Kafka Esq. – In conversation with Benjamin Balint

Balint’s book “Kafka’s Last Trial” is a meticulously researched narrative telling of the tortuous journey of Kafka’s manuscripts from Czechoslovakia to the vaults of the National Library of Israel.

Benjamin Balint (photo credit: Courtesy)
Benjamin Balint
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Israeli Supreme Court passed judgment on August 7, 2016, and many of the protagonists are now dead. And yet, the battles over the literary legacy of the author Franz Kafka are far from over. The court ruled that the entirety of Kafka’s manuscripts, which were held until that moment by 82-year-old Esther Hoffe, should be handed over to the National Library of Israel. The trial may have delivered a final, unappealable verdict, but the trials (and tribulations) of fulfilling the order of the court seem to be locked in conflicts ad aeternum.
Manuscripts, which the Hoffe family squirrelled away in Swiss Bank vaults seem to be protected from extradition by Swiss law, explained writer Benjamin Balint, when I met him recently in the airy confines of the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, where he is a research fellow. We met to discuss his latest book “Kafka’s Last Trial” (published in September 2018), and to get a glimpse of his upcoming book “Jerusalem: City of the Book” (to be published May 2019).
Balint’s book “Kafka’s Last Trial” is a meticulously researched narrative telling of the tortuous journey of Kafka’s manuscripts from Czechoslovakia to the vaults of the National Library of Israel. But the book is much more. It provides us with vivid accounts of the people and events that are bound together by this story. Balint also engages with the complexity of the cultural, ethical, and legal issues that confront us at every turn, coaxing readers to make up their own minds on the legitimacy of rival claims. It is a fascinating multi-layered work that will intrigue even those readers who have never met any of Kafka’s writings.
I have a sense of an almost inevitable destiny in Balint’s decision to write this book. He mentions that Kafka has always been his favorite author, from his earliest memories. And, in 2010, when he was the recipient of a scholarship on a journalist exchange program between Israel and Germany, he went to work on the culture pages of Die Zeit in Hamburg. This coincided with a court decision in the Tel Aviv Family Court to order those holding, and hiding, the contested Kafka manuscripts (namely, the two elderly Hoffe sisters) to allow inventories to be made of all the papers they held. There was belligerence and distrust on both sides. Balint discussed the case extensively with German colleagues, especially as the German Literary Archive in Marbach was endeavoring to collect Kafka manuscripts (which were written in German and seen by them as part of German literary tradition). In Israel, the argument for a German home for these manuscripts touched a raw nerve. After all, Kafka wasn’t even German (he was born in Prague) and three of his sisters had perished in Nazi death camps. If he had lived (he died in 1924), then he might well have ended his days as did his sisters.
The following year, 2011, Balint was began teaching in the Bard College liberal arts program of “Great Books” in Al-Quds University, in East Jerusalem. The course, which he taught until 2014, began with the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh and culminated with Kafka’s “The Trial.” Balint was acutely aware of how the Kafka story was also playing out in Israeli courts while he taught the course.
In 2012, Eva Hoffe, the surviving Hoffe sister, entered an appeal at the Tel Aviv District Court. The Court delivered its ruling in 2015, supporting the earlier Family Court decision. A final appeal to the Supreme Court by Eva Hoffe in 2016 left Hoffe penniless and broken, as the verdict ordered the transfer of the manuscripts to the National Library. Balint was already deeply enthralled in the writing of his book, including the cascade of legal wranglings that accompanied Kafka’s manuscripts on their journey to the National Library in Israel. He was able to interview many of those involved in the proceedings, which gives his text an immediacy and liveliness. He also clearly established a rapport with Eva Hoffe, whom he paints in a very different light from her usual depiction in the press as a mad, greedy, cat-obsessed, eccentric.
He told me of his great sorrow that Eva Hoffe died just a few weeks ago, having not seen a copy of his book. However, the book does much to give a sensitive account of her motives in pursuing what she believed to be her moral entitlement to the Kafka papers and also to those of his friend, and literary executor, Max Brod. It was Eva’s mother, Brod’s secretary, who first laid claim to them as the rightful literary inheritance of the Hoffe family.
However, it was the betrayal of Kafka by Max Brod that sets this story tumbling onto its tortuous path. Kafka and Brod had been friends since student days, despite their very different personalities. Brod was also a writer but recognized that the genius of his friend surpassed his own writing talents, and he took on the role of Kafka’s literary agent, and, after Kafka’s death, he became his literary executor.
Following Kafka’s funeral, in June 1924, Brod was rummaging through the mountains of manuscripts that Kafka had left in total disarray and found two notes that were written by Kafka shortly before his death. The notes are addressed to Brod, and unequivocally instruct him to burn all of his friend’s writings “without exception” and “as soon as possible.” If Brod had not made the decision to defy his friend’s dying wishes, Kafka, the literary giant of the 20th century, would be almost totally unknown to us. Little of Kafka’s work was published in his lifetime, and “The Trial” itself would only have been part of the fuel for a mighty bonfire. And so, all Kafka’s manuscripts, including personal diaries and private correspondence, were collected by Brod and accompanied him when he fled the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939 and emigrated to Palestine. And so began their journey through several hands of contested inheritance until the Israeli Supreme Court finally ruled in August 2016 that they should make a final journey to the National Library.
It was while Balint was listening to the sessions of the Supreme Court in 2016 that he became aware that the arguments on the Israeli side were “in two different registers.” The first related to the legal interpretation of Brod’s Will but the second register, “just below the surface,” was ideological and focused on nationalistic arguments that had little relevance to the legal arguments. And when Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein gave his verdict, Balint notes that “it blended those two registers.” It was clear to Balint that the arguments on the Israeli side rested on the fact that representatives of the National Library see Jerusalem as the culmination of the Jewish story for all Diaspora writers. This means that although Kafka never came to Jerusalem, he is viewed as belonging there.
This perception of Jerusalem, explained Balint, is a view that is held by many other groups within the holy city – including Armenian, Greek Orthodox, Hasidic, and Arab. They all think of Jerusalem as the center of their worldview. It is a view that he has come to know through the research he has done for his upcoming book, “Jerusalem: City of the Book.” Written with Merav Mack, who taught in the Department of Comparative Religion at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and illustrated with photographs taken especially for this project by Frédéric Brenner, the book explores the city’s hidden libraries and the treasures they hold. Balint gives me a glimpse of the richness of this book with a series of vignettes of the fascinating encounters he has had with texts and librarians while researching this book. He talks animatedly of the Armenian library, which houses manuscripts brought to Jerusalem for safe-keeping during the Armenian genocide, and the Ethiopian Orthodox Library, which provides sanctuary to manuscripts that arrived on the backs of monks, who walked to Jerusalem from Ethiopia. He tells of the sleuthing that he did to find the descendants of the Arab janitor, who protected the Jewish Winograd family library in the Old City through the years 1948-67, by hiding it behind a plaster wall in their abandoned yeshiva. There is the library of the Syriac Orthodox Monastery of Saint Mark with its ancient Syriac treasures and the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem’s library with its wondrous collections of ancient manuscripts, including ancient palimpsests – these manuscripts have been written over even older manuscripts, which can often still be deciphered. Balint told me that he thinks of “Jerusalem as a palimpsest” – texts layered one upon the other, sometimes in conversation with one another.
And to this interweaving of centuries of narratives have arrived the manuscripts, the diaries, the letters of one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, Franz Kafka.