Friday, October 2, 2009

Kafka in Israel

In today's Ha-Aretz magazine, another chapter was revealed regarding a potential (and unresearched) treasure trove of documents and letters written by Franz Kafka and others close to him. The stash reached Israel in 1939 after Max Brod, a close friend of Kafka and to whom the documents were left after Kafka’s death from tuberculosis, escaped Prague just ahead of the Nazis, and reached Palestine via Romania.

There are a few important details. First, Kafka directed Brod in his last will to burn all the papers, leave nothing intact. Brod, of course, ignored this plea. We can argue what was right or wrong, but if Kafka's will had been executed according to his instructions, his major novels - "The Trial", "The Castle" and "Amerika" - and most of his short stories would have been lost to the world. Second, Brod, who died in 1968, left the remaining papers to Esther Hoffe, his close friend, assistant, and perhaps lover, with the direction to deposit them in an appropriate archive so that they could be saved for posterity and available for study. She did none of this. Instead, she hid the documents, sold them intermittently for high sums (an original version of “The Trial” was sold in 1988 to the German Literary Archives for a reported $1.98 million), and refused all orders to share them with Israeli authorities or institutions. Israel, should have, in my opinion, put here in jail for what in essence is theft, but, for 35 years, she held everyone off. Her daughter now continues her terrible legacy.

Nobody knows for sure what the estate contains. In the 1970s, there were letters, drawings and manuscripts by Kafka himself, but these may have been sold off over the years. Still, among the thousands of documents that remain, there are certainly items that illuminate unknown aspects of the life of the great writer. And who knows what condition they’re in? Israeli animal authorities were called in by neighbors because the stench of the tens of cats fed by Eva Hoffe in her apartment was so overpowering. Hopefully, Ms. Hoffe isn't using shredded Kafka as kitty litter.

Apparently, few people outside knew about what was happening. Authorities on German literature across the world, who have been researching Kafka's writings for years and were asked what they thought about the trial, were surprised to hear about it. Why isn’t Israel doing something about this tragedy? How can one woman continue to defy the Israeli courts and common decency? Kafka would have been appalled (or then again, he might have found the entire situation deliciously funny.)

Check out "The Trial," starring Tim Roth as Joseph K! Fabulous.

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