The Fate of Franz Kafka’s Archive

Franz Kafka likely never imagined the incredible value or near “sacred” aura which are today attributed to each of his handwritten works

Stefan Litt
פתיחת הכספת הראשונה
By Dr. Stefan Litt

In the novel The Castle—Kafka’s final work—is an almost comic scene, in which the protagonist, the surveyor K., arrives at the home of the village mayor. The mayor tells K. about an official letter he had received a long time ago from the castle administrator, according to which he must hire a surveyor. The mayor wants to show the document to K. and asks his wife, Mitzi, to find it in the cupboard where all the files, documents and other written materials are stored, in complete disarray. In her search, Mitzi empties all of the contents of the cupboard onto the floor, but she cannot find the specific document. The mayor tells K. that at the beginning of his term he used to save all the paperwork and adds that there is more material in the shed outside. At the end of the scene, Mitzi and two of K.’s assistants try to put all the files back into the cupboard, but to do this they must lay the cupboard on the floor. Only when they sit on the cupboard’s doors are they able to finally close it. This absurd passage illustrates Kafka’s clear understanding of what the negligent care of written material can lead to. It is doubtful that at the time of writing he was imagining the fate of his personal archive after his death, but it is hard to not think of this scene in the novel when dealing with the restoration of Franz Kafka’s personal archive.

Even with all the dissimilarities between the works of different writers, there tends to be a remarkable resemblance in the items that comprise their private archives. Personal documents, manuscripts, correspondence—these are the components that can be spotted in almost every private archive that is administered and donated without the involvement of a third party. The situation is completely different as regards the archive of Franz Kafka for a number of reasons. First, for the last eight years of his life, Kafka moved numerous times, between Prague and a number of sanitariums in Bohemia, Italy, Austria and Berlin, where he lived for a few months with his partner Dora Diamant. One can assume that during this period, he left some of his manuscripts, notebooks and the letters he received with his parents, his sister Ottilie and with Dora Diamant in Berlin. It is known that some of the manuscripts that remained in Dora’s home were confiscated by the Nazis after their rise to power and have never been found. Furthermore, there is the testimony of Max Brod, who wrote in a letter to Martin Buber in January 1927: “Are you aware that in his final year, he [Kafka] asked his girlfriend [Dora Diamant] to throw twenty thick notebooks into the fire? He lay in bed and watched the manuscripts burn.”

Kafka apparently did not attach much significance to his personal archive. The burning of his notebooks testifies to this, as do the two “wills” he left Brod, in which he asked him to burn all the materials (manuscripts and letters) discovered after his death. Any thought of his personal papers’ importance was foreign to him. One can assume that he did not foresee either the monetary value or near “sacred” aura attributed to each handwritten item today.

Dr. Stefan Litt of the National Library's Archives Department examines items from the Kafka estate.
Dr. Stefan Litt of the National Library’s Archives Department examines items from the Kafka estate.

Immediately after Kafka’s death on June 3rd, 1924, Max Brod took the first steps to save his friend’s precious legacy. He sent an initial report about Kafka’s estate in early July 1924—about one month after Kafka’s death—to Samuel Hugo Bergmann, who was the director of the National Library in Jerusalem. In it, Brod wrote: “I have just now received Kafka’s literary estate for review. Three novels and many other things not yet published are waiting for someone to prepare them for printing. Unfortunately, no one can do this but me! In addition, a large amount of disorganized papers must be examined (you will be interested to know that among them are many notebooks for practicing Hebrew). It seems to me that in terms of literary value, the estate outweighs anything Kafka published in his lifetime.”

Shortly thereafter, on July 17th, 1924, Brod published an article about his late friend’s literary estate in the well-known journal Die Weltbühne, in which he gave the following details: “In his apartment I found ten quarto format notebooks—but only the covers; the contents had been completely destroyed. Moreover (according to a trustworthy source), he burned a number of notebooks with records. Only a bundle of pages (approximately 100 aphorisms on religious issues), a draft of autobiographical content, which will remain unpublished for now and another pile of disorganized papers, which I am currently sorting through, were found in the apartment. My hope is that among the papers, I will discover complete or near complete stories. Beyond that, I was given a novella about animals and another sketchbook.” Regarding Kafka’s three novels, Brod wrote: “The works that were saved in time from the author’s wrath are the most valuable part of the estate and are stored in safe places. These are three novels. The Stoker, a story that has already been published, is the first chapter of a novel whose plot is set in America, and of which the final chapter also exists, so apparently not too many significant parts are missing. This novel is with the deceased’s girlfriend. Two others—The Castle and The Trial, which is a vibrant and fascinating book  (representing the peak of Kafka’s art)—I saved four years ago (and one year ago), something which truly comforts me today.” At the end of the article, Brod notes that he intends to publish Kafka’s works, but not yet his letters.   kafka

