After Decade-long Legal Battle, Vaults Open: Kafka's Diaries Unveiled in Israel

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Go to comments
Kafka's Hebrew exercise book, back cover.
Kafka's Hebrew exercise book, back cover.Credit: Max Brod Estate / Israel National Library
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

The Israel National Library in Jerusalem unveiled Wednesday newly revealed papers of renowned author Franz Kafka, culminating a decade-long legal battle to make the papers available to the public.

The library recently obtained the manuscripts, including drafts of stories, personal letters and exercise books for Hebrew study. The library began the process after Haaretz reported that the literary estate was being held in private hands, out of public view.

Dr. Stefan Litt of the National Library told Haaretz that he was surprised to find the Hebrew study notebook, which had been previously unknown to researchers.

Kafka's Hebrew exercise book, front cover.Credit: Max Brod Estate / Israel National Library

Kafka began to study the language in Prague in 1917 with an Eretz-Israeli woman named Pua ben Tovim. The notebooks show words in Hebrew translated into German, including the words for dentist, unemployed, boycott, propaganda, lawyers, engineer, recommendation, cash, critique, recognition, and phrases for “suicidal” and “it is necessary after all."

David Blumberg, the chairman of the National Library, sees the papers as further affirming Kafka’s Jewish identity, which is a controversial issue among researchers.

“From his Hebrew exercise books and the letters in which Kafka talks about the Jewish settlement in Eretz Israel and Zionism, it is even clearer to us that their place is in Israel’s National Library,” he said.

In one paper Kafka describes a teachers strike in Israel in 1922, writing that the “decision of the Jerusalem teachers to not open the schools until [they are paid] salaries did not take the form of a prominent strike this time but of modest sabotage. Not to open does not mean to close down."

Kafka began taking Hebrew lessons in 1907, in Prague.Credit: Max Brod Estate / Israel National Library

"Therefore this time public opinion in Eretz Israel was not distraught by the decision this time… this time everything ended well," he wrote. "The Jerusalem teachers anger easily and are hard to gratify… the issue of the teachers’ salaries has become the main issue and the most burning one as though the entire torment… of this helpless time begins and ends there."

In one personal letter to his teacher, he apologizes for his mistakes in Hebrew. “Don’t be angry, I’m angry enough for both of us,” he wrote, in Hebrew, complete with diacritical marks.

'Letters, drafts and sketches'

The collection includes original handwritten versions of the some of the Czech author’s most famous works, including three drafts of the short story “Wedding Preparations in the Country”, written in 1907. Perusal of the drafts shows that Kafka cut the story from 58 pages in its first version down to five in the third. Ultimately, the story was published posthumously by Kafka's friend Max Brod.

Three drafts of Kafka's story, 'Wedding Preparations in the Country'.Credit: Max Brod Estate / Israel National Library

The collection also has the famous letter Kafka wrote to his father in 1919. Then aged 36, Kafka describes the emotional abuse his father inflicted on him in childhood. He typed the letter, except for the last page, which is hand-written, and gave it to his mother, but it never reached its addressee. The vulnerable missive is hard to read and is considered to be a major literary work.

Another item in the collection is an autobiographical essay on school In Prague, written in 1909, in which he confesses that among the pupils, he was stupid, but not the stupidest.

Kafka's emotional letter to his father, written 1919.Credit: Max Brod Estate / Israel National Library

Another literary fragment is called “The journey – I don’t know.” It begins with the words “Thus she sleeps. I’m not waking her.” That bit contains the Hebrew word for a female squirrel.

The collection also features a journal Kafka kept on a 1911 trip to Paris with Brod. The two planned to write a novel based on the journals they maintained during the trip.

Among the dozens of letters between the two included in the collection, a number of postcards sent two months before Kafka died of tuberculosis in 1924, at the age of 41, mention his deteriorating health.

While Kafka is famous mostly for his writing, it turns out he also exercised a talent for sketching during his first year of university.

Sketches by Franz KafkaCredit: Max Brod Estate / Israel National Library

Most of the collection’s drawings and sketches are contained in a single black notebook. Mostly, he drew caricatures and portraits of himself and others. Some of these drawings were previously unknown to scholars.

“Kafka may not have been Picasso or Rembrandt, but it’s interesting to see how he worked with his pen. He had some talent,” Litt told Haaretz.

The library says it’s scanning the works and will publish them on its website for general access.

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

'Testaments betrayed'

In his will Kafka asked Brod to burn his papers, but he did leave an opening for their preservation. Brod dedicated the rest of his life to publishing the Kafka writings.

In the 1920s he published Kafka’s three great novels – “The Judgment,” “The Castle,” and “Amerika,” as well as short stories and letters. In 1939, with the Nazi invasion, Brod fled Prague and immigrated to Eretz Israel, taking Kafka’s writings. He continued to edit and publish them until his own death in 1968.

Brod gave some of the materials to Oxford University Library in the 1960s, but he kept the rest.

Esther Hoffe and Max Brod at his office in Tel Aviv.Credit: Eva Hoffe's family archive

Some of the materials were left to Brod's secretary Esther Hoffe. In breach of Brod’s will, she sold a number of pieces – including “The Judgment,” which was sold to a private collector for $2 million and transferred to an archive in Marbach, Germany. Brod had asked her to give the rest of the estate to a public archive and even named the preferred one: The National Library.

Upon Hoffe’s death in 2007, she left the remainder of the collection in her possession to her daughters, including Eva Hoffe. After that was reported by Haaretz, the state and National Library sued the family. The saga ended in 2016 after three hearings (at the family affairs tribunal, Magistrates Court and Supreme Court) in three countries (Israel, Germany and Switzerland). The court ordered that the material to be transferred to the National Library.

In recent weeks the library finished collecting the manuscripts, which had become scattered among homes in Tel Aviv, bank vaults in Israel and in Switzerland, and the German police, which had confiscated some from smugglers, possibly manuscripts stolen from Hoffe’s home in Tel Aviv.

Kafka's signature on a letter to his father, written 1919, now on display at the National Library.Credit: Estate of Max Brod / Israel National Library

Eva Hoffe died a year ago, some years after her sister. It transpires however that although the National Library now possesses most of the manuscripts, it doesn’t have all of them. The Hoffe family had kept back some papers of Kafka and Brod.

Litt admits that although they pursued inquiries, the library has no clue as to where they are now. Litt says he hopes these papers show up one day. The missing material includes Brod’s correspondence after Kafka’s death with two of his companions, Felice Bauer and Dora Dimant, in the 1940s and 1950s, as well as Brod’s own diaries. The missing material never has been published.

Click the alert icon to follow topics: