Battle over Kafka’s letters and notebooks takes surreal legal twist

By Howard Schneider
Washington Post / January 17, 2010

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TEL AVIV, Israel - Franz Kafka’s name is synonymous with mind-numbing bureaucracy, and even 85 years after his death, it’s easy to see why.

The writer wanted his papers burned after he wasted away from tuberculosis in 1924, but they’re still being fought over. It is a legal dispute pitting Israel against the heirs of Kafka’s literary executor and putting the nation in competition with a German archive in a battle that comes with mystery, including tales of a secret Swiss safe.

The papers are in at least a half-dozen bank boxes in Tel Aviv and Switzerland and may - or may not - contain unpublicized letters and writings by Kafka, a Czechoslovakian Jew and seminal figure in 20th-century culture. No matter what they include, academics consider them a literary gold mine likely to offer new insights into the writer of such works as “The Trial’’ and “The Metamorphosis.’’

“Whether or not there is any original Kafka material, there is material that will shed light on him as a human being. It’s a literary treasure,’’ said Kathi Diamant, biographer of Kafka’s girl-friend at the time of his death, Dora Diamant, and director of the Kafka Project, which hunts for the author’s lost letters and notebooks.

The papers contain, for example, 70 letters written by Dora Diamant to Kafka’s literary executor, Max Brod, and could hold clues to the fate of about 20 of Kafka’s notebooks and diaries seized by the Nazis in 1933, said Kathi Diamant, who thought she might be a distant relative of Kafka’s girlfriend but has not found a connection.

Government archivists in Israel want to inspect the papers and, they hope, eventually possess and keep them out of the hands of a competing German archive, which is seeking to purchase them from Brod’s estate.

The documents “are valuable for the history of the Jewish people and the State,’’ said a statement by the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which oversees the Israeli state archives. “The State Archivist is of the opinion that it is better that these materials not be removed outside of Israel.’’

Those materials are now under the authority of an Israeli family-court judge trying to disentangle what has been, in effect, a 40-year-long dispute over Brod’s will.

Brod refused Kafka’s deathbed wish to burn his papers, taking them when he fled the Nazis in Czechoslovakia and eventually guiding major manuscripts such as “The Trial’’ to publication. Brod arrived in Israel in the late 1930s with his own and Kafka’s writings, and over the next 30 years, he assembled a corpus of work that included correspondence with top intellectual figures, as well as with Kafka intimates.

When Brod died in 1968, he left his papers in the possession of his long-time secretary and friend, Esther Hoffe, and when she died two years ago, they came into the hands of her daughters, Eva and Ruth.

The Hoffes say the documents are the private property of the family; the Israeli government asserts that Brod intended for Esther Hoffe to transfer the papers to a public archive, such as a university or library in Israel. A similar challenge by the government in the early 1970s failed. Now that Esther Hoffe is dead, the state has intervened again.

The judge reopened Brod’s will last fall and appointed an executor, and recently ordered that a team be assembled to inspect the contents of the safe-deposit boxes in Israel and Switzerland.

Esther Hoffe “failed to accommodate the instructions he [Brod] left her,’’ said Meir Heller, the lawyer representing Israel’s National Library. Although the will clearly left Hoffe much of value, Brod “distinguished between material rights given to her and the handing of manuscripts to a public archive.’’