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To whom does Kafka belong?
December 2018 / January 2019

Max Brod, Kafka’s executor (right), pictured in 1942 in Palestine with theatre directors
Barukh Chemerinsky and Zvi Friedland: Like Kafka, he was a “Zwischenmensch” (GOVERNMENT PRESS OFFICE ISRAEL, CC BY-SA 3.0. PHOTO: ZOLTAN KLUGER)

At 9 p.m. on Tuesday, March 14, 1939, Max Brod and his wife stood at Platform 2 of Prague’s Wilson Station. He carried a bulky leather suitcase stuffed with loose bundles of papers: manuscripts, journals, travel diaries, rough drafts and hundreds of letters, all written by Brod’s closest friend, Franz Kafka, who had died 15 years before.

The Nazis had just marched into Prague and the Brods were fleeing to Palestine on the last train to cross the Czech-Polish border before it was closed. Travelling by train and ship they eventually reached Tel Aviv, where Brod lived until his death in 1968. Kafka’s papers were then passed on to his assistant and close friend, Esther Hoffe, a fellow Czech Jew, and when she died at 101 in 2007, she in turn passed them on to her two daughters, Eva and Ruth (Ruth died of cancer in 2012).

Then a series of trials began which lasted for over a decade from 2007 as Eva and Ruth tried to defend their claim to the Kafka and Brod papers against the National Library of Israel, on the one hand, and the German Literature Archive at Marbach in Germany, on the other. Benjamin Balint’s fascinating book, Kafka’s Last Trial, tells the story of these trials but also explores the larger issues at stake: who owns Kafka?

Did Esther Hoffe’s daughters have a legitimate claim? Their mother had inherited the papers from Max Brod who had brought them from Prague. But would they be able to look after the papers properly or would they be at risk in Eva Hoffe’s cat-infested apartment and could the sisters be trusted to provide full access to researchers and academics? A number of key figures, including Reiner Stach, author of the definitive three-volume biography of Kafka, thought not.

Worse still, might they sell off these precious manuscripts at the first opportunity, possibly to private buyers? In 1988 Esther Hoffe put the original 1914 manuscript of The Trial up for auction at Sotheby’s and it was sold for £1 million. The previous year, Kafka’s 500 letters to Felice Bauer (1912-17) were sold at Sotheby’s in New York for $605,000.

There were other issues than whether the Hoffe sisters should be allowed to keep the Kafka papers. The National Library of Israel claimed that because Kafka was one of the greatest Jewish writers of the 20th century, these papers belonged in Israel. Kafka’s three sisters had been killed by the Nazis during the Holocaust and had Kafka not already died in 1924, he would surely have been murdered too. Brod was fortunate to escape from Nazi-occupied Prague as a refugee. More to the point, he was a passionate Zionist who had spent almost 30 years of his life in Palestine, later Israel.
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