Perhaps no one defied the wishes of a dead friend as flagrantly as Max Brod. In 1924, the author Franz Kafka died after a years-long battle with tuberculosis, leaving Brod, his confidant and fellow writer, with orders to burn his unpublished work. Brod did not comply, spending the rest of his life publishing the words Kafka wanted consigned to the ash heap. On his own death in 1968, Brod bequeathed his and Kafka’s papers to his secretary, Esther Hoffe. In recent years, a series of legal decisions found that Hoffe ignored Brod’s own dying request to transfer Kafka’s papers to a public institution, ideally, the National Library of Israel. Years later, Brod’s wishes, if not Kafka’s, are finally being honored.
After over a decade of litigation, the last cache of Brod and Kafka’s papers, kept in a vault in Zurich by Hoffe and her daughters, has arrived in Israel following the April ruling of a Swiss court. The vault contained artifacts that shed new light on Kafka’s early editing process, his tortured relationship with his father and his budding interest in Zionism.
The transfer of the Swiss papers was preceded by several favorable verdicts for the National Library of Israel in Israeli courts and the hand-off, in May, of Brod and Kafka materials confiscated by German authorities. All the papers, including previously acquired works from Hoffe’s Tel Aviv apartment and several vaults in Israel, will be digitized and placed online.
The papers contain three drafts of Kafka’s 1907 short story “Wedding Preparations in the Country,” which show the young writer’s efforts to abridge his work, and postcards written to Brod two months before his death, which detail Kafka’s failing health. The trove also includes a manuscript of Max Brod’s final work, “Prague Circle,” a rare nonfiction volume chronicling the Jewish student literary group to which he and Kafka belonged.
Some of the documents, including a 1919, 47-page letter — written in the style of a legalistic attack — to Kafka’s father, have been previously published, but appears in Brod’s archive typed by the author himself with a last page written by hand.
A number of artifacts in the trove show Kafka in a lighter mood. His 1911 travel journals of his and Brod’s trip to Paris take the writer out of his Prague milieu while several sketches of human figures hint at a playful side.
In his final years, Kafka also demonstrated a growing interest in Zionism and the development of a modern Jewish language. Among the nine notebooks pulled from the Swiss vault is one in which he practiced his Hebrew, translating a number of German words. Unlike Brod, Kafka never made it to Mandatory Palestine - though he once entertained the idea of moving there - but the papers that took up much of his life now belong the cultural legacy of the Jewish State.
“For more than a decade, the National Library of Israel has worked tirelessly to bring the literary estate of the prolific writer, composer and playwright Max Brod and his closest friend Franz Kafka to the National Library, in accordance with Brod’s wishes,” David Blumberg, the chairman of the National Library of Israel board of directors, said in a statement. “After seeing materials including Kafka’s Hebrew notebook and letters about Zionism and Judaism, it is now clearer than ever that the National Library in Jerusalem is the rightful home for the Brod and Kafka papers.”
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at Grisar@Forward.com.