Josef K. in Jerusalem’s Old City

Benjamin Balint on his book ‘Kafka’s Last Trial,’ and why no streets in Israel are named after the Jewish writer

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Czech Writer Franz Kafka In The Old Town Square In Prague, 1920-21.
Czech Writer Franz Kafka In The Old Town Square In Prague, 1920-21. Credit: Sovfoto / UIG / Getty Images

“Kafka’s Last Trial” is Benjamin Balint’s second book, after 2010’s “Running Commentary,” a look at the inner workings of neocon magazine Commentary, where Balint himself once worked. Balint, 42, was born in Seattle, Washington, and has lived in Jerusalem since 1995. The following is an edited version of his conversation with Haaretz.

What drew you to the battle over the Kafka papers?

I had two experiences before I decided to jump in and write this book. First, in the winter of 2010, I participated in a German-Israeli journalist exchange program, and that’s where it first came to my attention, and I understood the great German interest about this case.

Second, in 2011, I started teaching great books at the Al Quds-Bard liberal arts college [in Jerusalem], and I helped design the two-year seminar that all the undergraduates took. Our last text was always by Kafka: sometimes I would do “The Trial,” and sometimes “The Metamorphosis.” I had a student who wrote a final paper for me in which she discussed her own family’s experience – they were engaged in a years-long struggle to save their home in the Old City from confiscation by the state, a case that ended up going all the way to the Supreme Court. She compared her own family experiences with the experience of Josef K. in “The Trial,” in a very brilliant way. She had never heard of Kafka before, or read him, but somehow I had the feeling that reading Kafka gave her a new vocabulary to understand and express what she was going through.

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You make the point in the book that no street in Israel has ever been named for Kafka. How do you understand this omission?

I can only speculate, but it may have something to do with something I say elsewhere – which is that Kafka’s spirit did not match the spirit of this place. But I can add one thing that I learned after writing the book. I learned that a Prague émigré named [Otto] Dov Kulka, professor emeritus of literature at Hebrew University, is actively petitioning the Jerusalem Municipality to have the new square in front of what’s going to be the new national library named for Kafka. He thinks that would be a fitting tribute.

Let’s talk a little about Eva Hoffe, whom you refer to by her Hebrew name, Hava. How did you win her over?

I don’t know that there was a trick, other than just cultivating her trust over a long period. At first she was reluctant to talk to anyone, because she felt that the coverage of her and the case in Haaretz was unfair – that she was portrayed as a greedy “cat lady.” And there was a short film made about the case, during the appellate stage, and it was an awful, awful documentary. Cameramen chased her down the street and waited in ambush outside her apartment on Spinoza Street. And she was a very private person. So, I had to overcome a lot of that resistance.

My sense is that she was bitter and maybe suspicious, but she was also sensitive. And so meeting someone she could trust – that was important for her.

She was eager to talk not only about legal aspects of case, but also about the familial aspects. For her it was essentially a family story. She was very close to her mother, they lived together all those decades. And she saw this inheritance – or what was supposed to be her inheritance – as bringing her closer to her mother and to Max Brod, who had sort of raised her. She was very bothered that someone else, a stranger at the National Library, would be going through personal material and determining what would be in the private domain and what wouldn’t.

I know you were out of the country when Hoffe died, but that after your return you met with some of her friends. What did they tell you?

I sat with two of her oldest friends. One said she was quite surprised that Hava had not arranged for her own burial plot. She was buried in her mother’s grave, on top of her mother. This friend said to me: “Hava was swallowed up by her mother in death just as she was swallowed up by her mother in life.” That’s what stuck out for me. As well as a great deal of bereavement and sadness that she ended her life under the specter of this defeat.