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Israel Court Orders Kafka Manuscripts Be Transferred to National Library

Documents of one of the greatest 20th century writers were kept in safety deposit boxes out of the reach of the public and of researchers; court ruling brings five-year saga to end.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

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

Judge Talia Pardo Kupelman wrote in her ruling that she had taken the historical significance of the case under consideration: "This case complicated by passions, was argued in court for quite a long time across seas, lands, and times. Not every day, and most definitely not as a matter of routine, does the opportunity befall a judge to delve into the depth of history as it unfolds before him in piecemeal fashion," she added.

The trial opened "a window into the lives, desires, frustrations and the souls of two of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century," she wrote.

The crux of the trial was based on the insistence of Tel Aviv sisters Eva Hoffe and Ruth Wiesler to maintain their decades-long private hold on the vast collection of rare documents, which they had inherited from their mother, Esther Hoffe, Brod's secretary.

Their 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 Ward of the State, which represented Israel in court, took issue with claim, arguing that Brod - Kafka's close friend – had bequeathed the manuscripts to the National Library in his will.

Kafka, born in Prague, 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.

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

Even though Brod asked 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 the city of Marbach. Other documents were kept by Hoffe in bank safety deposit boxes out of the reach of the public and of researchers. In 2007, she died, after which her daughters Hoffe and Wiesler wanted to inherit the collection and sell it in Germany. Wiesler died six months ago.

The judge rejected their claims and ruled that they did not receive the manuscripts from their mother as a gift. "Due to the strict requirements of proof required, I do not believe that the plaintiffs have met the requirements the gift was never carried out to completion One can determine that the Kafka manuscripts, like the Brod estate, were not given to the plaintiffs as gifts," Pardo Kupelman wrote.

Now, Eva Hoffe is to hand over the manuscripts - tens of thousands of pages that were kept in ten safety deposit boxes in banks in Tel Aviv and Zurich. The manuscripts include Brod's personal diary, which was never 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, correspondence Kafka and Brod kept with other notable writers, including Stefan Zweig and Shin Shalom.
Meir Heller, who represented the National Library at the trial, told Haaretz early on Sunday morning, that the court ruling was "a decisive victory for the National Library. All the library's claims were accepted. The court ruled that the estate in its entirety – including the Kafka and Brod manuscripts – are to be bequeathed to the public and will be transferred to the National Library."

The court ordered Hoffe and Wiesler's heirs to bear the cost of the trial and pay the Israeli National Library and the German Literature Archive NIS 30,000 and pay NIS 75,000 to cover the expenses of Brod's will executers.

Despite her loss in court, Hoffe will be entitled for royalties from any future publication of the documents.

Referring to the lengthy trial, Judge Pardo Kupelman said: "I hope that the inheritance of the late Brod will finally find its place according to the wishes of the deceased."

Hoffe's attorney Uri Sefad said that his client intends to continue the legal battle: "Mrs. Hoffe will file an appeal, it's unacceptable to her."

Israeli National Library director Oren Weinberg welcomed the ruling and committed that the library will "make the legacy accessible to the public." Weinberg said that the national library plans to learn the texts and soon after to make it available online, in accordance with Brod's will.

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

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