How an Israel that never liked Franz Kafka came to own his literary legacy
TOI Presents

How an Israel that never liked Franz Kafka came to own his literary legacy

In a new book, author Benjamin Balint traces the long, tortuous journey of the famed surrealist writer’s original manuscripts – and through them the fading away of a murdered world

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Franz Kafka in 1906. (public domain)
Franz Kafka in 1906. (public domain)

In some of the most famous works of modern literature, Franz Kafka described a world unmoored from its mental anchors and adrift in the absurdity, cruelty and estrangement of modernity.

From “The Trial” to “Metamorphosis” and “The Castle,” his characters face disorienting situations driven by an inner logic never revealed to the protagonists. Going from torment to torment in “The Trial,” Joseph K. is finally executed without ever finding out what he is accused of. In the novella “The Metamorphosis,” Gregor Samsa transforms into a kind of insect or “vermin,” not as the beginning of an entertaining horror yarn, but rather as the start of a tale of disorienting alienation and neglect from family and society.

In this literature of otherness, Kafka offered a modernizing, self-destructive, terrified Europe a means of examining its confusion.

“Kafka spoke to us about ourselves,” Simone de Beauvoir said. “He revealed to us our own problems, confronted by a world without God and where nonetheless our salvation was at stake.”

He was great enough, lucid enough in his vision of the modern predicament, to serve as a guide to modern perplexities — and to ensure that no single analysis of his work can ever fully encompass it. Unlike often-compared works by Jean-Paul Sartre and others, Kafka’s writings offer no exposition about their meaning, no treatises on alienation in modern life or the lessons to be gleaned from his surreal fables. The alienation is experienced, not described, and therein lies its literary power.

Author Benjamin Balint, and his book, ‘Kafka’s Last Trial.’ (Courtesy)

In his marvelous new book, “Kafka’s Last Trial,” the Jerusalem-based writer Benjamin Balint chronicles the story of how much of Kafka’s literary legacy, the manuscripts and letters written by his hand, were carried out of Europe to Israel by his closest friend Max Brod just before the outbreak of the war in 1939, and the series of legal suits that ran from the 1970s until 2016 over who actually owns the century-old remnants of one of Europe’s iconic voices.

In the process, Balint proves it is as hard to write about the meaning of Kafka’s former possessions as about the meaning of his stories. The trick, and Balint pulls it off, is to provide no good answers.

On Tuesday, November 6, Times of Israel Presents and the Jerusalem Press Club will host Balint at Mishkenot Sha’ananim in Jerusalem for the Israel launch of “Kafka’s Last Trial,” where the author will speak about his insider’s account of the Israeli court battle over Kafka’s manuscripts.

The trial

“Kafka’s Last Trial” opens on the morning of June 27, 2016, the day the Supreme Court of Israel began its examination of the question: who owns the estate of the German-speaking Prague native Brod, who died in Tel Aviv in 1968 and bequeathed his vast collection of Kafka manuscripts to his longtime secretary Esther Hoffe?

Was it Eva Hoffe, Esther’s daughter, who was 82 at the time of the Supreme Court hearing? Was it the National Library of Israel, which argued the collection was unsafe in Hoffe’s hands? Or could it be the German Literature Archive in Marbach, Germany, where the literary legacies of many of Kafka’s contemporaries were housed?

The stakes were high: “Brod’s estate included not only his own manuscripts, but also sheafs of Kafka’s papers, as brittle as autumnal leaves. Ninety-two years after Kafka’s death, these manuscripts held out the promise of shedding new light on the uncanny world of the writer who coined an inimitable, immediately recognizable style of surreal realism and etched the twentieth century’s most indelible fables of disorientation, absurdity, and faceless tyranny — the rare writer whose name became an adjective.”

