"I WAS A timid child," Franz Kafka wrote, and when you learn that he was raised in old Prague, surely one of the world's most oppressive and gloomy cities, his haunted writings take on a sharp, poignant new reality.
In an exhibit at the B'nai B'rith Klutznick Museum, 68 photos cover Kafka's 41-year lifetime with an eerie intimacy. Take the streets where he walked, for instance, on the way to school, and later to the elite German high school and finally to the university: They are dark, crooked, narrow passages upon which gloomy old stone buildings glower, their shutters hiding dusty secrets, while dead gray light reflects dully from blank windows and above, half-lost in the mist, loom ancient, forbidding church spires. It is something out of "Nosferatu" or "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari." It is "The Castle" itself.
Kafka once wrote of the ancient ghetto, destroyed in 1896, "in us all, it still lives -- the dark corners, the secret alleys, the shuttered windows, the squalid courtyards, the rowdy pubs, the sinister inns. We walk through the broad streets of the newly built city. But inside we still tremble in the centuries-old streets of our misery."
Even the entrance hall of his childhood home is vaguely foreboding. Jan Parik's photographs (put together for the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora in Tel Aviv) evoke a mood so powerfully that it is easy to see these places as the wide-eyed, silent child must have.
And there are pictures of that child, of course, unsmiling, somber, foreshadowing the famous, staring death-touched last portrait of the writer. Yet Kafka at 17 radiates a certain appealing vitality.
From the Diaries, 1910: "I looked closely at myself in the mirror . . . the black of the hair, the brows and the eye sockets stand living forth from the rest of the passive mess. The glance is by no means haggard, there is no trace of that, but neither is it childish, rather unbelievably energetic, but perhaps only because it was observing me, since I was just then observing myself and wanted to frighten myself."
Embracing his Jewishness rather late (despite the fancy Bar Mitzvah invitation issued by his father, whom he despised), Kafka got a law doctorate so he could support himself while he wrote. At the Workers Accident Insurance Institute, he handled safety ratings of industrial plants, working deep in bureaucracy's corridors of despair, where he knew at first hand the arrogance, incompetence and meaningless hostility of petty clerkdoms, the mindless routines and regulations that eroded the souls both of the clerks and of their harassed, baffled victims.
"How modest these men are," he wrote. "They come to us and beg. Instead of storming the institute and smashing it to little pieces, they come to beg . . ."
This is the nightmare of "The Trial" -- in the original.
Kafka had no cozy sense of family, rarely spoke to his parents or his three pretty younger sisters. Yet he longed to be a family man. He kept up with the women in his life, corresponding with them for years after the affairs ended. They are all pictured here. Two of them died in concentration camps. So did all three of his sisters.
One affair was with Grete Bloch, who later revealed that she had had his son in 1914, but the boy died at 7. Kafka never knew about him.