Final batch of Brod and Kafka items returned to Israel

Never-before seen sketches, handwritten notebooks in Hebrew and other items were found in the collection.

 Some of the never-before seen sketches, Hebrew notebooks and other items belonging to famous Jewish author Franz Kafka that were revealed by the National Library of Israel on Wednesday (photo credit: ILANIT CHERNICK)
Some of the never-before seen sketches, Hebrew notebooks and other items belonging to famous Jewish author Franz Kafka that were revealed by the National Library of Israel on Wednesday
(photo credit: ILANIT CHERNICK)
Following more than a decade of legal battles, 60 files containing hundreds of letters, manuscripts, journals, sketches and other items belonging to the literary estates of famous Jewish-Czech writers Franz Kafka (1883–1924) and Max Brod (1884-1968) arrived in Jerusalem two weeks ago.
At a press conference on Wednesday, the National Library of Israel displayed some of the literary treasures that were transferred here from bank vaults in Zurich, following a Swiss court ruling.
Dr. Stefan Litt, the NLI’s Humanities Collection curator, explained that the Brod collections which had been stored for decades in Switzerland were finally transferred to the National Library in Jerusalem, in accordance with Brod’s final wishes.
Born in Prague, then a Czech- and German-speaking city in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to an assimilated Jewish family in 1883, Kafka was one of the most iconic writers of the 20th century. His novels fusing realism and fantasy typically feature isolated protagonists facing surrealistic predicaments and incomprehensible social and bureaucratic powers. They explore themes of alienation, existential anxiety and guilt. One of his most famous works is The Metamorphosis, published in 1915, about a salesman who is transformed into an insect.
Kafka’s confidant Brod, a famous Czech writer, composer and playwright, published the latter’s works and wrote his biography after Kafka’s death in 1924. Prior to his own death in 1968, 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 instead began selling the Kafka trove. In 1988, she sold the manuscript of The Trial for $2 million.
After Hoffe’s death in 2007, the National Library of Israel unsuccessfully appealed to her daughters to fulfil Brod’s will and turn the remaining manuscripts over to the NLI. Legal proceedings on the matter began the following year.
Brod “was 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 in Austria,” Litt said.
Just before his death, Kafka asked Brod to burn his works.
Brod refused, later explaining that Kafka changed his mind several times regarding the disposition of his literary estate. Brod felt that by not destroying Kafka’s papers, he was truly fulfilling what his friend wanted.
In 1939, Brod immigrated to Mandatory Palestine following the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Litt said that this event is extremely important for Israel because “Brod lived here for the last 30 years of his life.”
“If he would have stayed in Czechoslovakia, he would have been killed [in the Holocaust],” he explained. “He was very explicit in his work against Nazi oppression.”
According to Litt, Brod was also a leading figure in the Young Israel National Theater. A Zionist, he made it clear in his writings in the 1950s and 1960s that these works belong in Israel.
Asked about revelations in the files, Litt said that “the new thing for us is the Hebrew notebook, which includes word lists, texts in the Hebrew language.”
“It’s surprising for us that Kafka could write these short texts,” he said. “It’s a facet of Kafka we didn’t know about. We knew he was learning Hebrew, as we own a Hebrew vocabulary word book [of Kafka’s], but we didn’t know he could write comprehensive Hebrew text.”
Litt said they also “found many drawings, several publications, doodles, and sketches of human figures and situations – some of which were humorous and some were not.”
Kafka also wrote three versions of one of his earliest works, “Wedding Preparations in the Country.” The archive contains three handwritten manuscripts of the never-completed short story.
Also included was the last book written by Brod, Prague Circle, dealing with a group of Jewish students in the Bohemian city, which included himself, Kafka, Oskar Baum, Samuel Hugo Bergman and Felix Weltsch.
Despite the fact that he had lived in Israel for more than three decades when he penned the book, Brod wrote it in his native German.
Unlike most of his books, Prague Circle is nonfiction.
Litt added that “we are very proud because we have now a collection of most of the personal archives of this group.”
David Blumberg, the National Library’s chairman, said, “For more than a decade, the NLI 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,” he said.
“The NLI 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,” he added.
The National Library of Israel, formerly the Jewish National and University Library, holds more than five million volumes concerning Israel and the Jewish people. The current facility on the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem will be replaced in 2022 by a new building designed by Basel-based architects Herzog & de Meuron.