A literary dispute

Jerusalemite Benjamin Balint examines the lengthy Israeli court battle over the legacy of Franz Kafka.

TOURISTS LOOK at a statue of Franz Kafka in central Prague in 2013. (photo credit: PETR JOSEK / REUTERS)
TOURISTS LOOK at a statue of Franz Kafka in central Prague in 2013.
(photo credit: PETR JOSEK / REUTERS)
Franz Kafka’s ghost hovered over me ominously as I began to write this review. Somehow he knew I was about to recommend Benjamin Balint’s compelling new book Kafka’s Last Trial: The Case of a Literary Legacy.
Balint is a naturally engaging writer. But Kafka was having none of it. He surely wouldn’t have liked Balint, whose self-assuredness stands in stark contrast to Kafka’s agonizing ambivalence. One senses that Balint, despite his best efforts, has difficulty empathizing with Kafka’s devastating hypochondria and self-obsessiveness. Or even comprehending the depths of Kafka’s terror and alienation. Or his fear of his tyrannical father. Or, for that matter, the novelist’s problems with women. His ambivalence about Judaism. His utter fear of the world.
Balint was raised in Seattle in a seemingly happy and sturdy Jewish home, the son of parents who worked feverishly to free Soviet Jews, and he now resides in Jerusalem where he is a research fellow at the Van Leer Institute. Kafka would surely think Balint was an odd choice to be meditating upon his legacy.
Kafka was born in Prague in 1883 and died of tuberculosis in 1924. He wrote mesmerizing fables of “disorientation, absurdity, and faceless tyranny.” In many ways he lived his life longing for some sort of peace that eluded him at every turn. Kafka’s best friend, Max Brod, was ironically somewhat like Balint. Brod was confident and secure and prolific and perceptive, but he also had a splendid tender side, particularly for Kafka, who he immediately sensed was a one-of-a-kind literary genius. One doesn’t sense this same sort of exquisite sensitivity in Balint and it slightly injures his otherwise stellar narrative.
Brod devoted much of his life to Kafka’s legacy. Brod was a fervent Zionist and when he escaped the Nazis by mere seconds and arrived eventually in Palestine, he brought with him a large suitcase filled with Kafka’s manuscripts and letters and diaries. He was determined to publish what he had brought with him. He tried to complete what Kafka had left in disarray. He invented titles, altered and edited some of the texts, and rearranged sentences while tying up loose punctuation. Brod died in 1968 and was unable to finish his work. He left a less-than-airtight will of all his holdings to his beloved secretary Esther Hoffe, who lived to the age of 101, leaving her possessions to her two daughters, Eva and Ruth. These holdings included the bulk of Kafka’s writings that Brod had escaped with back in 1939. Brod’s will indicated his wish that Hoffe place Kafka’s work in a suitable library or archive. But Hoffe had other ideas. Years after Brod’s death, she sold the original manuscript for The Trial in 1988 for $2 million to the German archive in Marbach. Her daughters sold individual papers to private collectors for undisclosed sums. The sisters planned to sell the rest of Kafka’s papers to the German archive. This is when the Israeli Supreme Court stepped in. The legal battle for control of the manuscripts began in 2009, until the court gave its final ruling in 2016.
The case involved three concerned parties; the National Library of Israel, who felt Kafka’s works should reside with them; the German archive in Marbach, who believed they had a right to purchase the Hoffe sisters’ inheritance; and Eva Hoffe, who continued the fight for her right to do what she pleased with what her mother had left her. Her sister Ruth had already died. Kafka’s papers, which Eva Hoffe possessed, were kept in safety deposit boxes in Israel and Switzerland, and in Eva Hoffe’s apartment in Jerusalem, which she shared with over 40 cats; a fact that disturbed many Kafka scholars who feared they would be accidentally destroyed.
Balint gives all sides a fair hearing in his study of the issue.
“What in fact did Kafka have in common with the Jews, whether defined as a nation, a race, a religion, or an ethnicity?” he wrote. “Were his own ties to them so tenuous and idiosyncratic as to make it impossible to consider his achievement as a Jewish achievement? By what measure can we access the National Library’s claim to take Kafka as a touchstone of ‘Jewish culture’?”
Balint believes that Germany wanted to reclaim Kafka in an attempt to cleanse its stained history. They wanted to officially recognize this Jewish writer who wrote in flawless German before Hitler and Goebbels beckoned. Balint understood that Eva Hoffe felt she was being swindled out of a legacy that was justifiably hers. He also understood why the National Library of Israel wanted to claim Kafka as its own. Three of Kafka’s sisters had perished in the concentration camps. Brod’s beloved brother and his family had as well. This surely factored into Justice Elyakim Rubinstein’s decision which read: “What was done all over occupied Europe by the Nazis and their helpers during the dark days of the Holocaust is what caused the transfer of the material to the Jewish state, Israel, which arose from the ashes of the Holocaust – instead of it being tossed aside. In terms of history, hasn’t the archive found its rightful home?”
The decision would stand. The remnants of Kafka’s work were officially deemed the “cultural assets of the Jewish people.”
But Kafka’s legacy defies any singular assessment and Balint does a superb job explaining how Kafka is perceived by the various players who are invested in his legacy. He points out that Israel has always had an ambivalent relationship with Kafka, who in so many ways represents the antithesis of the new Jew Israel has struggled to create.
Balint ponders whether it would have been more prudent to let Germany have Kafka back as a permanent reminder of the travesties it committed. The Germans remained convinced that Kafka’s work was really universalist in tone and stressed his love of German literature. They insisted that his stories, which were written in impeccable German prose, contained no direct references to Judaism or Jewish patterns of speech.
Kafka biographer Reiner Stach, who has devoted decades to writing a massive tome on Kafka, resents the notion of Kafka’s unique Jewish character, which he feels has been grossly exaggerated. The Germans pointed out that in Kafka’s stories, the characters’ origins are always left unidentified. They reference the fact that Kafka’s library contained countless volumes of German literature: Schopenhauer and Hebbel and Schiller; and only a smattering of Jewish books.
But many Israeli Jews saw Kafka’s stories as parables of the Jewish existence before Israel; stories of men and women being targeted mercilessly by brutal forces for crimes they did not commit. These characters were often stuck in some form of paralysis, awaiting a redemption that never came. Other Jews focused on Kafka’s love of Yiddish theater and his love of learning Hebrew, which he took up shortly before his death. Balint also offers us a sympathetic profile of Eva Hoffe that seems, however, somewhat sparse in offering up psychological speculations as to the forces beyond greed that motivated her to fight so fiercely.
After the decision was rendered against Eva Hoffe, she shaved her head in protest and ran to Max Brod’s grave, where she screamed and moaned as photographers took photos. It is a tragic picture; very difficult to look at. One sees an elderly Jewish woman, her shaven head a frightening reminder of an earlier time, standing on the grave of another Jew. Both of them seem to be crying out for some sort of delayed justice; a justice that never comes. It is a scene we can imagine might have floated at some time through Kafka’s consciousness. Kafka’s ghost is once again surely present, but Balint is not. We sense he has already moved on.