Kafka papers return to Israel, ending long legal saga

Hundreds of writings of famed Jewish writer, including writings in Hebrew, transferred to National Library after decades in Swiss vault.

Arutz Sheva Staff ,

Kafka manuscript
Kafka manuscript
Brod archive, National Library

Ninety-five years after the premature death of Franz Kafka from tuberculosis and 51 years since the death of his confidant, Max Brod, the decades-long saga of their literary estate is now coming to an end.

Hundreds of letters, manuscripts, journals, notebooks, sketches and more – handwritten by Brod and Kafka – have been transferred to the National Library of Israel, following orders by Israeli and Swiss courts to open vaults in Zurich, which had stored the materials for decades. These materials, part of Max Brod's literary estate, have now been returned to Israel and have arrived at the National Library in Jerusalem, in accordance with Brod's wishes.

The documents from the Swiss vault include: three different draft versions of Kafka's story "Wedding Preparations in the Country", a notebook in which he practiced Hebrew, hundreds of personal letters to Brod and other friends, sketches and drawings, travel journals, thoughts he wrote to himself and more.

In essence, this marks the end of a legal saga that began 12 years ago and involved high-level proceedings in three countries: Israel, Germany and Switzerland.

Brod, an accomplished writer and composer, was a confidant of Franz Kafka and is primarily responsible for Kafka's success as one of the 20th century's most influential writers, having published many of his works after the author's death in 1924. The Kafka papers are considered to be an integral part of the Max Brod Archive, and the larger collection of materials relating to the 'Prague Circle', of which Brod and Kafka were members. The National Library of Israel holds hundreds of personal archives of leading Israeli and Jewish writers, intellectuals and public figures, including most of the other members of the group, whose writings indicate the hope that their papers would ultimately be preserved at the National Library in Jerusalem.

The Max Brod literary estate and Kafka papers are now being reviewed and cataloged by National Library experts, and will then be digitized and made freely accessible for users around the globe.

"For more than a decade, the National Library of Israel has worked tirelessly to bring the literary estate of the prolific writer, composer, and playwright Max Brod and his closest friend Franz Kafka to the National Library, in accordance with Brod's wishes. After seeing materials including Kafka's Hebrew notebook and letters about Zionism and Judaism, it is now clearer than ever that the National Library in Jerusalem is the rightful home for the Brod and Kafka papers," said David Blumberg, Chairman of the National Library of Israel Board of Directors.

He added, "The National Library of Israel plays a central role in opening universal access to the cultural treasures of the State of Israel and the Jewish people worldwide, including hundreds of special collections and archives, with the Brod and Kafka papers now among them. These materials will soon be digitized and made available online, allowing current and future scholars and fans of Brod and Kafka around the globe to freely access them."

On June 3, 1924, Franz Kafka died in Austria, after a seven year battle with tuberculosis. Before his passing, Kafka asked his close friend Max Brod to destroy all of his letters and writings. Brod did not do this, later explaining that Kafka changed his mind several times regarding his wishes and Brod felt that not destroying the papers was what Kafka would have truly wanted. Brod was responsible for publishing Kafka's three major novels (The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika) as well as short stories and letters. Brod also wrote the first biography of Kafka.

In March 1939, after the rise of the Nazis and the occupation of Czechoslovakia, Max Brod immigrated to British Mandatory Palestine, bringing with him all of Kafka's writings. Over the next thirty years (until his death in 1968), Brod worked tirelessly to publish his friend's manuscripts, to translate them, and to promote research related to them. In the will he wrote in 1961, Brod charged his secretary, Esther Hoffe, with preserving his own archive, including the Kafka writings, and transferring it in an orderly manner to a public institution, naming the National Library in Jerusalem as the preferred destination. Hoffe, however, did not fulfill these wishes, and even began to undertake extensive commercial activities, selling a number of Kafka manuscripts and letters. The culmination of these activities came in 1988 when the manuscript of The Trial was sold for $2 million.

When Esther Hoffe passed away in 2007, her daughters tried to carry on her activities, but at this point the National Library of Israel appealed implementation of the mother's will, requesting that Brod's archive be transferred to the Library, as Brod himself had wanted.

From 2008 through 2016, legal proceedings were held in three Israeli courts, including the Supreme Court, all of which determined that the archive should be handed over in its entirety to the National Library of Israel.

Since 2016, the Library has been working to collect all of the archive's materials from various vaults in Israel, an apartment in Tel Aviv, the Germany police who had confiscated materials that had been stolen, and finally, two weeks ago, a Swiss bank vault where most of the Kafka papers were located.

During the last eight years of his life, Kafka moved a number of times between Prague, various sanatoriums in Italy and Austria, and even a few months in Berlin with his girlfriend Dora Diamant. His writings were left behind in all of these places, as well as his in parents' home. It is also known that Dora kept some additional writings in her home. Those papers were ultimately taken by the Gestapo and their whereabouts remain unknown to this day.

Immediately following Kafka's death in June 1924, Max Brod wrote to their old fried Samuel Hugo Bergman, then the director of the National Library in Jerusalem, telling him about three of Kafka's novels waiting to be published, as well as Kafka's Hebrew notebooks.

Brod published those novels, The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika between 1925 and 1927. In 1934, all of Kafka's writings were published by Schocken in Germany. In 1937, Brod published the first biography about Kafka. In 1962, most of Kafka's papers were transferred to his heirs, nieces and nephews who had survived the Holocaust and were living in England (this is the reason why most of Kafka's manuscripts are held in the Bodleian Library at Oxford). During the 1970s and 1980s, Esther Hoffe sold a number of Kafka manuscripts, including The Trial, to private collectors.