Beyond the trial: Investigating Kafka in Jerusalem

“As Franz Kafka awoke one morning from uneasy dreams,” Roth wrote in 1973, “he found himself transformed in his bed into a father, a writer, and a Jew.” And a Jerusalemite.

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September 7, 2019 16:10
Beyond the trial: Investigating Kafka in Jerusalem

Kafka in Jerusalem. (photo credit: COURTESY OF THE LITERARY ESTATE OF MAX BROD AND THE NATIONAL LIBRARY OF ISRAEL)

In August, the National Library of Israel received the last part of a collection of Franz Kakfa’s writings, after a decades-long saga that only Kafka himself could have envisaged.

Fifty-one years since the death of Kafka’s confidant, Max Brod, the last batch of hundreds of letters, journals, notebooks, manuscripts and even exercise books in Hebrew, which made up Brod’s literary estate, arrived in Israel as per Brod’s request.

Brod, considered Kafka’s closest friend, was the keeper of the late-modernist writer’s manuscripts. Sharing a Jewish background and great intellect, they met at the end of Kafka’s first year of studies at Charles University in Prague, where Brod quickly realized the genius of his recent acquaintance, despite Kafka’s shyness and introverted personality.

Even though they both lived in Prague for most of their lives, they exchanged hundreds of letters, up to two weeks before Kafka’s death. They became inseparable already from their early years together and embarked on journeys throughout the continent.

Over the years, it became clear that Brod was more than the guardian and publisher of his friend’s works – Brod was the confidant, the encourager and the constant companion of the man who today is considered one of the most significant and controversial writers of the 20th century.

The saga to recover Kafka’s manuscripts began back in 1968, upon Brod’s death. Kafka had entrusted all of his manuscripts and writings to his friend, with clear instructions to burn everything, including unpublished manuscripts of masterpieces such as The Metamorphosis and Letter to His Father.


As the Nazis took over Prague in 1939, Brod fled to Palestine with his wife, taking the entirety of his friend’s collection with him, part of which he had already edited and published, storing it in his house in Tel Aviv. By the ’50s, following the Suez Crisis, Brod was preoccupied with finding safer storage of the documents, as the fame of his late friend had already reached the heights Brod had foreseen the first time he set eyes on his manuscripts.

He turned to the National Library to shelter the documents. Dr. Stefan Litt, humanities curator at the National Library, recounted how the then-director refused the request, because he was preoccupied with his own materials in case a war broke out.

Brod stored the documents in a safe in the basement of the Schocken Library in Tel Aviv, until he ultimately decided to safeguard his precious correspondence in a vault in Switzerland in the late ’50s. Brod charged his secretary, Esther Hoffe, with preserving his archive, which included his and Kafka’s writings and thousands of additional documents. One of Brod’s wishes, however, was that Hoffe would transfer the documents 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,” Litt recalled in frustration.

“In one of the batches, there was an empty envelope signed ‘Manuscript of The Trial, by Franz Kafka,’” he charged, as he scanned through the recently arrived boxes from the Swiss vaults. Hoffe reportedly sold the manuscript of The Trial for $2 million.

The last stretch of the saga began in 2007, when Hoffe died. Even though her daughters tried to maintain legal responsibility over the manuscripts, the National Library requested in court that Brod’s archives be transferred to Jerusalem. Following a legal battle between 2008 and 2016, the Supreme Court finally determined that Hoffe’s daughters had to hand over the archives to the National Library.

After 51 years of speculation, investigation and legal procedures, the trial came to an end and the manuscripts – which were spread over three countries, Israel, Germany and Switzerland – finally arrived, as Brod had initially wished, at the National Library in Jerusalem.

The achievement, however, goes beyond the non-Kafkaesque conclusion of the trial. Thousands of handwritten notes, letters, pages from notebooks, postcards and memories are still to be investigated by researchers, led by Litt, adding pieces to the puzzle that is the mind and life of Franz Kafka.

