The Son Kafka Never Knew He Had

Until shortly before his death, Max Brod debated whether or not to publish the story about the illegitimate child Kafka may have had — and shared those deliberations with my mother, a poet, in an apartment in Tel Aviv

Daniel Cohen-Sagy
An illustration of Kafka, M.M and Schicken by Eran Wolkowski
Credit: Eran Wolkowski
Daniel Cohen-Sagy

From the late 1950s to 1968, once a week my mother, poet Netti Boleslav, would make her way by bus to 16 Hayarden street in Tel Aviv.

In an apartment on the second floor lived her literary mentor, author, playwright and musicologist Max Brod, who was like a father figure to her. The years that have gone by since then have made it easier for me to clarify the intimacy between my mother and Max Brod.

At the time, my mother was a novice poet with no literary education who wrote in the German language and lacked the slightest shred of self-confidence — certainly when compared to the leading Israeli poets of the time, for example, Avraham Shlonsky, who sent her a rude and brutal reply when she asked him for his opinion of her poems, or Lea Goldberg, who never even answered her letters.

Esther Hoffe and Max Brod at his office in Tel Aviv.Credit: Eva Hoffe's family archive

Max Brod, who was a world-renowned and highly educated individual with broad horizons who corresponded with the best writers and intellectuals of his day, accepted her warmly and in a friendly way from the moment she first showed him her poems.

Their conversations, which would last for about two hours, took place in his study. In the next room sat his secretary Esther Hoffe. It was she who set the dates for the meetings or cancelled them suddenly for no logical reason. There were times when despite her rigor, my mother and Brod met in a cafe. It was my mother who convinced him to get out of the house and breathe some fresh air.

Brod was an open and congenial individual but it was quite a while before he fully trusted his new pupil and shared with her things that were close to his heart. He told her about the intimate friendship that developed between him and Franz Kafka and some of the reservations he had about his friend. Sometimes he discussed with my mother the possibility of changing his opinion of some of the incidents in Kafka’s life.

The jealous secretary

Because of his advanced age, his shaky health and the profound loneliness in which he lived after his wife passed away, it was not easy to penetrate the wall which Brod erected around himself. His secretary in effect ruled his life and was his confidante.

The appearance of my mother, who was an attractive woman, in Brod’s life caused a certain amount of tension in the relationship between the secretary and the writer. When it was made clear to Hoffe that my mother’s sole interest in Brod was as a guide and editor for her poetry and that what brought them together was Czech culture, she relaxed and was no longer an obstacle to the meetings between them.

One of the important issues pertaining to Kafka that Brod shared with my mother came up close to the final editing of Brod’s book “Über Franz Kafka,” published by Fischer Bücherei in Frankfurt in 1966. Prior to that, in 1954, Schocken Books had published an English version of the book.

Portrait of Franz Kafka.Credit: De Agostini/Getty Images

The whole matter began with a letter that Max Brod received at the beginning of 1948 from a man called Wolfgang Schocken (no relation to the family of publishers), who lived in Jerusalem at the time. He wrote that Franz Kafka had fathered an illegitimate son who died at the age of seven.

As evidence, he presented a letter from a woman called M.M., who had been a friend of his and was also no longer alive. According to that letter, Kafka had no knowledge of the existence of the child, who died before he did. Wolfgang Schocken’s letter also stated that M.M., the child’s mother, was a very sensitive and proud woman, entirely free of economic worries, and as her relationship with Kafka had cooled quickly she hesitated to trust him and did not tell him about the birth of their child.

Brod knew from Kafka about his acquaintanceship with M.M. but he defined the relationship as hostile. Indeed, in Kafka’s diary there is a mention of his acquaintanceship with the woman that confirms Brod’s evaluation.

Nevertheless, Brod saw fit to mention in the English edition of his book about Kafka that the writer had fathered a child without ever knowing about the child's existence. People familiar with Kafka’s works will immediately be able to identify the passages in which he expressed his deep desire to be a father sitting by his son’s cradle.

The mysterious M.M.

Wolfgang Schocken related that he first met M.M. in Prague in 1940. Two months later she sent him a letter from Florence in which she wrote: “You were the first person in Prague who recognized the danger I was in and understood my situation in depth.

You and your musicians who toured that wonderful city with me, which I love more than you imagine. At that time I made a pilgrimage to the grave of the person who had been so close to my heart and died in 1924, and whose genius is now acclaimed by everyone. He was the father of my child who died suddenly in Munich in 1921.