Research conducted over the last decades has made clear that Kafka’s manuscripts were indeed scattered among his various friends: some with Brod, several notebooks and the manuscript of the novel Amerika with Milena Jesenská, and The Metamorphosis, the manuscript of Letter to His Father, and additional notebooks with his parents. As mentioned, other materials were kept with Dora Diamant, various letters sent by Kafka were with their recipients: Felice Bauer (to whom he was twice engaged), Milena Jesenská, Max Brod, Felix Weltsch, Samuel Hugo Bergmann, Oskar Baum and others. But what happened to all of the letters Kafka received from his friends and acquaintances? The only ones left were those sent by Max Brod, which Brod apparently saved along with the rest of Kafka’s estate, but what of the others? Did he or one of his acquaintances destroy them? Did Max Brod himself do it, thus fulfilling Kafka’s request regarding at least part of his archive? If so, why? Hopefully, more research will shed light on this issue.

Shortly after Kafka’s death, Max Brod prepared the three manuscripts for print, even though all were incomplete and would not have stood up to their author’s critical eye. The Trial was published first, in 1925 by Die Schmiede, a small avant-garde printing press in Berlin. The Castle followed in 1926, and Amerika in 1927, both released by the renowned publisher Kurt Wolff. Most of the works Kafka had published in his lifetime were put out by Wolff. The three books were given a lukewarm reception at first, and Brod pleaded with those well-known figures who knew Kafka to write in praise of the novels. For example, he approached Martin Buber who had been among the first to recognize the high literary potential of Kafka’s writing. Recognition of Kafka’s literary greatness had not yet reached the level of international admiration that emerged in the decades after World War II.

Already in 1931, Max Brod was negotiating with various publishers about the possibility of releasing all of Kafka’s writings in a book series, but without much success, at first. In 1934, Salman Schocken bought all the rights to Kafka’s works from the author’s parents. The next year, the first volume of Kafka’s complete works was put out by Schocken Press in Germany, and the rest were published in Czechoslovakia and the United States. All of his important works, his diaries and letters—everything Kafka had never wanted to see the light of day, were included in these six volumes, with Max Brod as the editor of the series. In 1937, Brod added the first biography of Kafka, thereby initiating an almost endless stream of studies about the author’s life and works. An essential part of Kafka’s fame as a writer of genius is based on this series and Brod’s biography.   קפקא

When Brod immigrated to Palestine in March 1939, he brought with him most of Kafka’s archive. In the years before, Brod gathered in one place all of the manuscripts, notebooks and letters that had been scattered among Kafka’s acquaintances. World War II, which was threatening even Palestine and Tel Aviv, caused Brod to consider alternatives to storing Kafka’s writings in his own house. At first, he approached the Hebrew University in the hope that they would agree to keep the treasure in the National and University Library on Mount Scopus, but its director at the time, Gotthold Weil, refused, because he was then preoccupied with how to preserve the Library’s own collections in those worrisome days, and was not free to deal with private inquiries. (Ironically, had Weill agreed, the legal debates of the last several years around the ownership of Max Brod’s archive, which included writings by Kafka, might have been avoided). Shortly after Brod’s approach, the Library changed its mind and agreed to his request, but in the meantime, he had found another solution in the private library of Salman Schocken in Jerusalem.

