90 years later, public allowed access to Kafka, Brod

Court rules historic collection penned by Franz Kafka, Max Brod to be transferred to national museum.

October 14, 2012 18:38
3 minute read.
Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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A collection of works written by Franz Kafka and Max Brod will be transferred to the Israel National Library Museum 90 years after Kafka’s death and after four years of litigation – according to a Tel Aviv Family Court decision issued on Friday.

The court decision ended 90 years of controversy and multiple transfers of the works before they are to be finally become entrusted to a public institution.

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The National Library Museum’s victory came in the face of protests by two women, third in the line to inherit Kafka’s works, who alternatively may have wanted to profit from selling the works, keep them for their sentimental value or donate them to another museum, such as the Museum of Modern Literature in Marbach, Germany.

The works were originally given to Kafka’s longtime friend, Brod, a famous author in his own right, and whose works are also part of the collection that is to be transferred.

Kafka willed the works to Brod, but with the instruction to burn them all without even reading them.

While posthumously Kafka became one of the most recognized writers of the 20th century, during his lifetime he was extremely insecure and believed his work would not be well received.

The first controversy in this saga was Brod’s decision to reject Kafka’s sole request by publishing Kafka’s works en masse.

Brod justified his actions, saying respecting Kafka’s request to have his works burned would have been a “criminal act,” as the works had immeasurable ethical, philosophical and other value and were among Kafka’s best works.

He added that when Kafka had made the request while still living, Brod had told him that he would not honor the request. If Kafka had really wanted his works burned, knowing his colleague’s stance on the issue, “he would have appointed another to carry out his will,” Brod said.

Finally, Brod noted that Kafka had self-published a small number of his own works.

Brod died childless in 1968, leaving the collection to the next in line in the chain of inheritors, his secretary Esther Hoffe, with instructions that she eventually donate the collection to a public institution, if not in life, then immediately after her death.

Brod noted the Israel National Library Museum at the top of his list of public institutions, but left the final decision of where to donate the works to Hoffe.

In the early 1970s, the state fought Hoffe for years, trying to obtain the works for use by the general public. The state also tried to prevent Hoffe from selling any of the works.

Hoffe won in court. She was granted substantial rights to sell or do with the collection as she wished during her lifetime, while essentially upholding the state’s claim that as soon as she died the works would need to be donated to a public institution.

Hoffe never donated the works, and in 1988 even sold an original copy of the The Trial for $2 million.

When Hoffe died in 2007, she passed the works on to their final inheritors, her daughters Ava Hoffe and Anita Ruth Vizler, who fought the National Library Museum’s attempts to obtain them.

The central aspect of the legal controversy was Ava Hoffe and Vizler’s claim that a 1952 letter from Brod to Hoffe and various will-related legal documents of Esther Hoffe’s later granted them absolute rights to the Kafka and various other aspects of the collection, with no obligation to donate the works to a public institution.

The court ultimately held that the 1952 letter did not grant Hoffe the absolute rights that her daughters claimed.

In fact, Brod’s “gift” to Hoffe was limited by a series of wills, other letters and other portions of the same 1952 letter, whose content and length was in dispute.

Since Brod’s gift was limited, his ultimate request of having the collection donated to a public institution, at the latest after Hoffe’s death, was the decisive factor.

One dramatic result of the case will not merely be the transfer of the works to the National Library Museum, but the fact that there will be access to them for the first time, since Ava Hoffe and Vizler allegedly kept many of the works in safety deposit boxes, providing no manner of public access.

Kafka and Brod were additionally noteworthy as both were Jewish and, according to many historians, eventually Zionist, with Brod even moving to Israel in 1939 and spending the last years of his life living in Tel Aviv.

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