Never-before-seen Franz Kafka Drawings Go on Display

Following a long court battle, and after they had been held in a vault for decades, unknown illustrations by the great author can be seen at long last, 97 years after Kafka’s death

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A self portrait, by Franz Kafka, 1911.
A self portrait, by Franz Kafka, 1911.Credit: Ardon Bar Hama, National Library
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Illustrations by renowned Czech-Jewish author Franz Kafka can now be seen on the National Library of Israel’s website. The library received the illustrations in recent years after the Supreme Court ruled that they should be removed from vaults where they had been held illegally for decades, and given to the National Library, along with numerous items in Kafka’s handwriting. They have since been scanned and uploaded to the library’s internet site.

The illustrations date from 1905 to 1920 and include a self-portrait, portraits of others, as well as simple character sketches. One, called “Drinker,” depicts a man who looks angry and frightening, sitting before a glass of wine. Another drawing, titled “The Masses,” shows five faceless figures.

Kafka called another illustration “Beggar and Noble Philanthropist,” and another “Crazed with Joy.”

'Trinker' ('Drinker'), a drawing by Franz Kafka.Credit: Ardon Bar Hama, National Library
Sketches by Kafka, from the collection on display.Credit: Ardon Bar Hama, National Library

On top of the illustrations, the National Library’s Kafka collection contains scans of letters he sent to various people, including his parents, his friend Max Brod, his fiancée Felice Bauer, and the philosopher Martin Buber.

The young Franz Kafka.Credit: The National Library of Israel
Postcards Kafka sent to Max Brod.Credit: Ardon Bar Hama / National Library

Other items of interest that can now be viewed on the library website are Kafka’s Hebrew notebook, a draft of his short story “Wedding Preparations in the Country,” a journal from his travels in Switzerland, pages from the manuscript of the novel “The Castle” and a print copy of “Letter to His Father,” which Kafka wrote to his father. With the exception of the Hebrew notebook, all of the materials are in German.

Franz Kafka (1883-1924) is considered one of the greatest 20th century Jewish writers. Born and raised in Prague, he died of tuberculosis at 41. In his will, his asked Max Brod to burn his manuscripts, but his friend went against his wishes and instead collected, edited and published them. That is how three of Kafka’s most important works, “The Trial,” “Amerika” and “The Castle,” came to be published.

When Brod later left Czechoslovakia following the Nazi invasion in 1939, he took Kafka’s writings with him and brought them to Israel when he made aliya. He sent some of the material to Kafka’s heirs: these were deposited in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University.

A drawing of Kafka's mother, Julie Kafka, top, and a self portrait, by Franz Kafka, 1911.Credit: Ardon Bar Hama, National Library
An untitled drawing by Franz Kafka from the collection. Credit: Ardon Bar Hama, National Library

Brod kept other Kafka materials, including letters, short manuscripts and drawings. After Brod died in 1968, his secretary, Esther Hoffe, began selling off parts of this collection in public auctions, which is how some came to the German Literature Archive in Marbach, Germany. Following her death in 2007, Haaretz published an investigative report that detailed the illicit trade in Kafka’s writings conducted by the Hoffe family. In wake of the report, the National Library of Israel sued to obtain the rest of the collection in the possession of Hoffe’s daughters. The legal proceedings, which were heard by three separate panels and lasted more than a decade, culminated in victory for the National Library when the court ruled that the Kafka archive which was part of Brod’s personal archive, was being illegally held by the Hoffe family.

One of the drawings by author Franz Kafka which can be seen on the National Library website.Credit: Ardon Bar-Hama / National Library
A sketch made by Kafka.Credit: Ardon Bar-Hama / National Library

During the trial, it came to light that the Hoffe family had hidden the archive in bank vaults in Israel and Switzerland, thus violating Brod’s will, which stipulated that the material should go into a public archive.

Now that the material has been scanned and made publicly accessible on the National Library website, Brod’s instructions have been fulfilled, 97 years after Kafka’s death and almost half a century after Brod’s death.

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