A TYPED DRAFT of ‘Letters to His Father’ by Franz Kafka. (Credit: CASSANDRA GOMES HOCHBERG)

Dearest Father
At the age of 36, five years before his death, Kafka penned one of his most painful outbursts, considered today a major work of literature. In a 47-page letter addressed to his father, Herman, Kafka expounds on the nature of their relationship and the traumatic events that had caused him irreversible “inner harm.”

Dearest Father,
You asked me recently why I maintain that I am afraid of you. As usual, I was unable to think of any answer to your question, partly for the very reason that I am afraid of you, and partly because an explanation of the grounds for this fear would mean going into far more detail than I could even approximately keep in mind while talking.

The letter recounts events through which the man who became one of the main literary voices of the Western world lost the courage to utter words, given the paralyzing fear his father’s domineering personality exercised over him. Kafka handed the letter to his mother to be delivered to his father. Lacking the courage to confront her fearsome husband, she returned the letter to her son and it never reached the desired destination.

A version typed by Kafka himself – 46 typed pages and the last in his own handwriting – is among the items of the collection. Over the typed pages, edits and corrections by both Kafka and Brod can be seen.

“It is not clear why Kafka typed the letter,” said Litt, given that the letter meant to be delivered was handwritten. “It is not clear if he later saw the literary potential of it, or if he had any intention of sending it again to his father,” he added.

“The world was for me divided into three parts,” Kafka wrote to his father. “One in which I, the slave, lived under laws that had been invented only for me and which I could, I did not know why, never completely comply with; then a second world, which was infinitely remote from mine, in which you lived, concerned with government, with the issuing of orders and with the annoyance about their not being obeyed; and finally a third world where everybody else lived happily and free from orders and from having to obey.”

Published by Brod in 1952, the letter was the only work in which Kafka directly mentioned his father. The overpowering figure, however, is present in most of Kafka’s works in the form of unfathomable and inaccessible authorities, as in The Trial; unresponsive but controlling systems, as in The Castle; and imposition of excruciatingly painful alienation, as in the masterpiece The Metamorphosis.

Kafka in Jerusalem (Credit: COURTESY OF THE LITERARY ESTATE OF MAX BROD AND THE NATIONAL LIBRARY OF ISRAEL)

Max Brod, the writer, the friend

Among the documents transferred from the Swiss vault in August, a great deal of the writing revolves around Brod and Kafka’s friendship, personal crises, ideas and literary careers.

While Kafka was still alive, Brod was already considered a prolific writer, respected in the literary circles of Berlin. His writing and editing career was fruitful, publishing over 80 titles throughout his life. He was also a sought-after critic, being one of the first commentators on what later became masterpieces, such as Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk, in addition to promoting poets and musicians. His most famous case was, naturally, Kafka, whom Brod praised, before Kafka’s main works were published, as “the greatest poet of our time,” ranking with Goethe and Tolstoy.

Among Brod’s own manuscripts in the recently arrived archives is The Prague Circle, a nonfiction work published in 1966, about a group of Jewish students in Prague, of which Brod himself, Kafka, Samuel Hugo Bergman, Oskar Baum and Felix Weltsch were members.

Another interesting item in the collection is The Paris Journals, a series of small notepads that recorded a trip the two friends embarked upon in 1911, meant to serve as inspiration for a novel they planned to write together.

The journals, which were in fact a collection of notes, vignettes of encounters, conversations and ideas from a trip that started in Switzerland, crossed through Italy and led the two friends to Paris.

Moreover, the journals seem to be one more attempt of Brod’s to reassure Kafka of his writing talents. Chronically doubtful of his talents and knowingly overtaken by crippling confusion, Kafka was pushed by his friend not only to publish the few pieces he had written, but to write at all and to begin keeping a diary.

Jewish Kafka

“What have I in common with the Jews? I have hardly anything in common with myself and should stand very quietly in a corner, content that I can breathe,” Kafka once wrote in his diary, as the late American author Philip Roth recounts in the essay from 1973 “I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting, or Looking at Kafka.”