Max Brod on September 9, 1965. (Joost Evers/Anefo-Nationaal Archief/CC BY-SA)

Balint’s book is structured around three parallel stories. The first tells the courtroom drama of successive suits in Israeli courts in which the State of Israel sought to take possession of the large body of Kafka manuscripts held by Brod’s secretary Esther Hoffe and, later, her daughter Eva, from the 1970s till the Supreme Court’s final judgment in 2016. The second is the story of Max Brod and his best friend and literary hero Franz Kafka, and the way in which Brod transformed Kafka into a cultural touchstone of 20th century literature, giving voice to a seminal writer whose insecurities and refusal to publish his never-finished works would otherwise have condemned him to obscurity.

And finally, implicitly, it is the story of what it means to pick up the shattered fragments of a culture decimated by a cataclysmic genocide.

No wonder, then, that this is also a story about childlessness: Eva Hoffe, the last heiress of Kafka’s writings, died childless in 2018 after spending much of her adult life living with her mother and some cats in an apartment in Tel Aviv, clinging to her secondhand inheritance of writings by a literary master she had never met; Max Brod, a literary figure in his own right and the man who rescued Kafka’s manuscripts when he fled Europe, but was also a serial womanizer who in the end had no one to inherit him except his assistant Esther; and Kafka himself, who tried repeatedly to marry but never succeeded, and whose iconic loneliness, perhaps, presaged the desolation that was to come.

In their ebbing away, these childless figures represented the fading of the culture that shaped them.

Panoramic view of Prague (David Iliff/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Balint’s success lies not only in his conveying of the history of Kafka, Brod and the Hoffes, which he tells with precision and breadth, but in the way his gentle prose conveys the melancholy of their lives, anchoring the larger questions of history, ownership and legacy in the anguish and striving of real-life protagonists.

The tale of the fight over the manuscripts is, in the end, a sad one, a contest between competing claims to something barely remembered. It is a fight over a symbol of European Jewish culture even as the thing itself fades inexorably from view. European Jewry was once an intrinsic part of the cultural and spiritual heart of Europe. Today, even when Europeans appeal to their Jewish past, there is scarcely a remnant of that living legacy to which one can make the appeal. The ancient European Jewish culture that flourished before the Holocaust is dead, destroyed more effectively and comprehensively than the community that created it, and its memory, as with all dead things, is dissipating.

Who owns the relics of this dead world? Walter Benjamin has suggested that “The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity.” The battle over who owns Kafka’s original manuscripts is not really a battle for the texts themselves, but for the ability to lay claim to that authenticity, to being the heirs of the great heirless prophet of modern insecurity. It is a battle over access not to Kafka’s art, but to his soul and identity.

Germany vs. Israel

Over the course of the many trials that preceded the Supreme Court hearing of June 2016, the German representatives of the Marbach literary archive made the case that Kafka belonged to all humanity, that his literary vision was not an explicitly Jewish one, but a universal one — and, they pointed out, Israelis had evinced little interest in the long-dead writer whose literary afterlife in the German- and English-speaking worlds had granted him canonical status.

The ties between Israel and Kafka are indeed tenuous. Kafka was the apotheosis of the modernist European aesthetic, writing in a simplistic, precise style about the absurdities and brutalities at the heart of modern ways of thinking and feeling. He served as a spiritual godfather to the skeptical mode of thought that rent asunder the old sureties of the European mind. What do the patriotic, self-assured, collectivist, unreasonably fertile Israelis know of self-doubting, tormented, individualistic, childless Kafka? He is rarely studied by Israelis, has scarcely been translated into Hebrew, and has more often than not been rejected by Israeli critics as disquietingly “diasporic” in temperament.

As one German commentator complained in 2010 in a Berlin newspaper, “to speak here of Israeli cultural assets seems to me absurd. In Israel, there is neither a complete edition of Kafka’s works, nor a single street named after him. And if you wish to look for Brod in Hebrew, you have to go to a second-hand bookshop.”

The Museum of Modern Literature in Marbach. (Wikipedia/Mont_r/CC BY-SA)

The director of the Marbach archive, Ulrich Raulff, told Balint in an interview in 2017 that if Kafka’s manuscripts end up in Germany, they will be read in a more “universal” way. The Israelis will seek to read Kafka as a specifically Jewish writer, whereas, as Raulff put it in a 2011 documentary about Kafka, “He is nowhere at home — thus everywhere.”

