Fight to preserve, cash in on writer’s heritage continues
The story of how Franz Kafka went from an obscure Prague office clerk to one of the world’s most revered literary figures is well documented.
But the wishes of his best friend, and biggest champion, Max Brod, remain the focal point of a bitter legal dispute in Israel, where a wealth of Brod’s and Kafka’s papers has been made public in recent months. Brod’s decision to ignore Kafka’s request that he burn his unpublished manuscripts upon Kafka’s 1924 death has created a battle that lawyers say will be winding its way through the court system for years to come, making the struggle over the author’s legacy more “Kafkaesque” in nature than much of his own work.
“This is going to take a lot of time,” said Meir Heller, the lawyer for the Israeli National Library, one of the parties in the dispute. “If there is an end, we are not seeing it yet.”
On the other side, there are the Hoffe sisters – Eva and Ruth – who are the daughters of Esther Hoffe, Brod’s secretary after he moved to Palestine in 1939. When Brod died in 1968, he made Esther Hoffe the executor of his estate, and she placed much of Kafka’s and Brod’s writings in safe-deposit boxes in Israel and Switzerland. Upon her 2007 death at the age of 101, she bequeathed the documents to Eva and Ruth, who have sold some of Kafka’s papers already to the German Literary Archive in the city of Marbach and, many feel, have designs on selling more. Esther Hoffe herself sold the original manuscript of Kafka’s masterpiece, The Trial, to the German archive for close to $2 million in 1988.
The Israeli National Library – which got a boost in February in the form of a former Brod acquaintance’s deposition – claims Brod specified in his will that his and Kafka’s works should become property of the library as they are cultural assets of the Jewish people.
“We got involved in 2008, and we’re still here,” said Heller. “[The Hoffes] have a team of lawyers now, and whichever side wins, there is going to be an appeal.”
The Hoffes’ lawyers did not respond to requests for comment by The Prague Post.
“I don’t think [the Hoffes] are even interested in Brod’s papers. For them, it’s more about Kafka, because Kafka is where the money is,” said Aviad Stollman, the Judaica Collection curator for the library. “For us, we just want what Brod wanted. And we think the family should respect his wishes.”
Eva Hoffe, the more outspoken of the two sisters, is insisting the documents Brod did manage to keep – including letters from Kafka to his family, an original manuscript of the unfinished novel, Wedding Preparations in the Country and some of Brod’s own writings – are too valuable to be looked after in Israel, which is why they chose the German archive in Marbach as the resting place for the pair’s works. The library in Israel, she and her lawyers contend, is not equipped to care for the fragile, nearly 80-year-old papers, whereas the facility in Marbach offers state-of-the-art climate-control technology.
But Stollman and Heller say the National Library has not only sunk millions of dollars into equipping their facilities with modern technology, but are currently constructing a new location to make it one of the world’s most advanced literary archives.
“They’ll think of any excuse for why they don’t want to keep them here, but they won’t say the real reason, which is money,” Stollman said. “They try to make us seem incompetent. It’s insulting.”
But the biggest insult, Stollman added, is the Hoffe’s willingness to sell the documents to Germany, from where Brod fled in 1939.
“There is nothing Brod would have wanted less than for his writings to go to Germany,” Stollman said. “He might have agreed they belonged in Prague instead of Israel or he may not have objected to them going to New York instead of Israel, but not Germany. Not only because of his own experience, but Kafka had two siblings murdered in Auschwitz.”
Stollman added he believes the Hoffes have already reached another deal with the German archive for some of the recently unearthed documents and that the sisters’ legal team, which has swelled to “about 15” lawyers, is being funded by the archive itself.
The director of the German archive, Ulrich Raulff, declined to comment for this story.
The Hoffes’ lawyers argue that they only want the papers to be preserved under the best possible conditions and that Brod harbored no latent ill will toward Germany.
“Brod believed in postwar Germany, which he visited many times,” Avigdor Feldman, a prominent human rights lawyer in Israel and one of the Hoffes’ attorneys told Reuters in February. “As to Kafka, he may have been Jewish, but he was no Zionist.”
The question of “Who owns Kafka?” – as a recent London speech by philosopher Judith Butler asked – becomes a difficult one when his religion (Judaism), his language (German), his nationality (Austro-Hungarian) and his hometown (Prague) are all cited by different groups as what made Kafka who he was.
Josef Čermak, a Czech literary historian and board member of the Prague-based Franz Kafka Society, said the battle over Kafka’s legacy has grown too complicated over the years once money and lawyers became essential in determining where his works should reside.
“Of course, we would be happy if all the materials had remained in Prague,” he said. “But it’s a matter of contracts and law now, and it’s too difficult to determine who is right. The sums are huge. It is sad that manuscripts are bonds these days.”
Oxford University professor Ritchie Robertson, a leading Kafka expert, said the author’s religion, language and address should not play a role when considering his legacy.
“Kafka may be all those things, but I wouldn’t have thought such claims could have any legal standing,” he said. “Surely we should get beyond the national rivalries and see Kafka as a writer of world literature who lived in Prague and used German, his native language.”