In Israel, a tangled battle over the papers of Franz Kafka

By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 6, 2010; A06

TEL AVIV -- Franz Kafka's name is synonymous with mind-numbing bureaucracy, and even 85 years after his death, it's easy to see why.

The writer wanted his papers burned after he wasted away from tuberculosis in 1924, but they're still being fought over. It is a legal dispute pitting Israel against the heirs of Kafka's literary executor and putting the nation in competition with a German archive in a battle that comes with a new dose of mystery, including tales of a secret Swiss safe.

The papers are in at least a half-dozen bank boxes in Tel Aviv and Switzerland and may -- or may not -- contain unpublicized letters and writings by Kafka, a Czechoslovakian Jew and seminal figure in 20th-century culture. No matter what they include, academics consider them a literary gold mine likely to offer new insights into the writer of such works as "The Trial" and "The Metamorphosis."

"Whether or not there is any original Kafka material, there is material that will shed light on him as a human being. It's a literary treasure," said Kathi Diamant, biographer of Kafka's girlfriend at the time of his death, Dora Diamant, and director of the Kafka Project, a hunt for the author's lost letters and notebooks.

The papers contain, for example, 70 letters written by Dora Diamant to Kafka's literary executor, Max Brod, and may hold clues to the fate of about 20 of Kafka's notebooks and diaries seized by the Nazis in 1933, said Kathi Diamant, who thought she might be a distant relative of Kafka's girlfriend but has yet to find a connection.

Government archivists in Israel want to inspect the papers and, they hope, eventually possess and keep them out of the hands of a competing German archive, which is seeking to purchase them from Brod's estate.

The documents "are valuable for the history of the Jewish people and the State," said a statement by the office of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, which oversees the Israeli state archives. "The State Archivist is of the opinion that it is better that these materials not be removed outside of Israel."

Those materials are now under the authority of an Israeli family-court judge trying to disentangle what has been, in effect, a 40-year-long dispute over Brod's will.

Brod refused Kafka's deathbed wish to burn his papers, taking them with him when he fled the Nazis in Czechoslovakia and eventually guiding major manuscripts such as "The Trial" to publication. Brod arrived in Israel in the late 1930s with his own and Kafka's writings, and over the next 30 years, he assembled a corpus of work that included correspondence with top intellectual figures, as well as with Kafka intimates.

When Brod died in 1968, he left his papers in the possession of his longtime secretary and friend, Esther Hoffe, and when she died two years ago, they came into the hands of her daughters, Eva and Ruth.

The Hoffes say the documents are the private property of the family; the Israeli government asserts that Brod intended for Esther Hoffe to transfer the papers to a public archive, such as a major university or library in Israel. A similar challenge by the government in the early 1970s failed. Now that Esther Hoffe is dead, the state has intervened again.

The judge reopened Brod's will last fall and appointed a new executor, and recently ordered that a team be assembled to begin inspecting the contents of the safe-deposit boxes in Israel and Switzerland.

Esther Hoffe "failed to accommodate the instructions he [Brod] left her," said Meir Heller, the lawyer representing Israel's National Library. Although the will clearly left Hoffe much of value, Brod "distinguished between material rights given to her and the handing of manuscripts to a public archive."

To the Hoffes, the episode smacks of the heavy-handed statism about which Kafka wrote. Their mother's entire will -- estimated in the millions of dollars -- is being held in limbo by the courts while the fight over the documents is litigated.

Eva Hoffe, whose Spinoza Street apartment in downtown Tel Aviv is renowned as a home for wayward cats, declined through her attorney to be interviewed. But the lawyer, Oded Hacohen, put the matter in stark terms -- of government agents pawing through private letters and other family material, some of which Brod stipulated should not be made public for at least 25 years after the deaths of the people involved.

"If you want to interfere with private property, you have to have a good reason," Hacohen said. "Eva sees this as part of her and her family, and she feels like they are raping her."

The fact that Esther Hoffe sold some items during her lifetime has only fueled the dispute. Brod gave his secretary many gifts over the years, including the original manuscript of "The Trial," which fetched $1.7 million at auction in the mid-1980s.

The purchaser then was the Museum of Modern Literature in Marbach, Germany. The museum has negotiated with the Hoffe family for the purchase of the rest of the material, hoping, as do scholars such as Diamant, to keep Brod's papers intact. The museum has a large collection of other material from Prague intellectuals of that era.

The search through the lockboxes may help resolve things, Hacohen said. Though the family opposes the intrusion, he said he hopes the Israeli state archives will, after the search, settle for copies of any material it considers important -- which, after all, is the only thing Israeli law requires.

Shmulik Cassuoto, the lawyer appointed as executor to Esther Hoffe's estate, said Eva Hoffe has turned over the keys to the bank boxes in Israel, so progress is being made.

But mysteries remain. Hoffe recently disclosed the existence of a Swiss safe; some literary experts said Brod may have taken some of his important papers abroad after settling in Israel.

"The safe in Zurich, we are still working on," Cassuoto said.

Special correspondent Samuel Sockol contributed to this report.

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