The German point is deeper than it appears. The Israelis were not only slow in claiming Kafka, there is a cultural and psychic gulf between Israeliness and Kafka’s literary vision.

“A hypochondriac declared unfit for military service during the First World War ‘on account of weakness,’ whose fictional characters (as in The Castle) ‘tremble at every knock at the door,’ did not resonate with comrades in arms risking their lives to defend the Jewish state,” Balint writes.

“In Kafka’s writing, inadequate, enfeebled sons submit to the judgment of their fathers…. In the nascent state [of Israel], self-reliant individualistic sons overthrew their ineffectual fathers, left behind exilic passivity and pessimism, and started afresh. … Those busy making history could not be expected to be well disposed toward someone from the time and place in which other nations made history and the Jews were crushed under its wheels…. [P]ioneers straining to cultivate a sense of at-homeness saw in Kafka the quintessential rootless, timorous Jew — haunted and homeless.”

Then there is the question of Kafka’s own ambivalence toward his Judaism.

Does Kafka himself have a view of who owns his heritage, of where he belongs in the scuffling tug-of-war for his memory? Could a writer of marginality, dislocation and estrangement from life even possess such a view?

Illustrative: The High Court of Justice in session. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“A storyteller cannot talk about storytelling. He tells stories or is silent,” Kafka once wrote, and his stories, indeed, do not give up their meaning. They resist interpretation, and ceaselessly demand it, in a manner similar to other works whose baffling genius made them canonical texts of European culture, from the Bible to Shakespeare.

T. S. Eliot observed: “About anyone so great as Shakespeare, it is probable that we can never be right; and if we can never be right, it is better that we should from time to time change our way of being wrong.”

Balint quotes the Hebrew-language Kafka translator Shimon Sandbank suggesting the same about Kafka: “Kafka, I feel, is great enough for these words to apply to him as well, great enough for us never to be right about him.”

Kafka’s stories resist placement in a specific cultural or geographic context, situating his narratives in interior landscapes. This is unmoored art, taking place in tenements, slums and other marginal places, without revealing a specific location.

Balint tackles this point head-on, refusing, wonderfully, to give any easy answers. “In a [court] case not lacking in ironies, surely the last involves taking a proprietary attitude toward a writer so bound up in the refusal to belong to a fixed abode…. Kafka writes in his diary of his ‘infinite yearning for independence and freedom in all things.’ In life and literature both, that yearning brought him into a stubborn homelessness and non-belonging.”

Yet Kafka also felt a deep enough connection to his Jewishness. He wrote and fretted about anti-Semitism in his native Prague. During a pogrom in 1920, he wrote, “The other day I heard the Jews called prasive plemeno [mangy brood]. Isn’t it natural to leave a place where one is so hated? (Zionism or ethnic feeling is not even needed here.) The heroism of staying on nevertheless is the heroism of cockroaches that cannot be exterminated even from the bathroom.”

Zionism may not be needed for Jews to grasp the need to leave Europe, as Kafka maintained, but in 1917 Kafka nevertheless began a serious study of Hebrew, filling a notebook with vocabulary words and becoming conversant in the language. “It was his yearning to belong, and to gain the self-confidence that accompanies belonging, that drew him to Zionism,” Prof. Vivian Liska tells Balint. “It was his fear of dissolution as a self in a group that kept him from adhering to it fully.”

A library official shows celebrated author Franz Kafka’s Hebrew vocabulary notebook at Israel’s National Library in Jerusalem, October 2014. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

He grasped clearly the Jewish predicament in anti-Semitic Europe, but could not, even when he wished to, cleave to a Jewish collectivism in response. What should one make of such a radical individualist who was so deeply affected by and sympathetic to Zionism but who nevertheless could not become a Zionist? Isn’t that, too, a kind of Zionism?

