“Now I think that Kafka himself is saying to me: ‘You have done enough’”

From Zurich to Tel Aviv: A journey tracing the legacy of the writer, composer and philosopher: Max Brod

Stefan Litt
מקס ברוד

When authors, artists, and academics were forced to flee Nazi Germany in 1933 (and later Austria and other countries), they generally left in such a haste that they were unable to bring along personal effects and their private archives were often poorly stored or lost altogether. Moving (or being moved) to new cities and countries, last-minute escapes and deteriorating living conditions became the natural enemy threatening the survival of archival materials: documents, correspondence, manuscripts and drafts.

The same was true of the personal libraries of great writers.

Accounts from Jewish artists who fled the Nazi regime best illustrate this matter. In 1934, writer Stefan Zweig began sending away parts of his personal archive (a section of which was sent to the National Library in Jerusalem), but he also left portions of it at almost every stop on his way to Brazil. When the poetess and painter Else Lasker-Schüler fled Nazi Germany in 1933, considerable portions of her written material remained in Berlin. The trail of this material has long run cold and will probably never be rediscovered. Walter Benjamin’s papers were hidden away by an acquaintance in the National Library in Paris. Benjamin sent other materials to his close friend in Jerusalem, Gershom Scholem. There are rumors that on his last journey (which was ended at Portbou near the Franco-Spanish border when Benjamin took his own life), he carried with him a suitcase with an unfinished manuscript. To this day, what happened to the suitcase remains a mystery.

מקס ברוד
Max Brod. His diaries reveal a who’s who of the European cultural world in the first half of the twentieth century

After 1945, this situation led a number of archival institutions around the world to invest efforts in locating and collecting the scattered remains of personal legacies, collections and archives lost in the Holocaust. The actions of these institutions helped to rescue and reveal important materials, but they also created a certain competition among the organizations as they raced to track down manuscripts, letters and entire archives. This is precisely what happened in the case of the personal archive of the author, philosopher and playwright, Max Brod (1884-1968), whose 50th memorial will be observed on December 20, 2018.

Although Brod managed to transfer large portions of his archive to Israel, we will see that it only narrowly avoided the fate of the archives mentioned above. The long journey of Max Brod’s archive to the National Library has been the subject of extensive media coverage in Israel and around the world.

There is no need to delve into the details of the affair that spanned four courts, scores of lawyers and even more journalists. I will only note that, in 1961, Max Brod stated in his will that his secretary, Esther Hoffe, was to manage his estate after his death and arrange for all written material to be transferred to the National Library of Israel or to another suitable place. Esther Hoffe did not execute this order posthaste. Instead, she began selling important items in the collection. In 1971, Hoffe sold several letters written to Brod by Franz Kafka and others, as well as three original short manuscripts written by Kafka. Other items were also sold later on.

This selling off of the various items in the collection culminated in the sale of a manuscript of Kafka’s novel, “The Trial,” for two million dollars in 1988. The majority of sales were made on the free market and not to public archives. It is, therefore, difficult to identify any marked intention to preserve the unity of Max Brod’s archive, including the letters and manuscripts written by his friend, Kafka. The German Literature Archive in Marbach tried to acquire the archive from the Hoffe family in order to transfer the works to Germany. But, due to the unequivocal ruling of three Israeli courts in favor of the National Library’s position on the matter, Max Brod’s estate remains in Israel. The first part of the collection is currently undergoing cataloguing and registration in the Archives Department of the National Library. The Brod archive provides a valuable addition to parallel archival collections of Prague-based authors (Felix Weltsch, Hugo Bergmann, Oskar Baum and others), whose works already reside in the library.

The sections of the archive in Max Brod’s possession arrived in Palestine intact, together with its creator who was able to arrange a last minute immigration from the Czech Republic in March 1939. Brod continued to write in his new home and even extended his influence in the theater world as an artistic advisor at Habimah Theater in Tel Aviv.

During the nearly 30 years in which Max Brod lived in Israel, his personal archive grew as he wrote and accumulated many materials. In the 1940s, Brod gave the Kafka writings to the Schocken family (well-known publishers) for safekeeping. However, those writings which Brod received as a gift from Kafka were transferred to bank vaults in 1952 and 1957. All of Franz Kafka’s other writings (those that never belonged to Brod) were handed over to the author’s nieces in the 1960s, and eventually reached the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The majority of Kafka’s writings that were owned by Brod were placed in a bank vault in Zurich and, over the years, Esther Hoffe removed items to sell them at auction.

Following the decisions of Israel’s Supreme Court, other parts of the Brod archive were removed from bank vaults located in Tel Aviv in December 2016 and January 2017. The archive was declared a public trust and now, fifty years after Brod’s passing, the time has come to allow the materials to be examined by researchers and scholars. Following the Supreme Court’s decision, the contents of the vaults were transferred to the National Library, which was granted the status of custodian of the collection.

Among the items found in the vaults were manuscripts of a number of novels composed by Brod, including: “Der Meister” – “The Master”, published in 1952, a novel about Jesus, “Galilei”, written in 1948, about the astronomer Galileo Galilei, “The Prague Circle” from 1966 and others. These novels were published (in German and several other languages), and some of them even became bestsellers. But Max Brod’s diaries are what will shed new light on his life, his work and the period in which he lived. Several of these diaries were discovered in the vaults (others were removed by the Hoffe family in the 1980s and have never resurfaced). In the diaries we mainly find Brod’s own reflections, as well as various stages of his artistic work and descriptions of significant events in his life.

