A 'Metamorphosis' for Franz Kafka’s Papers: Journey to the National Library of Israel

The trail of the papers, which has wound its way from Czechoslovakia to Israel and Switzerland, sounds like it could be one of Kafka’s own stories.

Franz Kafka (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Franz Kafka
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
This week, after a decades-long battle, the Supreme Court ruled that a trove of manuscripts and drawings by Franz Kafka and Max Brod called the Kafka Papers be handed over to the National Library of Israel. The controversy surrounding these papers has pitted the Hoffe family, an Israeli family that has retained custody of the papers since Brod’s death, against the National Library.
The trail of the papers, which has wound its way from Czechoslovakia to Israel and Switzerland, sounds like it could be one of Kafka’s own stories involving greed, governments and grievances.
“The National Library, naturally, has the goal and the task of accumulating, preserving and providing access to works, which are part of the Israeli and Jewish legacy,” Dr. Guy Pessach, a senior lecturer at the Hebrew University, told The Media Line.
 “In the context of Kafka, however, it is much more complicated because even though Kafka was a Jew, the question of his cultural and intellectual relationship to the Jewish tradition is not something that is a natural derivative.”
Dr. Pessach added that while Kafka studied Hebrew, his connection to the Judaism and his attitudes towards Zionism are much more complex.
Franz Kafka, a 20th century Jewish novelist, was born in Prague in 1883 and died of tuberculosis in 1924. He is best known for his literary works “The Metamorphosis,” “The Trial” and “The Castle.”
Brod, a Czech Jew, was a writer, journalist and even a music composer, publishing 83 separate works in his lifetime. He is renowned in German literary circles and is most famous for receiving custody of Kafka’s papers.
Franz Kafka and Max Brod met in 1902 at Charles University in Prague and quickly became very close friends. Before Kafka died in 1924, he bequeathed his estate, which included all of his works and papers, to Brod.
Kafka asked Brod to burn his unpublished works, but Brod disobeyed Kafka’s wishes, publishing “The Trial,” “The Castle” and “Amerika” in the late 1920s and 1930s.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. 
After Brod’s wife died in 1942, he became close with Otto and Esther Hoffe, a Jewish couple living in Palestine, eventually employing Esther Hoffe as his secretary amid rumors the two had a romantic relationship as well.
Brod left his literary estate, which included both his papers and Kafka’s, to Esther Hoffe when he died in 1968, and asked that she donate them, preferably to the National Library of Israel, when she died.
Against Brod’s wishes, Esther sold the manuscript of “The Trial” for two million dollars to the German Literature Archive, a contentious move seeing that Kafka was not German and his three sisters died in concentration camps.
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.
The library stated that Brod’s 1961 will requested that the papers be donated to the National Library of Israel.
The two sisters had planned to sell the papers to the German Literature Archive in Marbach and, since 2008, they had been immersed in a legal battle with the National Library, which ended this past Monday in the Library’s favor.
Brod, a self-proclaimed Zionist, wanted his papers archived in Israel. And, since the 1970s, the National Library of Israel has worked tirelessly to acquire the Kafka papers.
In the 1950s, most of Kafka’s manuscripts were actually transferred to Oxford University’s Bodleian Library by his heirs; therefore, the contents of these “Kafka Papers” is up for debate.
“It’s a very long list. Most of the stuff is Brod’s stuff and there is very little that is Kafka’s,” Dr. Aviad Stollman, head of collections at the National Library, told The Media Line.
“There might be some drawings of Kafka’s, but everything we have has been published.”
The contents of the papers seem to swirl around Brod, who was, in his own right, one of the most important authors of the 20th century, according to Dr. Stollman. “Some years he was more well-known than Kafka and he invested his lifetime to publishing Kafka’s work.”
Dr. Stollman said that because Max Brod was the closest person to Kafka, there might be documents in these papers that tell us more about Kafka and help us understand his literary works.
While researchers hope to find unpublished manuscripts by Kafka in the safes, it could cause legal issues.
“Presuming there are such manuscripts in the safe, their legal status is much more complicated,” Dr. Pessach told The Media Line.
“It is unclear under which power and under which legal basis the Israeli courts have the jurisdiction to decide that manuscripts by Kafka, which are not part of Max Brod’s literary estate, should be devoted to the National Library.”
The National Library expects to receive the documents within the next two or three months and has plans to digitize most of the collection.