Kafka understood from the start the way his art troubled those who would claim ownership of it. He wrote to his fiancee Felice Bauer in October 1916, a century before the Supreme Court of the Jewish state took up the question, “Won’t you tell me what I really am? In the last Neue Rundschau [a German literary magazine] the writer says: ‘There is something fundamentally German about K’s narrative art.’ In Max [Brod]’s article [‘Our Writers and the Community,’ in Der Jude] on the other hand: ‘K’s stories are among the most typically Jewish documents of our time.’”

Kafka concludes: “A difficult case. Am I a circus rider on two horses? Alas, I am no rider, but lie prostrate on the ground.”

Even as Kafka’s disturbing tales seemed to grate against the new Israeli sensibility, others saw in his vision a kind of prophecy of the industrial genocide that was to come, and that would leave the Jews of Israel the last major living community in the eastern hemisphere.

A Hebrew letter sent from Franz Kafka to his Hebrew tutor Puah Manchel. (Nurit Ashkenazi/public domain)

“Some of his earliest readers understood Kafka’s writing, so full of dread, as envisioning the machinery of fascism,” Balint writes. “In this view, Kafka foresaw, or foreshadowed, the corrosion of individual freedom under totalitarianism, with its grotesquerie of arbitrary arrests, show trials, self-denunciations, inscrutable tribunals, tortures in the name of edification, and punishments that precede crimes…”

German playwright Bertolt Brecht wrote: “Kafka described with wonderful imaginative power the future concentration camps, the future instability of the law, the future absolutism of the state apparat, the paralyzed, inadequately motivated, floundering lives of many individual people; everything appears as in a nightmare and with the confusion and inadequacy of nightmare.”

On March 14, 1939, a 54-year-old Brod rushed with his wife Elsa and a suitcase full of Kafka’s manuscripts to Prague’s Wilson Station, where the couple caught a train to Warsaw — the last train to cross the Czech-Polish frontier before the Wehrmacht sealed Czechoslovakia’s borders. From there to Romania, where they caught a boat with other Czechoslovak refugees to Istanbul, then Athens, Crete, Alexandria, and finally Tel Aviv.

Had Brod missed his train that day in March 1939, Kafka’s manuscripts would not have been saved.

As Professor Otto Dov Kulka put it rather cantankerously in an 2010 interview with The New York Times, “They say the papers will be safer in Germany. The Germans will take very good care of them. Well, the Germans don’t have a very good history of taking care of Kafka’s things. They didn’t take good care of his sisters,” who perished in the Holocaust.

A precarious answer

Balint’s is a book not about Kafka, but about owning him, not about his ideas or his precise and elegant language, but about whether a German nation that would have burned his manuscripts (and him) can ever again lay claim to them. There are no simple answers here, since so much of Kafka himself was a product of the German language and culture he so loved and to which he contributed so much.

In a sense, the tug-of-war over who gets to inherit Kafka raises a question rarely asked (at least by Jews) after the Holocaust: What did the Germans destroy of their own Germanness in their destruction of the Jews?

Does a German-speaking world that obliterated its Jews have more or less of a claim on the Jews’ cultural production than a Jewish polity that rescued them but either ignored them or actively disdained them for their very vulnerability?

Israel’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Jewish state’s National Library, which is now the rightful heir, at least in Israeli eyes, to the Kafka manuscripts that were the subject of so many years of contentious litigation.

If, as Kafka decreed, a storyteller cannot talk about his stories, what hope is there for those like Balint who seek to find meaning in the story of a storyteller’s stories? Kafka didn’t like philosophizing, Brod tells us. And so we must fall back, unsatisfied, on the simple human sense of things.

Kafka wrote precarious literature from a precarious life. He was part of a Jewish minority inside a German-speaking minority inside a Czech minority in the heterogeneous Habsburg Empire on the cusp of violent dissolution.

If Israel has a claim on Kafka, it is surely this simplest of claims: that only in Israel, Kafka’s manuscripts — and had he lived through the illness that claimed him in 1924, Kafka himself — could have survived.


Author Benjamin Balint talks to David B. Green
7:30 p.m., Tuesday, November 6
De Botton Auditorium, Mishkenot Sha’ananim
Tickets: NIS 40 advance (including refreshments), HERE
Door: NIS 50, cash only

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