Unpublished Kafka Works Probed

The unpublished works of famed Prague-born writer Franz Kafka are to be examined for the first time in 50 years.

Hana Levi Julian , | updated: 1:54 PM

Author Franz Kafka
Author Franz Kafka
Israel news photo: (Wikimedia Commons)

The unpublished works of famed Prague-born Jewish author Franz Kafka – one of the most important writers of his generation whose writings filled with hopelessness, anxiety and anguish gave rise to the word "kafkaesque" – are to be examined in a Swiss bank vault Thursday for the first time in 50 years. Some of the documents were already examined separately last week in another bank vault, located in Tel Aviv.

The private papers are at the center of a controversy over who actually owns the valuable writings and sketches, estimated to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Kafka, eldest of six children, lived long enough to watch his two younger brothers die in early childhood but died before his three sisters were exterminated by the Nazis in World War II.

According to media reports, the unpublished works by the 41-year-old author of The Trial, Amerika and The Castle, who died in 1924, are stored in boxes in two different bank vaults in Zurich and Israel.

The two-year battle over the private manuscripts was filed by Eve and Ruth Hoffe, daughters of Esther, a secretary to Max Brod, a friend of Kafka. Despite having promised his friend that he would burn the manuscripts after Kafka died of tuberculosis, Brod published the author's novels instead.

He then fled Europe for Tel Aviv to escape the Nazi genocide in World War II. It was in Israel, where he hired Esther Hoffe to be his housekeeper and secretary, that the saga really begins, and causes Hoffe and her sister, in whose names the four bank vault boxes are registered, to claim they are the rightful heirs of Kafka's estate.

Kafka's Papers Moved to Israel

The papers apparently were brought by Brod to a first-floor apartment in a Tel Aviv suburb, where they lay for almost 40 years, according to the British newspaper, The Independent. Brod, a passionate Zionist, hired Hoffe, a fellow German-speaking Jewish refugee from Prague, to assist him. 

When he died in 1968 – after having already passed on some of Kafka's work to Israel's public archives – he bequeathed the rest of the documents to her. For the next 40 years, they remained in her ground-floor Tel Aviv apartment together with dozens of urban cats, the only other eyes allowed to view the precious manuscripts.

Cache Catalogued Following Sale at Sotheby's

Following her death at age 101, Hoffe's two daughters, Eva and Ruth, placed the papers in safe-deposit boxes in Israel and Zurich. It was then that the battle for ownership really began, although Israel's State Archive had already forced Hoffe to allow officials to catalogue the collection after arresting Hoffe on charges of smuggling years earlier. 

Hoffe was stopped at Ben Gurion Airport as she was boarding an international flight, her bag stuffed with several letters written by Kafka, as well as one of his travel journals. 

Despite having taken inventory, however, officials suspected that Hoffe squirreled away particularly valuable portions of the collection. Prior to that, in 1988, she sold an original manuscript of Kafka's book, "The Trial," at Sotheby's, where a book dealer representing the literary archive of the German city of Marbach bought it for 1.1 million pounds.  

Because the two sisters have decided to move the documents, however, a battle has ensued over who has the right to control the fate of the papers. Thus a court has ordered a group of German literary and manuscript experts to examine them, probably the first "outsider" eyes to view the documents since they were written some 80 years ago.

Kafka Legacy: A Jewish National Treasure

At present, the Hoffe sisters contend that it is their right to do with Kafka's work whatever they wish, and they have expressed the intent to sell some of the papers to Germany's Marbach archive. 

The State of Israel, however, regards Kafka's work as a legacy that is a Jewish national treasure, one that represents the lost pre-Holocaust European Jewish culture -- hence the State and the National Library of Jerusalem are the defendants in the lawsuit for control over the papers. 

Several boxes of originals of Kafka's writings were opened in a Tel Aviv bank vault last week, following an order issued by an Israeli court, the contents were not revealed due to a gag order. But published copies of Kafka's own diaries, which indicate that the German-speaking author also studied Hebrew, contain evidence that he dreamed of one day moving to Palestine. 

Ultimately the court will determine whether the manuscripts can be made public – either in an archive or by publishing them – or whether they should remain secret, as the author originally intended.