Franz Kafka, Max Brod Manuscripts, Taken Illegally a Decade Ago, Returned to Israel

Nine years after hundreds of handwritten documents were snatched away to Germany, the famed Jewish writers' works will be handed over to the National Library of Israel

One of Max Brod's manuscripts translated into Hebrew that were returned to the National Library of Israel.
National Library of Israel

Hundreds of handwritten documents of Jewish writers Max Brod and Franz Kafka were returned to Jerusalem on Tuesday, nine years after the manuscripts were illegally taken out of Israel and found their way to Germany. 

In a ceremony in Berlin, the German police presented the heads of the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem with hundreds of manuscript pages including letters, plays, diaries and poems. Most of the materials were written by Brod, one of the Kafka’s closest friends and a member of the “Prague Circle” of writers, who was Kafka's literary executor after his death in 1924.

>> Read more: Eva Hoffe, original heiress of Kafka letters forced to give them to Israel’s National Library, dies at 85

Among the documents, about 5,000 pages in total, are poems written by Brod that were translated into Hebrew, Dr. Stefan Litt of the National Library told Haaretz.

Litt traveled to Berlin to receive the materials ahead of their return to Israel. Brod wrote most of his creations in German, while only a handful of his numerous works were translated into Hebrew, therefore each translation of his work into Hebrew is considered to be of interest.

Litt said that among the documents are also postcards and letters Brod wrote to different people. One postcard he wrote was meant for his wife, and contained greetings form Kafka.

The materials were originally part of Brod’s estate, which was kept in the home of Eva Hoffe. Her mother, Esther (Ilsa) Hoffe, was Brod’s secretary. When Brod fled Prague in 1939, he took with him a suitcase with remnants of Kafka's works, 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.

In 2010, Eva Hoffe complained of a series of break-ins at her home in Tel Aviv. She said a number of manuscripts were stolen at the time. The materials later reappeared in Germany, while Israeli delinquents were trying to sell them.

The National Library asked the Israel Police to investigate the matter. The German police later raided a storage facility in the city of Wiesbaden and confiscated the manuscripts.

A German court subsequently ruled that they be made over to Brod's estate and transferred to the National Library, alongside his other writings, which were kept in the vaults of the Bank of Israel and in Switzerland. The documents include Brod's correspondence with his wife and passages from his diary.

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 auctions throughout the world, becoming wealthy as a result.

After her death in 2007, Haaretz published details 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. The National Library sued the Hoffe family, demanding that it be given the writings.

In 2016, Israel's Supreme Court ruled that Kafka's entire estate belonged to the National Library. A Swiss court recently ruled that a part of the estate currently in a bank safe in Zurich should also be handed to Israel.

“We are pleased that even after so much time has passed since these papers were stolen, there is now some closure and they will be coming to the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem, in accordance with Max Brod’s wishes,” said David Blumberg, the chairman of the National Library.

“Brod was a prolific writer, composer, and playwright and his personal papers will now fittingly join the hundreds of personal archives held among the National Library collection, including a number belonging to figures from the famed Prague Circle, of which Brod and Kafka were members,” Blumberg added.