Just before his death from tuberculosis in 1924, at the age of 40, Franz Kafka wrote to his friend and literary executor, Max Brod: “Dearest Max, my last request: Everything I leave behind me… in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others’), sketches, and so on, [is] to be burned unread.”
Had the dying wish of the Jewish Czech writer been kept, two of his most famous works, “The Trial” and “The Castle,” would have gone up in flames. But Brod ignored Kafka’s wishes and published edited versions of a few of his unfinished works. Those that remained unpublished have been unseen until recently.
In mid-July, several safe-deposit boxes in Zurich and Israel containing the manuscripts were opened by order of the Tel Aviv Family Court, in the most recent part of an already two-year-long legal battle over Kafka’s estate.
Brod, who fled to Israel during the Holocaust, bequeathed the papers to his secretary and lover, Esther Hoffe, but lawyers for the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem claim that Brod left the papers and estate to the institution. Now, both Israel and Hoffe’s daughters, to whom the security boxes are registered, are claiming ownership of the papers. The battle began when the daughters, now in their 70s, tried to sell some of the documents, including a handwritten copy of “The Trial,” to a German literature archive. In fact, according to the United Kingdom newspaper the Guardian, they have already sold a handful of the papers.
By order of the court, a Kafka expert, Itta Shedletzky, is privately examining and cataloging the contents of the safe-deposit boxes, which are estimated to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. The Swiss-born Israeli literary scholar who specializes in German-Jewish literature (Kafka, although born in Prague, wrote almost exclusively in German) will report to the judge, who will determine if the manuscripts will remain in private hands or be made public at the German Literature Archive, in Marbach, Germany, or at the Jewish National & University Library, in Jerusalem.
Ironically, Kafka’s writing attracted little attention until after his death. During his lifetime, he published only a few short stories and never finished any of his novels.