Page last updated at 09:25 GMT, Friday, 12 March 2010

Israel in legal battle over Kafka's papers

Esther Hoffe and Max Brod 1968 (Photo courtesy of Eva Hoffe)
Kafka left his papers to Max Brod (right) - they then passed to his secretary, Esther Hoffe (left)

By Katya Adler
BBC News, Jerusalem

Imagine a number of safety deposit boxes, in different banks in different countries. No-one is quite sure what's inside them.

Yet private individuals, state bodies and commercial institutions are locked in a seemingly endless legal battle to own their contents.

Sounds like a Kafka novel? Well, almost.

Franz Kafka
Kafka asked for his unpublished manuscripts to be destroyed

This is a struggle between Israel and Germany, between a Jewish refugee family from Prague and Israeli public opinion over a collection of papers that might include unpublished works by the celebrated 20th Century writer Franz Kafka.

Kafka became famous in spite of himself. Just before he died in 1924, the young novelist, who suffered from various mental and physical illnesses, entrusted his friend, Max Brod, with a collection of handwritten documents.

He asked him to destroy the unpublished manuscripts after his death. Brod ignored his friend's last wishes, allowing the world to enjoy works including The Trial.


Now, a bitter legal battle is raging in Israel over Kafka's legacy and Max Brod's estate. The twists and turns of the case have become Kafkaesque in themselves.

Kafka notebook
A 1920s notebook shows that Kafka was studying Hebrew

Like Kafka, Max Brod belonged to the German-speaking Jewish community of Prague. Brod was an ardent Zionist and when the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939, he packed Kafka's documents in a suitcase and fled to Tel Aviv.

There, he formed a close relationship with his secretary, Esther Hoffe, also a refugee from Prague. When he died in 1968, he made her the custodian of his estate, which included Franz Kafka's papers.

Hoffe's two daughters, Eva and Ruth, then inherited the collection.

At least, that's what they thought.

After Max Brod's death, his secretary had sold a number of Kafka's manuscripts at auction. She insisted they were hers to do with what she wished.

Literary treasures

The rest of the papers, possibly including great literary treasures - no-one is quite sure - are locked in safety deposit boxes in Switzerland and in Israel along, it is thought, with money and other private belongings of Esther Hoffe.

Scholars believe the deposit boxes contain unpublished drawings by Kafka. Maybe even the original manuscript of Kafka's uncompleted novel, Wedding Preparations in the Country.

But without knowing exactly what is in the collection, attaching a price tag is impossible.

Israel's national library is now fighting to get the boxes opened.

Eva Hoffe

We have other things to do. Sorry, but culture is not the first on the list. In Israel there is no place to keep them (the Kafka papers) so well as in Germany
Eva Hoffe

It also wants to secure the Kafka manuscripts sold by Esther Hoffe to the German Literature Archive in Marbach, Germany. Among them is the novel The Trial.

Public opinion in Israel is pretty much set against the Hoffes.

Some media here have painted them as naïve, others as gold-diggers. The fact that they want to take Kafka's papers from Israel, to sell them to Germany of all countries, has incensed many and got tongues wagging.

Tainted memory

Eva Hoffe, now 75 years old, told me she was devastated at how her mother's memory was being tainted and her family's private life destroyed.

I met her in her lawyer's quirky office, the book shelves interrupted by fish tanks, in downtown Jerusalem.

She was dressed in black, her face strained.

"It feels to me that people are putting my life on the street. All this belongs to my private life," she said.

Ms Hoffe says Max Brod was her mentor, that he taught her everything about music and culture and, most especially, about Franz Kafka. She says Brod, her father and mother were inseparable. She denies persistent rumours that her mother and Max Brod were lovers.

A great beauty in her youth, Ms Hoffe now rather shies away from the public eye.

"I'm not married. I have no children. I had only this (the Kafka/Max Brod papers). I cannot believe how this country is behaving. It has no right to intrude," she told me.

But many Jewish Israelis believe they have every right to know the contents of the Hoffes' safety deposit boxes.

Professor Dov Kulka

Israelis are looking back to their European and Middle Eastern roots. Franz Kafka is key. He belongs to the intellectual map of Israel
Professor Dov Kulka,
Hebrew University of Jerusalem

While Kafka is revered all over the world and Prague, where he lived and worked, has a Kafka museum, many Israelis view Kafka, as a Jew, as part of Israel's cultural heritage and want the country to have whatever it can of him.

Also formerly from Prague, Dov Kulka is a professor of Jewish history at Jerusalem's Hebrew University. He guides me around his study, crammed with Kafka's photos and diaries.

Professor Kulka assured me that Kafka is very popular in Israel among young and old alike.

His novels are on the school curriculum, his writings are constantly adapted into plays here and every couple of years, he says, new translations of Kafka's works appear in Israel's bookshops.

Professor Kulka explains that Israeli Jews are fascinated by Kafka because they have lost their cultural identity - in part through the Holocaust, in part, he says, through Israel's single-minded nationalist drive in the country's early years.

Esther Hoffe, aged 99 (Photo courtesy of Eva Hoffe)
Esther Hoffe: Her daughter Eva denies rumours of an affair with Brod

"So," said the professor, "Israelis are looking back to their European and Middle Eastern roots. Franz Kafka is key. He belongs to the intellectual map of Israel."

Along with a number of other Israeli academics, Professor Kulka has written an open letter, insisting that Kafka's papers and Max Brod's estate belong in Israel, not Germany.

But Eva Hoffe insists that Israeli libraries are not equipped to care for precious manuscripts. She says Israel is still busy fighting for its survival and has other priorities.

"We have other things to do. We have terror, the fight for survival. Sorry, but culture is not the first on the list. In Israel there is no place to keep them (the papers) so well as in Germany, in Marbach."

She adds that Israelis don't seem to care too much about Kafka.

"Here, there's no street, no public building named after him," she said.

'Rightful home'

Israel's national library vehemently disputes this. It is leading the legal - and to a certain extent, the public relations - battle against the Hoffe sisters.

Like the majority of buildings in Israel, the national library is starkly modern, unapologetically purpose-built. But it houses great historical treasures.

Meir Heller is the library's sharply dressed lawyer. He insists Israel is the rightful home of the works of all great Jewish scholars.

He points to the Albert Einstein archive at the library and instructs one of the librarians to fetch a notebook of Kafka's from the library safe.

Max Brod [r] Eva Hoffe [c] and her father [l] in 1964 [Photo courtesy of Eva Hoffe]
Eva Hoffe with her father (left) and Max Brod (right)

I am allowed to approach with care - and a pair of gloves - to study it.

The notebook dates back to the early 1920s. Many Israelis use it as proof that Kafka would have wanted his works to end up in Israel.

The yellowing pages, covered in ink scribbles, show Kafka was studying Hebrew. While the writer was not formally involved in Jewish life in Prague, he certainly showed a great interest in Jewish culture and spirituality.

Meir Heller insists Kafka's diaries are evidence that the writer's dream was to come and live in Israel, which was then Palestine.

"He had a dream of coming to Tel Aviv and opening up a restaurant. He wanted to be a waiter. Kafka was no ordinary fellow."

None of the disparate players in this modern-day, confusing, compelling tale would deny that.

Sardonic, melancholic Kafka is probably smiling, wryly, in his grave.

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