The Drawings of Franz Kafka

In his first year at university, Kafka discovered a talent for drawing

His parents’ dream was shattered. Franz, the daydreaming youth, would not be taking over the management of his father’s emporium. After much deliberation, the parents came up with the only possible solution: whether he liked it or not, the young man would attend university and learn a profession.

Franz’s parents preferred a profession that was both respectable and lucrative. He himself imagined a future that would allow his innovative spirit to make a mark. Hermann, the patriarch of the Kafka family, and in his son’s eyes – its undisputed tyrant, could have easily dictated Franz’s course of study. After all, the eighteen-year-old was financially dependent on an allowance. Only a sensitivity to that which was normal and acceptable in Prague society prevented him from interfering.

Three weeks sufficed for the young man to determine that he would not find what he was looking for in the chemistry department. He enrolled in law studies at the University of Prague—a field he at first reviled, but one that promised many employment opportunities that he found attractive – primarily because they allowed him the option of delaying a decision on his professional future for a few years.

As was to be expected, Kafka the student refused to devote himself entirely to the study of “Roman Law” (this was how he referred to his studies), and he enrolled in courses in the fields of art, architecture and philosophy. At this early stage, he did not yet see himself as a writer. From among his two greatest loves—the visual arts and literature—it seemed as if the first might win out. He discovered, to his surprise, a not insignificant talent for drawing, and he began filling the margins of his notebooks with doodles.

Reiner Stach, author of a monumental, three-volume biography of Kafka, suggests that the student’s first sketches represent an initial, yet major step in the crystallization of his future literary creativity. In his first years at university, Franz the art lover was enchanted by the “Japanese” works of Emil Orlik —an Austrian Jewish artist who had studied in Japan.

Emil Ulrich, Japanese girl standing beneath a willow tree, 1901
Emil Orlik, Japanese girl standing beneath a willow tree, 1901

The singular brushstroke with which Orlik captured both landscapes and people, and the “flatness” of the minimalist paintings captivated the young man who discovered profoundness behind their seemingly simple appearance. The choice of using simple aesthetic forms, the future writer might have said to himself, can carry within it tremendous creative energy.

Among the files of Franz Kafka’s estate is a black notebook that Kafka filled with sketches. At the end of the notebook there is a fragmentary piece of writing entitled The Journey—I Know Not. The fragment begins with the words: “So she sleeps, I do not wake her.” His friend Max Brod noted on a separate page attached to the notebook that the fragment was apparently composed in the 1920s (Kafka died in 1924), because the Hebrew word sna’it (squirrel) appears on it – and we know that Kafka began to study Hebrew in 1917.

The Journey—I Know Not, including Kafa's Hebrew squirrel
The Journey—I Know Not, including Kafa’s Hebrew squirrel
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Why did Kafka abandon drawing and choose literature instead? It is possible that the answer to this is hinted at in something he said to his friend Gustav Janouch, quoted in the book Conversations with Kafka (Derek Verschoyle Limited, 1953): “I should so like to be able to draw. As a matter of fact, I am always trying to. But nothing comes of it. My drawings are purely personal picture writing, whose meaning even I cannot discover after a time.”


Kafka’s Drawings:


For further reading:

Reiner Stach, Kafka: The Early Years, trans. Shelly Frisch, Princeton University Press, 2017

Gustav Janouch, Conversations with Kafka, trans. Goronwy Rees, Derek Verschoyle Limited, 1953


See more items from the Kafka archives:

Kafka’s “Blue Notebook” Revealed

The Fate of Franz Kafka’s Archive

Kafka’s Rare Manuscripts: From the Vault in Switzerland to the Library in Jerusalem

Kafka’s Rare Manuscripts: From the Vault in Switzerland to the Library in Jerusalem

The documents include Kafka's manuscripts of the uncompleted story "Wedding Preparations in the Country", a notebook for learning Hebrew, hundreds of personal letters, sketches, and more


Nearly a century after the premature death of Franz Kafka from tuberculosis and more than a half-century since the death of his confidant, Max Brod, the decades-long saga of their literary estate is now coming to an end.

Hundreds of letters, manuscripts, journals, notebooks, sketches and more – handwritten by Brod and Kafka – have been transferred to the National Library of Israel, following orders by Israeli and Swiss courts to open vaults in Zurich, which had stored the materials for decades. These materials, part of Max Brod’s literary estate, have now been returned to Israel and have arrived at the National Library in Jerusalem, in accordance with Brod’s wishes.

