Battle Over Kafka's Estate Ends: Swiss Vaults Containing Unpublished Manuscripts to Be Handed to Israel

Zurich court rules the Israel National Library can open contested bank safes that are likely to hold a trove of oeuvres by the famed Jewish writer

File photo: A library official shows Franz Kafka's Hebrew vocabulary notebook at Israel's National Library in Jerusalem, October 5, 2014.
Sebastian Scheiner/AP

Ending a legal battle that lasted more than a decade over Franz Kafka's literary estate, a Swiss court ruled last week that Israel's National Library can now open bank safes which experts assess contain a trove of unpublished manuscripts and drawings by the famed Jewish writer.

The bank safes were in possession of Esther Hoffe, the personal secretary and heir to the estate of writer Max Brod, who was a close friend of Kafka. 

The Zurich district court's decision upheld a 2016 Israeli Supreme Court ruling, which demands the family of Hoffe hand over the majority of Brod's and Kafka's estates, which were kept illegally for decades in banks in Switzerland and in Tel Aviv.

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The Swiss safe deposit boxes are said to contain the most significant literary treasures, and possibly hold manuscripts and drawings by both Kafka and Brod, also considered a prominent Prague literary figure who rose to fame as Kafka's publisher.

File photo: Tourists walk past a moving metal sculpture of writer Franz Kafka in his birth city of Prague, Czech Republic, February 4, 2017.
Jon Gambrell/AP

Bohemian-born Kafka, who was buried in Prague in 1924, instructed Brod to burn his manuscripts before dying of tuberculosis at the age of 40. Brod disobeyed Kafka's wishes and published large parts of his works, including "The Trial," "The Castle" and "Amerika" – the novels that turned Kafka from a little-known writer to one of the most important literary figures of the 20th century.

Fleeing Nazi rule, Brod immigrated to pre-state Israel in 1939, where he continued to write. Before his death in 1968 in Tel Aviv, Brod instructed Hoffe, his secretary, to transfer the Kafka works he kept to a public institution. Hoffe, instead, sold some of the manuscripts, including "The Trial," which was auctioned off in 1988 for $1.8 million and went to the German Literature Archive.

Hoffe died in 2007 at the age of 101, leaving the remaining manuscripts for her daughters, Eva Hoffe and Ruth Wiesler. Following an extensive series of investigative reports in Haaretz, the Israel National Library took the family to court, demanding they fulfill Brod's will by handing over the manuscripts.

Judges in three different Israeli courts ruled against the Hoffe family, heavily criticizing them for not keeping to Brod's will. "Brod wanted his estate to eventually be in the hands of a body that suits his aspirations as a writer," the Supreme Court ruled in 2016. "He didn't want his estate…to be sold to the highest bidder."

The Jerusalem library, which vowed to make the manuscripts available to the public, had to face even more bureaucratic, technical and judicial difficulties, as some of the vaults were kept outside of Israel. Nearly three years since the Israeli top court's verdict, Meir Heller, an attorney for the library who has accompanied the decade-long case, said after the Swiss ruling that the new material is expected in Israel within a month.

"We welcome the judgment of the court in Switzerland, which matched all the judgments entered previously by the Israeli courts," said David Blumberg, chairman of the Israel National Library, a nonprofit and non-governmental body. "The judgment of the Swiss court completes the preparation of the National Library of Israel to accept to entire literary estate of Max Brod, which will be properly handled and will be made available to the wider public in Israel and the world."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.