He was far from me and I was far from him, as I had to part from him during World War I and after that I never saw him — apart from for a few hours — because he was on his deathbed in his homeland, far from us. I think this is the first time I have talked about this. I have never spoken about this with anyone. My family and friends never heard anything about it. I only told my boss and he was generous and fair towards me.”

In his book on Kafka, Brod wrote that M.M had written about Kafka and his works for years so Wolfgang Schocken accepted what she said without question. Immediately after her sojourn in Prague, Italy entered the war and the correspondence between Schocken and M.M. ceased.

M.M. herself, who was from Berlin, fled to Switzerland and stayed in Italy.The last news that Schocken in Jerusalem heard about her came via the British Red Cross on May 16, 1945. The language of the message was: “Miss M.M. was taken from the town of San Donato Comino the Province of Frosinone about 100 kilometers from Rome with a group of Jews from the area. Beyond that we have nothing to add on the matter.”

Further inquiries found that M.M. had been beaten to death by a German soldier’s rifle butt. In the English version of his book, Brod wrote that he had followed up on all the traces Wolfgang Schocken had sent him and they led him to many addresses in Florence, most notably to a pension called San Giorgio.

He tried to track down Kafka’s letters to M.M. and finally made do with raising the possibility that Kafka’s letters to the mother of his son he never knew were in the hands of a person called E. Pre, who helped her flee to Chile. Brod sums up this incident in his book by saying he was not able to find out what name Kafka’s son was given and in what circumstances the child had lived and died.

Franz Kafka in Prague's Old Town Square, 1920-21.Credit: Sovfoto, UIG via Getty Images

When Brod set about editing the German edition of his book in 1966, he deliberated at length together with my mother as to whether he should omit the story of the relationship with M.M. and the child they had. Years later my mother told me about this fateful conversation: “What does this material that is mainly gossip add?”

Brod said to her. “Maybe it was a mistake to include it in the first place in the American edition. After all these years, I still haven’t made up my mind. If it is correct, and I assume that there is some truth or other in this woman’s story, then we are missing out on something important taken out of Kafka’s life. Something that would have changed it, adding a new dimension to this man. His life could have received additional meaning. Even knowledge of his son’s death could have caused a change in him.”

My mother went on to recount that Brod’s secretary, Esther Hoffe, joined the conversation. She completely supported Brod's decision to include the story in the German edition as well. “Are you only writing about what there was?” she asked him. “After all, you are adding your own analysis, your own view of things. If you omit this story we will miss out on the significant closeness you had with Kafka and the importance you attribute to discovering the details about the woman who in my opinion will remain the mystery woman in Kafka’s life.”

Was the story fabricated?

My mother refrained from expressing her opinion on that occasion. She believed the exact opposite of what Hoffe believed. Possibly she did express her opinion in a tête-à-tête with Brod. She told him that the story of M.M. is not entirely reliable, as apart from the letters she wrote to the source in Jerusalem, there are no documents attesting to the boy’s birth, there is no known grave and there is no name for the child.

Moreover, keeping an extra-marital pregnancy and the birth itself secret was no simple matter in those days. And it is also not reasonable, she added, that M.M. managed to raise a child until the age of seven without her family knowing about that. My mother’s opinion was that the entire story was half made-up. However, Brod decided to keep the story in the German edition on the grounds that the child who was born to Kafka could have been significant in his life, even if there is a chance that the story is a fabrication.

Two weeks after Brod’s death, in December of 1968, I received a letter from my mother. At the time I was a student in Munich. She wrote about her anguish at the magnitude of the loss and about Max Brod’s importance in her life.

In the letter she mentioned their last conversation. His obsessive engagement with Kafka’s life and work, she related, robbed him of a lot of his mental resources and overshadowed his own works, such as “Tycho Brahe’s Path to God,” which is virtually unknown, despite having been translated into Hebrew.

According to her, he was aware of this. However, his admiration for Kafka’s genius and the responsibility he took upon himself for publishing his works and the international renown they achieved ultimately led him to devote himself entirely to commemorating his friend. It is possible, my mother wrote, that had Brod’s name not been linked to the discovery of Kafka’s works, the latter would never have become so famous. However, there is no doubt that a certain amount of injustice has been done to Brod’s own works. In any case, the wonderful friendship between Kafka and Brod was so extraordinary that it is possible to see them as twins for whom fate decreed a literary partnership that has linked them for all eternity.

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