Israel's National Library Welcomes First Trove of Kafka Papers

Letters and works by the noted 20th-century author, part of the estate of his friend, Max Brod, are being transferred after years of court battles.

Ofer Aderet
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The first strongbox from the estate of Max Brod, containing the papers of Franz Kafka, being opened at the National Library in Jerusalem, December 2016.
The first strongbox from the estate of Max Brod, containing the papers of Franz Kafka, being opened at the National Library in Jerusalem, December 2016.Credit: Hanah Cohen/National Library
Ofer Aderet

After years of legal wrangling, the National Library of Israel has finally received the first shipment of items from the literary estate of Czech-Jewish author Max Brod, which also includes papers belonging to his good friend, Franz Kafka.

The documents were received last week after a court ruling awarded them to the Jerusalem library, following a lengthy legal battle between the state and Tel Aviv resident Hava Hoffe. Hoffe had inherited the estate from her mother, Esther, who served as Brod’s secretary.

In a press statement, the library said the strongboxes being delivered likely contain letters from Kafka and drafts of some of his stories. The items will soon undergo an examination.

The first of some 12 safety-deposit boxes was sent to the library from Bank Leumi’s main branch in Tel Aviv last Thursday. Attorney Ehud Sol, the executor of Brod’s estate, was present to supervise the transfer.

Earlier this month, Israel's Supreme Court denied Hoffe’s request that it reconsider its August ruling on the case. In the earlier ruling, the court rejected her appeal of a lower court’s decision to award the papers to the National Library. Throughout the hearings dealing with the affair, all courts involved agreed that based on Brod's will, the National Library was the most suitable repository for his literary estate.

Over the coming weeks, the library will take possession of all the remaining documents from the estate; some are in Israel and other are in Zurich, Switzerland.

The library has promised to make the documents accessible to the general public.

“The National Library will obey the court’s ruling and ensure the papers’ preservation, as well as their accessibility to the general public,” chairman of the board, David Blumberg, said in a press statement.

The noted Jewish author Franz Kafka, who wrote his novels and stories in German, died in 1924 and was buried in Prague. After his death, his friend Brod removed Kafka's papers from his apartment, saving them from almost-certain destruction by bringing them to pre-state Israel in 1939, when the Nazis were at the gates of Prague. Over the years, Brod donated some of Kafka’s works to the University of Oxford’s libraries, where they remain to this day.

Brod, who died in 1968, requested that his own literary estate – including the remaining Kafka papers – be handed over to a public archive. But his secretary, Esther Hoffe, decided to sell some of them instead, most notably a manuscript of Kafka’s novel “The Trial.” She left the other documents to her daughters when she died in 2007

In 2008, after Haaretz learned that both authors’ papers were being kept in unsuitable conditions by Hava Hoffe and her sister, the matter of who should get possession of Brod’s literary estate went to court. Hava’s sister died before the case was decided.

During the hearings, Hoffe argued that the papers were given to her mother, and thence to her – legally and in compliance with Brod’s wishes. But during the trial, it emerged that the Hoffe family had sold some of the papers at public auctions throughout the world, in flagrant disregard of Brod's will, which stipulated that they be preserved in a public facility, preferably in Israel.

In 2012, the Tel Aviv Family Court ruled that Brod’s estate should go to the National Library in Jerusalem. Three years later, the Tel Aviv District Court upheld that decision, after an appeal by Hoffe. In their ruling, the judges harshly criticized the late Esther Hoffe, saying she “committed a crying injustice through the way she managed [Brod's] literary estate.”

During the proceedings, it emerged that a substantial portion of the documents – thousands of pages, in German – were held in safety-deposit boxes owned by the Hoffe family in both Israeli and Swiss banks. The rest of the documents, which remained in Hoffe’s house, weren’t addressed by the court in its verdict.

Hoffe and her lawyer, Jeshayah Etgar, have never responded to Haaretz’s questions about the case.

However, one of her previous lawyers, Uri Zfat, told Haaretz this week, “Only now will the real work begin, because there’s still a huge amount of material [in the banks' vaults], including many letters in Kafka’s handwriting. This material was stored in unusually large safety-deposit boxes and hasn’t yet been processed.”

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