Previously unseen handwritten manuscripts and drawings by Franz Kafka were presented in Jerusalem on Wednesday, in what appears to be the last chapter in a long and arduous battle over the legacy of the famed Jewish writer.
Most of the texts revealed to the public for the first time at Israel’s National Library, which include never-before-seen writings in Hebrew, have been published and are therefore not of great literary significance. However, they will allow researchers a closer analysis of Kafka’s writing process.
The National Library now holds hundreds of letters, manuscripts, journals, notebooks and sketches by Kafka and his friend and literary executor Max Brod.
The documents arrived in Israel two weeks ago after having been held in a vault in Switzerland for decades. Their arrival ended an 11-year-long bitter legal battle with German libraries and the family of the late Esther Hoffe, Brod’s secretary.
Brod, an accomplished writer himself, was asked by Kafka to burn his writings after his death, but he published them instead. Brod left his entire archive, including Kafka’s writings, to Hoffe, asking her to see to it that they reach the National Library. However, she held the archive in her possession until her death, keeping some of it in her apartment on Tel Aviv’s Spinoza Street but depositing the most important parts in vaults in Switzerland and Germany.
Two weeks ago, senior officials from the National Library opened four vaults at the Zurich headquarters of the UBS Bank and took their contents with them to Jerusalem. The documents, which they carried on an airplane in small suitcases, include three different draft versions of Kafka’s story “Wedding Preparations in the Country,” a notebook in which he practiced Hebrew, travel journals, letters, and a booklet of hitherto unpublished thoughts.
“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,” the library’s chairman, David Blumberg, said.
“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,” he added.
Benjamin Balint, the author of “Kafka’s Last Trial,” a 2018 book about the legal and philosophical aspects of the drawn-out quarrels over the writer’s manuscripts, said Wednesday’s press conference closes a circle.
“The latest Swiss decision represents not just a judicial decision but an affirmation of what the National Library was claiming all along — that Kafka, by virtue of being a Jewish writer, belongs to Jerusalem, to the cultural heritage of the Jewish people,” Balint told The Times of Israel.
After Esther Hoffe died in 2007, a bitter battle over Brod’s estate took place in courts in Israel, Germany and Switzerland. The Supreme Court eventually ruled that it belongs to the National Library, a decision that was subsequently affirmed by courts in other countries as well.
“All these court decisions are not just judicial decision but comments on the question: Who is Kafka?” Balint said. “That’s a question we have to ask when we want to determine where Kafka’s legacy belongs, a question that was finally resolved this week.”
Most original Kafka manuscripts are in the university library in Oxford, England.
At Wednesday’s press conference, Stefan Litt, the archivist responsible for the archive, presented some of the original Kafka manuscripts, including an article in Hebrew he wrote about a November 1922 teachers strike in Jerusalem. Kafka, who was known to have studied Hebrew toward the end of his short life, likely wrote the text about the strike shortly before he died of tuberculosis in Austria in 1924 at age 40.
It is unclear whether Kafka merely translated or copied a newspaper article about the strike, or whether he wrote it himself, Litt said.