The documents from the Swiss vault include: three different draft versions of Kafka’s story “Wedding Preparations in the Country”, a notebook in which he practiced Hebrew, hundreds of personal letters to Brod and other friends, sketches and drawings, travel journals, thoughts he wrote to himself and more.

In essence, this marks the end of a legal saga that began 12 years ago and involved high-level proceedings in three countries: Israel, Germany and Switzerland.

View these selected items from the Kafka archive:

The Drawings of Franz Kafka

Kafka’s “Blue Notebook” Revealed

The Fate of Franz Kafka’s Archive

Brod, an accomplished writer and composer, was a confidant of Franz Kafka and is primarily responsible for Kafka’s success as one of the 20th century’s most influential writers, having published many of his works after the author’s death in 1924.  The Kafka papers are considered to be an integral part of the Max Brod Archive, and the larger collection of materials relating to the ‘Prague Circle’, of which Brod and Kafka were members. The National Library of Israel holds hundreds of personal archives of leading Israeli and Jewish writers, intellectuals and public figures, including most of the other members of the group, whose writings indicate the hope that their papers would ultimately be preserved at the National Library in Jerusalem.

View the opening of one of the safes containing Kafka’s manuscripts:

The Max Brod literary estate and Kafka papers are now being reviewed and catalogued by National Library experts, and will then be digitized and made freely accessible for users around the globe.

“For more than a decade, the National Library of Israel has worked tirelessly to bring the literary estate of the prolific writer, composer, and playwright Max Brod and his closest friend Franz Kafka to the National Library, in accordance with Brod’s wishes. After seeing materials including Kafka’s Hebrew notebook and letters about Zionism and Judaism, it is now clearer than ever that the National Library in Jerusalem is the rightful home for the Brod and Kafka papers,” said David Blumberg, Chairman of the National Library of Israel Board of Directors.

He added, “The National Library of Israel plays a central role in opening universal access to the cultural treasures of the State of Israel and the Jewish people worldwide, including hundreds of special collections and archives, with the Brod and Kafka papers now among them. These materials will soon be digitized and made available online, allowing current and future scholars and fans of Brod and Kafka around the globe to freely access them.”


View these selected items from the Kafka archive:

The Drawings of Franz Kafka

Kafka’s “Blue Notebook” Revealed

The Fate of Franz Kafka’s Archive

The Jewish Child Soldiers Who Rebuilt Their Lives in Riga

An elaborately decorated Pinkas now kept at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People tells the story of the Talmud Torah of Riga which sought to return former child soldiers - and their children - to their Jewish roots.

In 1827, the Imperial Russian Army began drafting Jewish citizens into its ranks. When Nicholas I set up the draft laws for the Jewish community, they had some significant differences than the laws applied to the rest of his subjects.

The new draft laws forced Jews to contribute more cantonists (children taken into special state schools to be trained for military service) than the general population, creating a disproportionate number of Jewish conscripts. Instead of applying the age requirements already in place for recruitment that called for the draft of 18 year-olds, the law for Jews allowed for children aged 12 to 25 to be drafted into the military.

The leaders of the Jewish community were tasked with choosing who would be sent to fulfill the conscription quotas. They were also charged with maintaining the financial and social stability of the community. This meant that the community leadership would select those people who were deemed to be the least useful to the community at large for the draft. This included the unskilled, the unmarried, the poor and the young. Those who would not or could not actively contribute to society on a significant level were included on conscription lists. There were also those leaders who chose to send the less fortunate – meaning, those could not afford to bribe their way out – for the draft rather than include their own children on the lists.

As soon as a child was drafted into a cantonist school, their family and community had no choice but to consider him dead, for all practical purposes. Cut off from their homes and loved ones, these youngsters were taken into custody of the state where they were encouraged to forget their religious upbringing, abandon their traditions and convert to Christianity, revealing the not so secret goal of the Czar to utilize the conscription laws as a way to encourage assimilation amongst the most vulnerable parts of the Jewish community.

After completing 25 years of mandated service, many cantonists signed on for additional service and became career military men, while those who chose to take their leave were granted full citizenship rights including the freedom of movement – a freedom that was usually only granted to Jews under special circumstances.

For these soldiers, freedom came with more problems than solutions. With families they didn’t know and no home to return to, the cantonists were left with little choice but to build a new life from scratch in a territory that was now open to them thanks to their newly earned freedom of movement.

