it was not consideration of Brod’s wishes that was at the forefront of the petitioner’s mind, but rather the desire for monetary gain from the assets of the estate,” the court stated.

Eva Hoffe appealed its verdict to the Supreme Court, however, there too she was harshly criticized and her demands were rejected in a ruling issued in 2016. “Despite Brod’s willthe literary estate lay for decades as an unturned stone in bank vaults or other safes, and this is regrettable,” the justices wrote.

Franz Kafka’s Hebrew vocabulary notebook at Israel’s National Library in Jerusalem last year.Credit: AP

Hoffe, for her part, claimed that she was the wronged party and that she was being persecuted for no reason by the state and by Haaretz. “They made me out to be a liar, a millionaire, greedy, not normal, without principles. I lived a quiet life, and then they attacked me,” she said in an interview in the newspaper.

Hoffe claimed that Brod’s and Kafka’s writings were given to her family legally and in keeping with Brod’s wishes. She added that the legal costs the courts levied on her had left her penniless.

The literary writings of Brod and Kafka have been locked up for decades in bank vaults in Tel Aviv and in Zurich, Switzerland. According to some reports, some important documents were also kept, in improper conditions, in Eva Hoffe’s own apartment on Spinoza Street in Tel Aviv.

Although two years have passed since the Supreme Court’s ruling, however, the National Library has yet to receive the entire estate, which it has pledged to put on public display. The reasons have to do, among others, with bureaucratic, legal and technical difficulties related to opening the safes abroad.

The National Library said at the time that it believed the trove of documents in question contains many letters in Kafka’s own hand, manuscripts of his writings, among them the short story “A Country Doctor,” and “Wedding Preparations in the Country,” as well as drawings by Kafka.

Eva Hoffe never had a family. Her sister, Ruth Weisler, who died during the court proceedings, is survived by children and grandchildren.

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