Last week, a court in Switzerland ruled that several safe deposit boxes of writer Franz Kafka’s papers could be opened and their contents shipped to Israel. The decade-long battle over these unpublished works reads like one of the author’s bizarre stories.
Kafka is a German-speaking Jew whose literary legacy is fiercely contested between Israel and Germany. Both countries claim the right to own the mysterious trove of papers. Ironically, Kafka often wrote about absurd situations involving complicated legal processes. And this real-life law saga is complex.
Shortly before his death, Kafka bequeathed his papers to longtime friend Max Brod. Kafka instructed Brod to burn everything unread. Brod didn’t comply. He smuggled some of the manuscripts into the yet-unrecognized state of Israel when he fled the Nazis in 1938. He further ignored Kafka’s wishes and published most of what Kafka gave him. Those works made Kafka one of the most influential writers of the 20th century.
However, Brod didn’t publish everything. Upon his death, Brod instructed his secretary, Esther Hoffe, to transfer the Kafka papers to an academic institution. Hoffe didn’t comply either. She sold some of them and stashed the rest away.
When she died, Hoffe left the collection to her two daughters. Both have since also passed away, leaving Hoffe’s granddaughters to continue fighting over the Kafka collection.
Israel’s Supreme Court has already stripped the granddaughters of the Kafka manuscripts—which were hidden in bank vaults and in a squalid, cat-filled apartment. The Swiss ruling will send nearly all of them to Israel’s National Library.
Amazingly, no one knows for sure what’s inside the vaults. Experts think there could be endings to some of Kafka’s major works. One thing’s for sure: “Nothing is . . . secret that will not be known.” (Luke 8:17)
Kafka researcher Benjamin Balint cautions that the contents of the hidden archive may not live up to everyone’s expectations. He calls it “very unlikely we are going to discover an unknown Kafka masterpiece in there.”
(Franz Kafka’s Hebrew vocabulary notebook at Israel's National Library in Jerusalem. AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, File)