A visit to the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People to speak with Dr. Yochai Ben-Ghedalia gave me new insight into the difficulties faced by these Jewish children turned soldiers who managed to make it out of their service alive and maintain their connection to their roots.

riga talmud torah
Dr. Yochai Ben-Ghedalia examines the Pinkas of the Talmud Torah of Riga, Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People.

A Pinkas (Jewish community ledger) now preserved in the CAHJP tells the story of one such group of soldiers who, in 1865, settled in Riga and joined the local Jewish community. The unique and ornately decorated Pinkas was brought to Israel in the 1970s through Lishkat HakesherNativ, an organization that helped connect people in the Soviet Union with Zionism and the State of Israel and assisted people who sought to immigrate to Israel.

The cover of the Pinkas from the Talmud Torah of Riga. The text reads, "This Pinkas belongs to the Talmud Torah of the Soldiers of Riga."
The cover of the Pinkas from the Talmud Torah of Riga. The text reads, “This Pinkas belongs to the Talmud Torah of the Soldiers of Riga.”

The cantonists who arrived in Riga, which was still part of the Russian Empire at the time, found that they had a united goal: to rediscover and recommit to their Jewish heritage. These soldiers were a rare breed- not only had they made it out of the military alive, but they had also successfully maintained their religious connection and their desire to rediscover their Jewish roots. The soldiers established the Talmud Torah of Riga, an educational institute focused on Jewish study.

talmud torah riga
Opening page of the Talmud Torah Pinkas. Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People.

The Pinkas opens with a beautifully written introduction reflecting the tenets of the institution, the importance of Torah study in the lives of the Jewish people and the responsibility that falls on Jews as a nation to ensure all Jewish children are educated in the ways of the Torah with a special emphasis on those who lack a proper teacher. The Pinkas includes a letter from a local rabbi giving his full support to the Talmud Torah and their important and worthy works and then goes on to list 23 points of action in regards to the practical operations and the rules of the organization.

talmud torah riga
The mission statement of the Talmud Torah of Riga includes the importance of educating Jewish children in the ways of the Torah. Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People.

The Talmud Torah took upon itself to hire two teachers who were provided with room and board and were charged with educating participants. Students were divided into two different classes: one dedicated to those who were just starting on their Torah journey and would begin study with the Alef-Bet, the Hebrew alphabet, and one for those who were more advanced and could move forward to bible study and the study of Jewish law.

talmud torah riga
The tenants of the Talmud Torah as outlines in the Pinkas. Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People.

Membership in the Talmud Torah was approved for any “army orphan,” which essentially referred to any boy born to a cantonist father who was killed during his service. The Talmud Torah also accepted children whose fathers could not care for them or provide them with a proper Jewish education. Admission into the institution was determined by three Gabaim, the people in charge of the day to day logistics of managing the organization.

The hand-drawn layout for the potential synagogue to be built by the Talmud Torah of Riga as included in the Pinkas. Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. Click to enlarge the image.

Years went by and the Talmud Torah continued to serve as an institute of learning but also grew to become a full-fledged synagogue with a surrounding community. The Pinkas begins to discuss the purchase of a plot of land on which to build a new home for the synagogue. As it grew, the Talmud Torah joined forces with other organizations that provided poor children with food and clothing.

The Hanhala (administration) of the Talmud Torah was changed every few years through an election process described in the Pinkas. For every new administration that took charge, a new elaborately decorated page was added to the book to honor the incoming leadership. Interestingly, many of the pages contain similar elements though they were not necessarily created by the same artist. Several of the pages include large, fierce-looking birds, a symbol of the Russian Empire, reflecting the original purpose and members of the Talmud Torah.

In 1937, a page was prepared and designed in dedication to the latest administration but it was never completed. The records in the Pinkas drop off suddenly during the years of the Nazi occupation. While we do not know the specific story of what happened to the participants of the Talmud Torah during the Holocaust, we do know that the majority of the Jewish community in Latvia was murdered in the war. The Pinkas managed to survive the war and a new page was later added in 1959.

Incompleted page from 1937. Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People.

When I think back to that five-year-old boy who was taken from his family for a life in a military school before joining the ranks, I can only hope that his future held a community and an adoptive family like the one built by the soldiers who settled in Riga. Their dedication to their heritage and their desire to continue to grow and experience life as Jews, despite the efforts of the authorities to strip them of their families, religion, and identities, is astounding. While the Talmud Torah of Riga may no longer be active, the history of the organization and the strength and dedication of those who worked to build it lives on in the archives of the National Library of Israel.

