Israel must let Kafka go

This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post, July 8 2012

Despite having burned an estimated ninety per cent of his work, and publishing just a few short stories and novellas during his lifetime, Franz Kafka remains one of the greatest Jewish writers. Regardless of this literary prestige, there sits in a dirty apartment in Tel Aviv, a box of his unpublished papers.

Kafka left all his work to Max Brod, under the strictest instructions that it ‘should be burned unread and without remnant‘ following his death from tuberculosis in 1924. Brod had other ideas, however, and flexibly interpreted Kafka’s command, publishing The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika in the years 1925-1927, and an edition of collected works in 1935.

In 1939, Brod fled Czechoslovakia, arriving at the British mandated Palestine with a suitcase full of Kafka’s papers. Thereafter, he failed to publish these works, believing the content to be of little value and eventually left them to his secretary (and reported lover) Esther Hoffe, when he died in 1968. She had two daughters; Ruth Wiesler and Eva Hoffe. In 2008 she left Kafka’s work to them. Following Ruth’s death earlier this year, the septuagenarian Eva (reportedly a cat-obsessed spinster) is now the sole owner of Kafka’s unpublished papers.

The Israeli government want to restore Kafka’s work to the Israeli National Library, believing Kafka to be part of the state’s heritage. In spite of this, Hoffe and her lawyer Harel Ashwall, maintain Kafka’s papers will not be properly treated in Israel. Rather, they argue the German literary archive in Marbach is a more suitable destination, since they believe Israel to be incapable of handling Kafka’s work, as the state must focus on surviving and fighting terrorism. This has resulted in a three year legal battle and the court’s findings are due to be announced later this month – although the verdict is unlikely to settle the dispute.

Their insinuation that Israel would treat European Jewry’s cultural genius’ work in an inappropriate manner is offensive to a state that has played a significant role in preserving eastern and central European Jewish heritage.  It is also grossly ignorant to the work Israel’s National Library has done in maintaining the papers of a range of German Jewish intellectuals, including Albert Einstein, Walter Benjamin, Stefan Zweig, Gershom Scholem, Martin Buber, and Else Lasker-Schüler.

While the thought of a profit driven spinster being the sole-owner of Kafka’s manuscripts is repugnant, as Brod left his possession to the ‘person closest to him‘, Ester Hoffe, ownership of the papers thus transferred to her. What she decided to do with the papers thereafter was her autonomous decision, and she left them to Eva; if Eva now wishes to sell the papers to the German Literary Archive, that is her legal right – ergo the state simply cannot claim ownership today.

Nevertheless, the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the National Library has argued they do ‘not intend to give up on cultural assets belonging to the Jewish people’. This is the latest saga in the continuing trend of Israel mistakenly assuming all cultural assets of world Jewry belong to them. Indubitably, many Jewish communities in Europe would reject this notion, rightly believing themselves to be autonomous societies, capable of sustaining their own heritage, without a foreign entity employing such a proprietary attitude.

The tension between Jews in the diaspora and Israel was evident in 2001, when the Yad Vashem museum in Jerusalem removed Holocaust murals painted by Bruno Schulz from a house in the former Polish village of Drohobycz. Naturally this resulted in the consternation of some European Jewish communities, who wished to maintain their cultural asset rather than allowing the Jewish state to commit such an act of piracy.

Kafka himself also battled greatly with his Judaism, and as Ashwall argues – the attempts by the chairman of the board of directors of the National Library ‘to describe Kafka as some kind of Israeli writer or a writer with a connection to the state of Israel is nonsense.

Certainly Jewish influences do play a role in Kafka’s last novel Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk, where (intentional or otherwise) ‘the Mouse Folk’ have interpretable Jewish characteristics; depicted as hard-working and widely scattered, facing continuous dangers which they always manage to overcome, ensuring survival. It is also possible Kafka had the ancient tale of The Wandering Jew in mind when he constructed the figure of K. in The Castle (although the religious Brod believed the object of K.’s quest was one’s continuous search for God).

His knowledge of Talmudic discussion and debate is also noticeable in the ninth chapter of The Trial. Throughout the passage (set in Prague’s fourteenth century St. Vitus Cathedral), there is a continuous vacillation as Joseph K. questions the priest’s interpretation of the ‘Before the Law’ parable. His references to ‘scholars’ and their differing interpretations is suggestive of a debate one may witness (and perhaps Kafka did) between Jewish scholars discussing the details of Maimonides or the Torah.

Kafka also flirted with Yiddish theatre (to his assimilated father’s disgust), and much of his diary referenced Yiddish writers, both known and unknown. He was, moreover, very briefly seduced by the idea of Zionism, and toyed with idea of emigrating to Palestine with his fiancée, Dora Diamant. They fantasized about opening a restaurant in Tel Aviv, where Dora would work in the kitchen and Kafka would wait on tables. Furthermore, despite never becoming proficient, Kafka also took Hebrew lessons from a friend of Brod’s, Pua Bat-Tovim.

In spite of these Jewish influences in his writing, and his flirtation with aspects of Judaism and Jewish life, many European critics; most notably his recent biographer, Reiner Stach, thoroughly oppose the notion that Kafka was a religious writer and – perhaps more significantly for the court case – a Zionist. While Kafka had a brief interest in Kabbalah and mysticism, he rarely attended synagogue and considered himself an atheist – thereby making the National Library’s claim to him as a cultural asset belonging to the Jewish people somewhat questionable.

The claims made by Stach are particularly poignant when one considers Kafka’s personal diary, which is littered with the occasional anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist outburst. One such example is the following: ‘What have I in common with Jews? I have hardly anything in common with myself and should stand very quietly in a corner content that I can breathe’. He later writes of his desire ‘to stuff all Jews (myself included) into a drawer of a laundry basket’. And his staunch anti-Zionism is visible in a 1917 letter to his friend, Grete Bloch, when he describes his exclusion ‘from every soul-sustaining community on account of his non-Zionist (I admire Zionism and am nauseated by it), non-practising Judaism’.

In Conversations with Kafka, Gustav Janouch discusses with Kafka whether Rudolf Schildkraut deserved the title as a ‘great Jewish actor’. Kafka contends as ‘he does not act exclusively for Jews, but in German for everyone, he is not an expressly Jewish actor’. By Kafka’s own standards, it is thus difficult to imagine Kafka being remembered as ‘an expressly Jewish’ novelist, since his novellas have been universally appreciated.

Indeed, the ideas present throughout much of Kafka’s work, such as alienation, dogged survival, the feelings of being an outsider and the awareness of life being dictated by forces beyond one’s control, can all be related to, and enjoyed by anyone regardless of religion, race or nationality. In the same fashion, a tale like Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Orwell’s 1984, or even the numerous novels of Victor Serge, can be appreciated by an individual who has never lived under a totalitarian regime.

In 1918, Kafka wrote about the early kibbutzim in Palestine, arguing there should be no legal courts: ‘Palestine needs earth… it does not need lawyers’. Until Israel realizes world Jewry and their cultural assets are not automatically property of the Jewish state, and, removes its lawyers from this sorry tale – the world will continue to be starved of a true literary great’s work.


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