For example, in one diary from 1925-1928, Brod recorded his thoughts and described his efforts to help Franz Kafka’s last wife, Dora Diamant, find work. In a list from October 1926, Brod mentions an entire network of Kafka’s friends who had tried to help Dora. Robert Klopstock thought that Dora Diamant would be best suited to be a kindergarten teacher, but Lisa Weltsch (Robert Weltsch’s sister) had already found Dora a position which she ultimately turned down. Brod wrote a letter to the Neue Rundschau (New Perspective) magazine in Berlin recommending her for a job. He also wrote to Willy Haas, the founder of the influential literary journal, Die Literarische Welt (The World of Literature), and to Berthold Viertel, a writer and director who is well known today.

Alas, the group’s effort was for naught. Dora continued to inhabit an unheated apartment without enough food, her sole source of income stemming from a monthly allowance given to her by Robert Klopstock. One can almost hear Brod’s audible sigh as he wrote these concluding lines: “Now I think Kafka himself is saying to me: ‘You have done enough.'”

The correspondence found in the archive is extensive and impressive. It can be characterized as a type of who’s who of the European cultural world in the first four decades of the twentieth century. There are letters by the philosopher Walter Benjamin (who did not particularly appreciate Max Brod’s work), by Hugo Heller (the book dealer, musicologist and friend of Sigmund Freud) from Vienna, by the communist composer Paul Dessau and by the pioneer of literary expressionism, Kurt Hiller. Brod was in contact with Hiller for at least 40 years and even appeared with him at literary events in Prague. Surprisingly, Hiller is mentioned only once in the memoirs of Max Brod’s life, “A Life of Quarrel.” Max Brod had even corresponded with the founder of the famous Die Weltbühne magazine, Siegfried Jacobsohn. The letters, found in the vaults in Tel Aviv, illustrate how connected Brod was with writers, journalists, scribes, and other literary professionals. Their analysis will enrich the picture of the historical period in which they were written and may even change our understanding of it.


ברוד והילר, שנת 1910
Max Brod and Hiller, 1910

As mentioned above, some items from Brod’s archive are still hidden away in safes in Switzerland. The National Library is working to find a solution, within the Swiss legal system, to transfer these items to Jerusalem. The vaults in Switzerland hold the most valuable materials in Brod’s archive: first and foremost, Franz Kafka’s many letters and even a few small manuscripts (“Wedding Preparations in the Country”, “Letter to His Father”). Kafka’s writings in Hebrew and a number of his paintings are also contained in these vaults.

In addition, the Swiss vaults contain other important pieces of Max Brod’s correspondence including letters by Klaus, Erica and Thomas Mann, Franz Werfel, Albert Einstein and Martin Buber. It is reasonable to assume that these parts of the Brod estate were placed in Switzerland for fear of being kept in Israel. They are thought to have been intended for sale, as was the case with Kafka’s two manuscripts, “The Trial” and “Description of a Struggle”, as well as about forty letters written by Stefan Zweig to Brod.

As if the splitting of the archive was not enough, ten years ago thieves broke into the Tel Aviv home of Eva Hoffe, the daughter of Esther Hoffe. In the house were archival materials that the family had refused to account for, their nature and quantity unknown. Five years ago, thousands of pages in Brod’s handwriting appeared in a German manuscript market and were offered for sale.

Our colleagues at the German Literature Archive in Marbach drew our attention to these documents and, eventually, the German police intervened. In a lengthy process, the papers were examined and it turned out that most of them undeniably belonged to the Brod estate. Among the recovered documents were many letters between Brod and his wife Elsa, lists and manuscripts of several of his works (including the early novel Schloss NornepyggeNornepygge Castle). There were also notebooks from his studies at the Prague Gymnasium and various photographs. These documents are slated to be transferred to the National Library in the near future.


כתב ידו של ברוד מתוך יומניו
Brod’s handwriting from his diaries, June 23, 1946: “I have browsed through the old diaries, mainly in numbers 5 and 6, but I have changed quite a bit. At the time, I lived in the illusion that a few good things (a solution to unemployment) could come from evil (the Nazis). Everywhere I saw a mixture of good and evil, good came out of evil and unfortunately the opposite as well. But all this is nonsense. Now I see things clearly and firmly. The terrible doubts were so strong in me because these masochistic Jews (Blau, Thomas Keller, etc.) repeatedly preached in the newspaper Prager Tagblatt: ‘It is true that for us it is not good for what is happening in Germany, but we must not lose objectivity.’ In the end we saw how wrong that assumption was.”


The various locations in which pieces of the Max Brod archive have been discovered (not to mention those yet undiscovered) show the extent to which private ownership can be harmful to the condition of the material. An organic archive that was brought to Israel almost eighty years ago was scattered to a number of locations across the world (most of which were never intended to professionally preserve documents of historical-cultural significance) over the course of fifty years, following Brod’s death.

The full extent to which keeping archival materials in a private home can be unsuitable and even dangerous was exemplified when a team of archivists visited Eva Hoffe’s residence (following her passing) in Tel Aviv in mid-September to identify additional parts of the Max Brod estate and transfer them to the National Library. Prior to the visit, the team was warned that they would encounter the most difficult of conditions – and so it was.

Many cats and cockroaches watched us suspiciously as we discovered and collected a considerable amount of archival materials and books. This is not the place to describe the catastrophic conditions in detail, but it is reasonable to assume that (following the unprofessional maintenance) the National Library’s rehabilitation lab will have a great deal of work in the coming months. Perhaps the sole positive in this situation is that Max Brod was spared the sight of his life’s work having been given this disrespectful treatment.


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