Kafka’s identification with Judaism has always been a source of curiosity and debate within the literary and Jewish world. Although Kafka seemed to have never been observant and was quite critical of his parents’ relationship with Judaism, he nonetheless became a central figure of Jewish literature and a source of inspiration for writers discussing their own Jewish identity, regardless of the relative lack of Jewish elements in his writing.

“He doesn’t write about Jewish characters; he doesn’t write specifically about Jewish themes that are immediately recognizable, and my guess is that he did it on purpose,” said Michael P. Kramer, professor of American literature at Bar-Ilan University. “But if you read his journals, it’s shot through with questioning about his Jewish identity.

“He was deeply ambivalent about his Judaism, about the Judaism around him and especially about the Judaism of his parents,” Kramer added. “He felt deeply disconnected from it, partly because of his interest in other cultures around him as the Jewish world opened up; but he also felt almost a repulsion from the bourgeois world of his parents, like many Jews at that time.”

Zionism, however, was a subject Kafka was drawn to. Brod was an outspoken and active Zionist, later moving to Palestine, where he resided until his death. Kafka’s last love, a 19-year-old Jewish girl named Dora Dymant who left her Orthodox Polish family to make a life of her own, was an ardent Zionist.

Brod and Kafka were also enthusiasts of the Yiddish theater, which made the rounds in the Jewish quarters of Prague, where Yiddish was seen as below the upper class, bourgeois, half-assimilated Jews of his surroundings, including, and especially, his parents.

One of the most astounding findings among the documents was the “blue notebook.”

“In the inventory from Switzerland, we had an item listed as ‘the blue notebook,” Litt said, while leafing through a notebook seemingly composed of notes and literary observations in German. Following a few blank pages, Kafka’s cumbersome and hurried German handwriting turns into careful, punctuated Hebrew. The blue notebook contains what seems to be Kafka’s Hebrew homework in the shape of a text about the teacher’s strike that took place in Jerusalem in November 1922, which allowed archivists at the National Library to date the document.

The Kafkaesque vein is present even in his Hebrew homework, such as in a note to his teacher asking her not to bother being angry for him being late, as he was already angry about himself for both of them.

Slightly less than two years before his death, Kafka underwent the task of learning Hebrew with a young woman named Puah Ben-Tovim, a native Jerusalemite, and the speculation about Kafka’s connection to studying Hebrew was once again ratified. He never, however, asserted himself as a Zionist. Different from close friends and lovers, Kafka had never clearly positioned himself, neither on the religious nor the Zionist spectrum.

“Modern Jews saw themselves in him because of that ambivalence and the strange feeling of attachment and detachment, attraction and repulsion; that sense of not really belonging anywhere yet belonging there,” Kramer added.

“They understood their Jewishness as that kind of neurotic ambivalence. And that’s how Kafka became, as well as for being a great writer, a particularly Jewish symbol for them.”

Kafka not only became a Jewish literary symbol, but he also struck a nerve for modernists in general, given the exploration of themes on identity, self-consciousness and alienation. Jews in particular, claimed Kramer, were able to claim that sense of alienation, of feeling like an outsider not only ethnically, but in a deeper sense, of feeling trapped without understanding what the trap is.
“Jews were able to claim all of it for themselves as part of their Jewish identity,” Kramer concluded.

Kafka in Jerusalem

Kafka died from tuberculosis at a sanatorium in Kierling, Austria, a month before his 41st birthday. His soon-to-be young wife, Dora, was by his side, reading and singing songs in Hebrew, helping him write letters to his friends and possibly imagining a future in which Franz and Dora would be married, despite their parents’ objections.

Two weeks before his death, Kafka sent the last correspondence to his friend in Prague, expressing gratitude for having received from him a certain book. Dora added a note to the side, greeting Brod back in Prague. Ninety-five years later, the very same postcard made its way to Jerusalem, together with the memory and legacy of one of the world’s greatest artists.

“As Franz Kafka awoke one morning from uneasy dreams,” Roth wrote in 1973, “he found himself transformed in his bed into a father, a writer, and a Jew.” And a Jerusalemite.


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