Legacy by association

Although writer and composer Max Brod was renowned in his own right, his connection to Franz Kafka and an ongoing trial keep his name in the limelight.

Max Brod street 311 (photo credit: David Deutsch)
Max Brod street 311
(photo credit: David Deutsch)
You have to feel a little sorry for Max Brod. The prolific writer and composer born in Prague in 1884 fled the Nazis in 1939, arrived in Tel Aviv and spent the next 30 years of his life working here, for part of the time as artistic director of the Habimah National Theater, writing, composing and adding to his large body of published work.
But Max Brod is known today primarily for being the great friend of Franz Kafka and the man who saved the literary output of the strange Jewish genius who had demanded that his friend burn all his writings just before he died in 1924.
The street that bears Brod’s name is situated in what are now the outer reaches of north Tel Aviv in the area approaching the Kfar Hayarok junction, which was constructed for residential housing about 15 years ago. Convenient for anyone working in Tel Aviv and near enough to the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway to make Jerusalem easily accessible, it’s an established middle-class street mixing high-rise apartment buildings and white stucco villas in equal proportions.
The street meanders from the main Highway 4 with its constantly roaring traffic and quickly transforms into an almost bucolic area with leafy sidewalks and patches of green.
The area is said to be favored by quite a few celebs, including some television personalities and at least one well-known fashion designer.
Other streets in the area are named for various literary or musical luminaries of Israeli culture, such as Moshe Wilensky, David Avidan and Mordecai Zeira.
Brod’s innocent act of salvaging Kafka’s work for posterity has developed into a huge saga, as Kafkaesque as anything the great writer could have dreamt up. Due to ambiguities in the wills of the people involved, there is an ongoing trial in the Tel Aviv District Court to determine what unknown treasures of Kafka’s are still kept from public sight, to whom they rightfully belong and what their final destination will be.
BROD BECAME friends with Kafka when they studied law at Charles University in Prague. Brod had given a lecture on Schopenhauer, Kafka spoke to him afterwards and they became close friends. Brod was often called upon to reassure Kafka about his writing, but to no avail. After Kafka’s death from tuberculosis in 1924, Brod found a note addressed to him in his friend’s handwriting.
“Dearest Max,” he had written, “My last request: Everything I leave behind me is to be burned unread – everything that can be found in my posthumous papers… diaries, manuscripts, letters, my own and those written to me, sketches and so on.”
Fortunately, Brod ignored his friend’s final request and spent much of his time locating, editing and publishing all Kafka’s works, including letters, diaries and notebooks. In March 1939, as the Nazis were entering Prague, Brod and his wife, Elsa, escaped to Palestine, carrying one suitcase. It contained the manuscripts for The Trial, The Castle and Amerika, as well as many other papers and short stories.
Brod and his wife settled in Tel Aviv. After Elsa died in 1942 he took an assistant, Esther Hoffe, to help him with the editing and publishing of the papers he had rescued. She was also a new immigrant, and they had met at a Hebrew class.
Feeling sorry for the new widower, she and her husband took him under their wing and he moved into their apartment, where she helped him prepare his own writings for publication.
Although the relationship between Brod and Esther Hoffe is not clear; some writers claim there was a romance between them, but her daughter, Eve, who is at the center of the current storm about the whereabouts of the Kafka papers, insists that the love was purely spiritual.
What is not in dispute is the fact that Brod left his legacy – the Kafka papers – to Esther Hoffe when he died in 1968.
Even then the legacy was disputed. Hoffe was sued in the early 1970s by the government for possession of the papers, but she won the case. In 1974 she was arrested at Ben-Gurion Airport for attempting to smuggle documents abroad, but it turned out they were photocopies.
However, Hoffe did manage to sell many items abroad, including the original manuscript of The Trial, which she sold in 1988 and is now in the German Literature Archive in Marbach. The sale is said to have yielded nearly $2 million. She died in 2007 and her two daughters, Eve, now 75, a former El Al ground hostess, and Ruth Wisler, a cosmetician, inherited the treasure.
No one really knows what manuscripts or photos or diaries are actually being disputed in the Tel Aviv court, and in the meantime the two elderly women cannot touch the money their mother accumulated from Brod’s estate.
Several claimants are now coming forward, including the National Library of Israel, the German Literature Archive and even the Schocken family, publishers of Haaretz, who purchased the rights to publish Kafka’s works, as well as the rights to his manuscripts.
Given the law’s delays, the affair seems to be far from over. At the last hearing, the judge was Talio Pardo Kupelman.
“It’s terribly symbolic that Judge K. is the one hearing the case, don’t you think?” Eve said.
As I said, Kafkaesque – a word that Max Brod is reported to have hated because he felt it presented a false picture of the man and his work.