This post was written as part of Gesher L’Europa, the NLI’s initiative to connect with Europe and make our collections available to diverse audiences in Europe and beyond.

Special thanks to Dr. Yochai Ben-Ghedalia and Dr. Gil Weissblei for their assistance in writing this article. 

A Moment Before Desolation: Rare Photographs of Polish Jewry

How did rare photographs of Polish Jews end up in a French soldier’s photo album?


Private photo albums often contain surprising revelations. The captions scrawled between the pictures may reveal new information, while the perspective of the amateur photographer tends to be more spontaneous and original than that of a journalist or even an artist. One particular amateur photo album that was brought to the National Library several years ago is especially unique.

What could possibly be so special about a photo album created by a World War I veteran during a summer trip to Poland? And, what is the connection between this album and the millions of items preserved in the archives and storerooms of the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem?

On July 30th, 1933, a delegation of members of the French Union of World War I Veterans embarked upon a tour of the cities of Poland. Though the beautiful midsummer weather and opportunity for relaxation and travel were certainly part of the attraction, the trip was organized as an official visit, including a string of military ceremonies. The hosts from the Polish army, went out of their way to roll out the red carpet for their French guests. Polish economic and political independence was fragile at the time, and local military officers wished to strengthen their alliance with the French Republic. The French also had an interest in maintaining close relations with this important Eastern European state.

One of the members of the delegation had come equipped with a camera. Amateur photography was already very popular in the 1930s. Cameras of the day were easy to operate and relatively inexpensive. Using his 6X6 camera, he documented the journey. At the end of the trip, he developed the film and placed the pictures in a thick-covered album with black cardboard pages. He then added captions in beautifully handwritten French. The photographer found plenty to capture along the way. The French delegation were bade farewell from the city of Strasbourg with a full, impressive military ceremony. Rousing speeches were made on the ornate podium. Ranks of aging legionnaires bedecked in their shiny medals stood at attention – and the delegation was sent merrily on its way, crossing the border into Germany before passing through Austria on their way to Poland.



As mentioned earlier, the year was 1933, and the ascent of the Nazi party still astonished the French. At the border crossing in Strasbourg, members of the delegation were photographed under a sign which, between two swastikas, bore the slogan: “German people! Fight with Adolf Hitler for a free Germany!”


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And here, finally, Warsaw! The delegation began its tour of Poland in the capital. Amazingly, one of the tourist sites they were brought to was Nalewki Street, the “Jewish Quarter,” as the soldier-photographer described it. Apparently, the Polish tour guides saw this street and its poor Jewish residents as a kind of ‘exotic attraction’, a vibrant society of foreigners, with their strange clothes and traditions.






The fourteen photographs depicting street scenes in Jewish Warsaw are not only surprising, but also unique. They provide us an unexpected perspective through the eyes of a stranger who is caught up in one of the most important centers of Jewish life in Europe.

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Less than a decade later, this hub of Jewish activity would be wiped from the face of the earth. Particularly interesting are the signs (in Yiddish and Polish) of businessmen and craftsmen caught in the lens of the French camera- the paper and stationery shop, street-porters, Mr. Goldman’s glazier shop, the wine shop, and the bustling streets!






The French war veterans were received with ceremonies, flowers, and enthusiastic crowds in Poznan, Zakopane, and Gorlice.


And again, in Krakow, we see a fascinating collection of pictures of Polish Jews. The anonymous French photographer dedicated three pages to photographs of Jews walking the very streets where, just a few years later, the ghetto would be erected to imprison the Jewish population before sending them to the extermination camps.




The album ends with an excited letter, written to the French delegates in their native language. The letter is dated August 5th, toward the end of the delegation’s journey. The letter was composed as a greeting to the French guests by a young Polish girl. On behalf of her friends, Maria, Helena and Zofia, she wished the French military veterans who had travelled through her town a pleasant trip  and concluded the letter with the statement, “Long live the alliance between France and Poland!”

Six years later, France would abandon Poland in the face of the Nazi invasion. The Jewish streets in Krakow and Warsaw were erased from existence. And the album, which found its way to the National Library, remains a valuable record of a once-bustling Jewish community.


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