Kafka’s archive must be handed over to Israel, Swiss court rules

Following the ruling, a number of safes kept in the vaults of a Zurich bank may be opened and their contents sent to the National Library of Israel.

April 19, 2019 04:44
2 minute read.
Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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A Swiss court ruled that the archive of the renowned Jewish writer Franz Kafka must be handed over to Israel, the Associated Press reported on Wednesday.

The court upheld several Israeli verdicts that over the course of the years stated that the manuscripts by the German speaking Bohemian author belong to the National Library of Israel. 

Following the ruling, a number of safe deposit boxes kept in the vaults of the UBS bank in Zurich may be opened and their contents sent to Jerusalem.

Kafka’s archive has been the object of a decades-long legal battle between the State of Israel and the family of the late Esther Hoffe, who was in possession of the material partially located in Israel and partially in Switzerland.

Hoffe was the secretary of Max Brod, a close friend of Kafka. In 1924 Kafka, at the point of death, entrusted his archive – including drafts, note, letters and drawings – to Brod, asking him to destroy everything.

Brod disobeyed Kafka’s wishes, publishing “The Trial,” “The Castle” and “Amerika” in the late 1920s and 1930s. 

When Brod and his wife, Elsa, fled Nazi-occupied Prague for Tel Aviv in 1939, Brod carried all of Kafka’s papers with him in a suitcase.

Brod died childless in 1968, leaving the collection to his secretary with the instructions that she donate the collection to a public institution, if not in life, then immediately following her death. Kafka’s friend noted Israel’s National Library at the top of his list of suggested public institutions, but left the final decision to his secretary.

The state fought Hoffe for several years during the 1970s in an effort to obtain the works for use by the general public. It also tried to prevent her from selling them. A court nonetheless granted her substantial rights to do as she wished, while essentially upholding the state’s claim that as soon as she died, the works would have to be donated to a public institution. Hoffe never donated the works.

In 1988 she sold an original copy of Kafka’s The Trial for $2 million.

Following her death in 2007, Esther Hoffe left the remaining papers to her two daughters, Ruth Wiesler and Eva Hoffe. The following year, when Eva and Ruth wanted to sell the papers, they were met with opposition from the National Library of Israel, who fought them in court to obtain the materials so they could be properly studied, preserved and made available to the public.

In 2016, after eight years of proceedings, the Supreme Court ruled that the archives had to be handed over to the National Library of Israel.

After the Swiss ruling, the material located in the Zurich bank is expected in Israel within a month, Meir Heller, an attorney for the library who has accompanied the decade-long case, told Haaretz.

*Daniel K. Eisenbud, Yonah Jeremy Bob and The Media Line contributed to this report.

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