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Culture

Kafka manuscripts caught in German-Israeli tug of war

Franz Kafka became famous in spite of himself. He never wanted his works to be published. They were, however, and now they're part of a dispute that literary archivist Ulrich Raulff says isn't really about Kafka.

Franz Kafka

Kafka's books are some of the most influential in western literature

Before his death, Jewish-Czech writer Franz Kafka had ordered that his manuscripts be burned and asked his friend Max Brod to carry out the task. However, Brod did not keep his promise and published the texts instead.

Brod gave the manuscripts to his secretary Esther Hoffe, who sold a portion of them. The rest was handed over to her daughters. These are now stored in a bank safe in Zurich and are at the heart of the current row.

Israel’s national library has laid claim to the contents of the safe and has taken the matter to court. It also aims to secure the manuscripts sold by Esther Hoffe, which are currently on display at the Museum of Modern Literature in Marbach, Germany. Among them is the famous novel "The Trial."

Ulrich Raulff

Raulff hopes that more of Kafka's works will end up at the Marbach museum

Ulrich Raulff, director of the literature archive at the Museum of Modern Literature, sheds light on the dispute.

Deutsche Welle: Mr Raulff, what is actually stored in the safe in Zurich that is so important to the Israeli library?

Ulrich Raulff: What still lies in Zurich is what Max Brod once gave Esther Hoffe as a present - in other words, Kafka manuscripts. I can't tell you what they are exactly, but there are lists that could help us figure it out.

The manuscripts have been there since 1956. Has no one opened the safe since then?

Esther Hoffe, the owner, probably took care of these things. But apart from her, no one has had access to them. It's a bank safe, after all - you cannot get access to it easily.


Now there is a conflict between Israel and the Hoffe siblings about the manuscripts. Israel wants to claim the writings. In your opinion, are these demands justifiable?

You have to differentiate between several things here. The Kafka manuscripts were a gift from Max Brod during his lifetime. Esther Hoffe officially accepted the gift. Max Brod had, after all, studied law. He did it correctly. This whole act was not an inheritance process, but simply a gift.

The Museum of Modern Literature in Marbach

The Museum of Modern Literature was designed by architect David Chipperfield

The procedure was reviewed by an Israeli district court in the early 1970s and recognized as legal. In 1974, the corresponding judgment was handed down. Based on this, Esther Hoffe was the rightful owner of these Kafka manuscripts. She was therefore entitled to dispose of them - for example, via a Sotheby's auction in 1988.

What Max Brod left behind in his will - which Esther Hoffe inheritd and then passed on to her daughters - is another story. The legality of this final handover is currently disputed by a family court in Jerusalem. But this is another story and it doesn't have anything to do with Kafka, except that Max Brod's inheritance contains Brod's diaries from the earliest days of his acquaintance with Kafka. One can expect to find information there about Kafka from a time from which we don't know much about him. These things are likely very valuable as information sources.

How involved is the Museum of Modern Literature in this family case?

We have legal representation, but we are not the party leading in the lawsuit. We only have a "stand-by" role, so to speak. Once the case has been solved, we'd be interested in making purchases. That's why we are involved. And we can keep pointing out that Max Brod, Esther Hoffe and her daughters always said that Marbach would be a very good - perhaps the best - place for the document.

So it's not purely about Kafka?

It's not about Kafka. As far as we can see, the handover of Kafka's work was a personal gift-giving act, which is not legally questionable. So it has nothing to do with Kafka himself. If the Israeli side brings Kafka into the discussion, then, in my opinion, it's only to add drama to the case and put pressure on the court.

What is it about Max Brod's inheritance that the Museum of Modern Literature is especially interested in?

Max Brod

Brod was a long-time friend of Kafka's

First of all, as an author and composer, Max Brod is a significant figure himself. Also, he is interesting to us because of his connection to the Prague literary scene. And, naturally, being an early friend of Kafka's also makes him interesting. Brod's inheritance includes diaries from the early days of their acquaintance and friendship, which can reveal a lot of information about Kafka from that time.

Author: Jochen Kuerten / Klaus Gehrke (ew)

Editor: Kate Bowen

DW.DE