In the 1950s, many of Kafka’s manuscripts were moved to a bank in Zurich. Following an appeal by Kafka’s heirs—the children of his sister who survived the Holocaust—Max Brod was forced to hand over most of the materials to them in 1962, and thus they found their way to England. This is the reason why the largest collection of Kafka manuscripts in the world today is in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, in a country Kafka never visited and whose language he never mastered. For years researchers have essentially ignored this fact in the turbulent discussions over the question: Who does Kafka belong to? To Israel or Germany? It seems a third option provides the answer. The only large manuscript to remain with Max Brod was for the novel The Trial, and a few other short stories, among them, Wedding Preparations in the Country, and Description of a Struggle, a number of notepads and dozens of letters. As long as Brod was alive, he never sold even a single one of these precious items. In the 1940s and 50s he allegedly gave them as a gift to his secretary Esther Hoffe, but did not finalize the legal process of the transfer.

This is not the place to recount the story of Esther Hoffe’s strange management of Max Brod’s estate following his death in December 1968. It will suffice to mention that beginning in 1971, important items from Brod’s archive were sold, including short texts and some of Kafka’s letters to various recipients. What started with the (justified) return of the manuscripts to Kafka’s heirs, continued with Hoffe’s activities in the 1970s and 80s, and led, in fact, to the scattering of Kafka’s archive across various institutions and private collections around the world. The manuscript of The Trial was sold at a public auction and eventually arrived at the German Literature Archive in Marbach, Description of a Struggle was sold to a private collector. Occasionally, Kafka’s letters to Brod would appear at auction. The absurd asking prices (close to 100,000 Euro for one letter), make it nearly impossible to purchase them for public collections.

Following the December 2016 Israeli Supreme Court ruling that Max Brod’s archive, including Kafka’s writings, be handed over to the National Library, materials that had been stored for years in safety deposit boxes in banks in Tel Aviv were brought to the Library.  Among the materials in Max Brod’s estate were several items of Kafka’s: postcards to family members and acquaintances, two written messages for Max Brod, a few pages with lists, and also an unfinished and untitled short autobiographical sketch, from 1909, that begins with the sentence: “Among the students who studied with me I was dumb, but not the dumbest.” This appears to be the autobiographical text Brod mentioned in his article on the Kafka estate.

Postcards exchanged between Franz Kafka and Max Brod
Postcards exchanged between Franz Kafka and Max Brod

On July 15th, 2019, the last step in the process of transferring Brod’s archive to the National Library was completed. For decades, additional materials, perhaps the most precious ones in Brod’s entire archive, were hidden in a Swiss bank. Among Brod’s important letters and diaries were dozens of letters from Kafka, two manuscripts and even travel diaries from 1911 written when the two friends (Brod and Kafka) traveled together to Paris. When the Library’s representatives arrived at the destination on the appointed day, the safes were opened and inside were all the items they knew existed but had never seen in their original form. Their physical condition was excellent. The manuscript for Wedding Preparations in the Country (in three versions) and Letter to His Father aroused great excitement.

Manuscripts of Wedding Preparations in the Country
Manuscripts of Wedding Preparations in the Country

A quick look at two additional Kafka notebooks they had been aware of revealed that one contained mainly small sketches and doodles by the writer, who enjoyed drawing occasionally. The other notebook proved once again Kafka’s fascination with the Hebrew language which he had begun studying in 1917, around the same time he became ill with tuberculosis. This notebook includes exercises in Hebrew, lists of vocabulary words and even entire paragraphs related to historical events, such as the teachers’ strike in Palestine in November 1922. It is possible that the excerpt reflects one of the lessons given to him by Puah Menczel, a young woman from Mandatory Palestine who was then living in Prague and who taught Kafka Hebrew. These items and others were transferred to the National Library where they will be catalogued, restored (if necessary) and scanned, so that, nearly a hundred years after Kafka’s death, they will be made conveniently available to the public on the internet.

A Kafka sketch
A Kafka sketch

Today, Kafka’s archive is not gathered in one place alone, but rather scattered among three main collections: the Bodleian Library at Oxford, the German Literature Archive in Marbach and the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem, which holds most of the personal archives of the “Prague Circle.” Almost no material remains in Prague, the city of Kafka’s birth, a strange situation, but one that stems from historical reasons. Perhaps this dispersal across three countries, two of which Kafka never visited, is actually befitting an author of universal status.   See more items from the Kafka archives: Kafka’s “Blue Notebook” Revealed The Drawings of Franz Kafka Kafka’s Rare Manuscripts: From the Vault in Switzerland to the Library in Jerusalem

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