This Day in Jewish History

1968: A Writer and Champion of Kafka Dies

Max Brod was a prolific writer in his own right, but is best known for defying Kafka's wishes and introducing his works to the world.

David Green
David B. Green
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Max BrodCredit: Wikimedia Commons
David Green
David B. Green

On December 20, 1968, Max Brod died, at the age of 84. Brod was a Prague-born novelist, composer and journalist, and a Zionist who emigrated to Palestine in 1939 and rebuilt his life and career here with amazing success. History remembers him principally, however, as the friend and champion of Franz Kafka, who recognized and encouraged Kafka's talent from very early on, and, when the latter died, in 1924, disregarded his instructions to destroy his manuscripts, and was responsible for having them published.

Max Brod was born May 27, 1884, into an assimilated, German-speaking, Jewish family in Prague, then part of Austria-Hungary. At age 3, he was diagnosed with severe spinal curvature, and spent a year in a corrective harness; nonetheless, he went through life with a hunchback. He attended Catholic school and gymnasium, and then Charles University, in Prague, where he studied law.

It was at university, in 1902, that Brod met Kafka, who was also pursuing a law degree. Kafka attended a lecture delivered by Brod about the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, and afterward, as Brod later recalled, approached him to discuss the topic. The two continued their conversation as they departed, wrote Brod, “filling the endless walk home by disagreeing strongly with my all too rough formulations." From then on, he and Kafka were close friends and colleagues.

Kafka believed that one’s work for survival should be kept separate from one’s art. He worked in an employment-insurance office, and Brod, convinced of the wisdom of that principle, took a job in the post office, staying there until 1924, when he devoted himself fulltime to his career as novelist, critic and more. Kafka also wrote, prolifically, but did not publish a word until convinced to do so by Brod, in 1908. Nonetheless, most of what Kafka wrote, he destroyed.

It is estimated that Kafka, by the time he died, at age 41 of tuberculosis, had already burned 90 percent of his literary output. Naming Brod as the executor of his estate, he instructed him, both orally and in a letter he left for him, to get rid of what remained as well. Brod always claimed that he told Kafka he had no intention of fulfilling his order. In fact, so certain was Brod, from so early on, of Kafka’s genius, that, as he later wrote, during “22 years of our unclouded friendship, I never once threw away the smallest scrap of paper that came from him, no, not even a postcard.” 

And so, within three years of Kafka's death, Brod had arranged for the publication in German of "The Trial" (1925), "The Castle" (1926) and "Amerika" (1927), meaning that the world soon knew directly of the writer whom Brod spoke of in almost messianic terms. The problem – as the world also now knows – is that Brod was so protective of Kafka's legacy, and perhaps of his own role in the Kafka saga -- that he too left instructions regarding the disposition of the Kafka literary estate that led to significant confusion. As a consequence, 40 years after Brod's death, the fate of the Kafka papers that hadn't already been transferred to Oxford University's Bodleian Library decades ago had to be decided in an Israeli court. A year ago, the Tel Aviv District Family Court ruled that those papers should go to the National Library, in Jerusalem, but the two sisters who were battling the library for the right to sell the estate to the German Literary Archive, are sure to appeal.

As for Brod, as a committed Zionist, he – together with his wife, Elsa Taussig, and luggage filled with various sketches and documents belonging to Kafka -- came to pre-state Israel in 1939, and during the next 29 years, he worked as a dramaturge at Habima Theater, and continued writing fiction and non-fiction. He died in Tel Aviv.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen