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Who owns Franz Kafka's manuscripts, diaries and letters? 1924-2016

I didn’t think I would be coming back to my Czech husband's hero, Franz Kafka (1883-1924) so soon.

Note the review of the excellent book called Kafka, The Early Years, written by Rainer Stach (Princeton 2016). I ended that post as follows: If Max Brod (1884-1968), Kafka’s German-speaking Jewish Czech literary execut­or, had complied with Kafka’s directions, we wouldn't know Kafka today. Happily Brod wrote the first biography of his friend and prepar­ed Kafka’s works for publication. Brod act­ual­ly collat­ed, edited and published The Trial (1925) and The Castle (1926), now literary classics.

Journalist Benjamin Balint sought to explain to literature lovers the complex story of Kafka’s manuscripts, after the author’s early death in 1924. In his book Kafka’s Last Trial (WW Norton, 2018), Balint described the legal and literary history that took place in an Israeli court - where three parties were fighting over Kafka manuscripts.

First the backstory. Kafka had told Brod that “everything I leave behind is to be burned unread and to the last page.” But when the Kafka died of TB in 1924, Brod could not bring himself to burn the unpublished works of the man he con­sid­ered a literary genius. Instead Brod became very pro-active literary executor, devoting his life to rescuing Kafka’s legacy. Thus the ownership question had been a problematic one since the 1920s!

Franz Kafka in Prague's Old Town Square, 1922,
two years before he died.

As WW2 started, Brod left Prague on the last train out, escaping to Palestine with a leather suitcase stuff­ed full of Kafka’s original manuscripts. So Brod twice rescued Kafka’s legacy, once from intentional de­struction and once from Nazi oblivion. Later the surviving documents were them­selves caught up in an endless bureaucratic tangle.

Esther Hoffe (1906–2007) worked as Brod’s Czech secretary and close friend in Israel for more than 20 years. When Brod died in 1968, he had already written a will in which he gifted Kafka’s manuscripts and letters to Hoffe as his literary executor. Hoffe sold some of these still unpublished papers and held on to the rest.

When she died in Tel Aviv in 2007, Hoffe willed the manuscripts to her two daughters, Eva and Ruth, who sought to probate her will. Just as the will was about to be approved, the National Library of Israel petitioned the Tel Aviv Family Court to prevent the estate from passing to the daughters. A series of articles in Haaretz argued that the manuscripts were being held in unsuitable conditions, scattered between apartments in Tel Aviv and bank safes abroad, instead of being made available for scholars.

The State of Israel contested the part of her will that concerned the material she inherited from Brod either long before his death, or from his will. The position of the State was that Brod's literary estate was not hers to dispose of as she wanted; Brod's two ambiguous wills (1948 and 1961) both expressed the wish that his literary estate be placed in a suitable library at home or abroad.

Eventually the Israeli court awarded the manuscripts to  the National Library in Jerusalem. The book thus became a fascinating tale of literary friendship, loyalty, political power, law and re-trials.

The issue had already been adjudicated in court in 1968 and 1973, but it had never been the story of two conflicting countries before. Now an international legal battle erupted to determine which country could claim ownership of Kafka’s work: 1] Israel, where Kafka dreamed of living but never entered or 2] Germany, where Kafka’s three sisters were exterminated during the Holocaust. In the book Kafka’s Last Trial, Benjamin Balint described this provocative trial in Israeli courts, packed with legal, ethical and political debates. Of course in this contest I noted Germany’s and Israel’s national obsessions with overcoming the Holocaust traumas of the past.

Esther Hoffe, Max Brod and Otto Hoffe, c1958
photo credit: Haaretz

In the third court case, the legal issue of who the property belonged to became less important than a much larger question Who owns Kafka? Two arguments were made for Germany over Israel. Firstly Esther Hoffe had sold some of her holdings to the German Literat­ure Archive of Marbach am Neck­ar. This archive already had a good col­lection of Kafka material, so that Marbach, one of the world’s most import­ant literary institutions, should have been a more suitable home. And Marbach was clearly much better-equipped to deal with scholars.

The second argument for Germany was based on one of the identity-issues raised by the case i.e for all their embrace of Kafka as Jewish personal­ity in Israel, interest in Kafka's writing there was always a bit limited. Kafka had never become part of any Israeli project of national revival! Nor was there a Kafka cult in Israel, as there had been in Germany and Czechoslovakia. The author had not explicit­ly dealt with Judaism in any of his writing, so was he simply a Czech national who wrote in German?

The Balint book examined Eva Hoffe in court in 2016 running the Last Appeal. In that year it was determined that Esther had only been the caretaker of the Brod estate during her lifetime, but that the Nat­ional Library of Israel was indeed the appropriate repository for the papers.

Benjamin Balint's book

Fortunately Balint did understand the far-reaching implicat­ions of the unusual case, beyond the strictly legal aspects. The story of who owns the manuscripts was a long and fascinating tale of literary friendship, loyalty, political power and trials. Max Brod’s estate, which was locked up for years by their elderly custodians (Brod’s secretary and her daught­ers), was willed to Israel’s National Library. The irony of a Kafka estate being blocked for many decades was not lost on Kafka readers, though the final judgement did order the papers back into the National Library’s hands.

The National Library in Jerusalem has since announced that Kafka's papers will be digitised, with access to researchers wherever they live.


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