Franz Kafka's Birthday Offers Kafkaesque Dilemma

Reiner Stach's Bio Addresses Author's German and Jewish Identities

German or Jewish or Both or Neither? Despite his reluctance to make his fictions noticeably Jewish, Franz Kafka often meditated on Jewish themes.
Getty Images
German or Jewish or Both or Neither? Despite his reluctance to make his fictions noticeably Jewish, Franz Kafka often meditated on Jewish themes.

By David Mikics

Published July 03, 2013, issue of June 14, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 3)

The Hoffe family wanted to sell the collection to the German Literature Archive, in Marbach, and argued that Marbach would take better care of the Kafka papers than any Israeli library could. (Before her death, Esther Hoffe had already sold the manuscript of “The Trial” to the German Literature Archive for close to $2 million.) In October 2012 an Israeli court finally decided against Eva Hoffe, ruling that Brod had intended his papers to become the property of the State of Israel. So the question was finally answered: Kafka belongs, after all, to the Jews, not to the Germans.

Yet Germany still has an important stake in Kafka. When I lived in Berlin in the late 1990s, I was struck by how much the Germans see Kafka as one of their central authors, a high-modernist master of German prose. It is not surprising that Reiner Stach, a German, is now writing the definitive biography of Kafka. Stach’s first volume, “The Decisive Years,” covering Kafka’s life from 1910 to 1914, appeared in English translation in 2005; “The Years of Insight,” his account of Kafka’s final years, ending with his death in 1924, came out in German in 2008 and is now being published in a supple and accurate English translation by Shelley Frisch.

Stach is still writing his volume on Kafka’s childhood and youth, since that work depends on the Brod papers; now that the fracas in Tel Aviv has ended, and Brod’s letters and diaries are accessible to scholars, we will learn immeasurably more about the early Kafka.

In his biography, Stach presents a full, nuanced treatment of Kafka’s feelings about Jewishness. He is particularly adept in his depiction of Kafka’s relationships with the women he loved. Kafka’s years-long engagement to Bauer is painful to read about; for years, Kafka psychically tortured not only himself, but Bauer, as well. Bauer was a hardworking secretary, an ardent fan of Strindberg and intrigued by Dostoevsky, as well (during one trip with Kafka, she brought along a copy of “The Brothers Karamazov,” hoping they could read it together).

Bauer worked in a Jewish Home for Eastern European refugees in Berlin. When she first met Kafka, at a dinner, he was riveted by her casual announcement that she was planning to travel to Palestine; he proposed on the spot that he go with her. Kafka’s later love interests — Julie Wohryzek, Milena Jesenska and Diamant — were also powerful, intellectual presences. Jesenska, a non-Jew married to a Jewish husband, was Kafka’s Czech translator and an author in her own right.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • "I feel great sorrow about the fact that you decided to return the honor and recognition that you so greatly deserve." Rivka Ben-Pazi, who got Dutchman Henk Zanoli recognized as a "Righteous Gentile," has written him an open letter.
  • Is there a right way to criticize Israel?
  • From The Daily Show to Lizzy Caplan, here's your Who's Jew guide to the 2014 #Emmys. Who are you rooting for?
  • “People at archives like Yad Vashem used to consider genealogists old ladies in tennis shoes. But they have been impressed with our work on indexing documents. Now they are lining up to work with us." This year's Jewish Genealogical Societies conference took place in Utah. We got a behind-the-scenes look:
  • What would Maimonides say about Warby Parker's buy-one, give-one charity model?
  • For 22 years, Seeds of Peace has fostered dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian teens in an idyllic camp. But with Israel at war in Gaza, this summer was different. http://jd.fo/p57AB
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.