Court Rules: Kafka’s Papers Belong in Israel’s National Library

Judges say Eva Hoffe has been holding the papers she inherited from her mother, Max Brod’s secretary, illegally and ordered her to transfer them to the National Library.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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A collection of manuscripts written by Franz Kafka and Max Brod will be transferred to the Israeli National Library in Jerusalem.
A collection of manuscripts written by Franz Kafka and Max Brod will be transferred to the Israeli National Library in Jerusalem.Credit: AP
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

A collection of manuscripts written by Franz Kafka and Max Brod will finally be transferred from private hands to the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem, the Tel Aviv District Court ruled on Monday, bringing an end to a long and convoluted legal proceeding.

The three-judge panel rejected the appeal of Eva Hoffe from Tel Aviv to keep the papers, which the court said she held illegally. Hoffe was appealing a Tel Aviv Family Court ruling from October 2012 ordering her to hand over all the materials to the National Library, and harshly criticized her actions throughout the long, drawn-out case. Hoffe and her sister Ruth Wiesler tried to maintain their decades-long private hold on the vast collection of rare documents, which they had inherited from their mother, Esther Hoffe, who was Brod’s secretary.

The judges said Esther Hoffe had caused “outrageous injustice because of the manner in which the literary estate was managed.”

In addition, the justices severely criticized the Hoffe family for having sold some of Kafka’s manuscripts to the highest bidder, and planning to continue selling the papers to the German Literature Archive in the city of Marbach, Germany.

“Kafka did not know [Esther] Hoffe, never spoke with her and never met her,” wrote the judges. “She was not close to him. There was no familial relationship.”

The judges said the only connection between Kafka and Hoffe was that Kafka’s writings made their way in a convoluted fashion into her hands, and noted that Kafka asked in his will for his manuscripts to be destroyed.

“As far as Kafka is concerned, is the placing of his personal writings, which he ordered to be destroyed, for public sale to the highest bidder by the secretary of his friend and by her daughters in keeping with justice? It seems that the answer to this is clear,” wrote the judges.

Kafka, born in Prague in 1883, is considered one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. After he died in 1924, his friend Max Brod collected, edited and published his works – despite Kafka’s own instructions in his will ordering the manuscripts to be destroyed – thus posthumously making Kafka a household name.

In 1939, when the Nazis invaded Prague, where the two were from, Brod escaped to Israel, bringing the manuscripts with him. When he died in 1968, his manuscripts, together with those of Kafka, were transferred to his secretary Esther Hoffe.

Even though Brod asked in his will that the manuscripts be given to a public archive, Hoffe auctioned some of them abroad for a great deal of money. Many of them eventually made it to the German Literature Archive in Marbach. Other documents were kept by Hoffe in bank safety deposit boxes, out of the reach of the public and researchers. In 2007, she died and bequeathed her estate to her daughters, after which Hoffe and Wiesler wanted to sell the manuscripts in Germany. Wiesler died in 2012. The present case started in 2007.

The sisters’ position was backed by the German Literature Archive, which claimed that the manuscripts belong in Germany and demanded the right to purchase them from the sisters.

The National Library and the government of Israel took issue with this claim, arguing that Brod – Kafka’s close friend – had bequeathed the manuscripts to the National Library in his will.

The judges also noted that Brod would not have wanted Kafka’s writings to be sent to Germany: “It seems he would have rejected out of hand the possibility of his literary estate being transferred to an archive located in Germany,” they wrote.

Eva Hoffe is to hand over the manuscripts – tens of thousands of pages that were kept in 10 safety deposit boxes in banks in Tel Aviv and Zurich, as well as in her apartment. The manuscripts include Brod’s personal diary, which has never been published and may shed light on Kafka’s life. In addition, the safes also contain notebooks filled in with Kafka’s writings, including Hebrew study exercises and correspondence Kafka and Brod kept with other notable writers, including Stefan Zweig, the Jewish Austrian novelist, playwright, journalist and biographer, and Israeli writer and poet Shin Shalom.

The court said Hoffe had no rights, and could not have any such rights – as well as not having rights to any royalties – for the documents Brod took from Kafka’s apartment after his death. As for her holding on to such documents after Brod’s death, she did do illegally and had no right to decide on the fate of the estate, as “Brod was careful to rule out any connection between Hoffe’s heirs and the fate of his literary estate,” wrote the judges.

The National Library praised the court’s decision and said the ruling will allow expanding access to national cultural treasures to the wider public. The National Library also plans to make the manuscripts available online.

Meir Heller, the attorney who represented the National Library at the trial, told Haaretz that the court’s decision confirms that the public’s right to access cultural works takes priority over property rights.

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