A three-year-old court case in Israel over the ownership of Kafka’s papers, which may or may not include unpublished manuscripts (no one knows for sure) by the late Czech Jewish writer, is making headlines worldwide.
Why is it no one knows what’s in those papers? Because, according to news reports, three women — first Esther Hoffe, then her daughters, Eva and Ruth — jealously guarded them for 40-some years, refusing to let anyone see them. Only Eva Hoffe survives today, and she plans to sell some or all the papers to the German Literature Archive in Marbach.
The National Library of Israel is challenging her claim to the literary trove.
This is where the story gets Kafkaesque.
Most fans of Kafka know that the dark, psychological writer — the author of such classics as “Metamorphosis,” “The Trial,” and “Amerika” — left instructions for his friend and fellow writer, Max Brod, to burn his manuscripts after his death. Brod did not honor his friend’s wish and published them, which is why Kafka is as well known today as he is.
But the story doesn’t end there. Brod immigrated to Israel in 1939, bringing Kafka’s papers with him in a brown suitcase. He soon took up with Esther Hoffe, to whom he left the papers when he died in 1968. Hoffe, in turn, left them to her daughters, neither of whom ever married.
Today, they sit in Eva Hoffe’s apartment on Tel Aviv’s Spinoza Street, leaving Kafka enthusiasts salivating at the thought of what might be in them.
The question is, does the State of Israel have the right to compel Hoffe to let the world have a peek?
We can’t help but wonder if Kafka is looking down on these events from the World to Come, enjoying too much for words how life is imitating his fiction.
Hoffe may very have legal ownership of the papers, but they were papers Kafka himself never intended her — or anyone else for that matter — to have.
And if Hoffe can’t prove ownership, then who can? As her attorney pointed out in an interview with NPR, the State of Israel didn’t even exist when Kafka died in 1924.
This could also be a case to make lawyers salivate.
We don’t know how this case will work out. We do know Kafka is one the greatest Jewish writers in history. While it may be too much to hope that some undiscovered novel or short stories rest in those papers, one never knows. Here’s hoping Eva Hoffe and the authorities can negotiate a settlement that allows the papers to see the light of day in the Jewish state. Meanwhile, let us take care not to let these potential gems decay and be forgotten — as Gregor Samsa was.
Never heard of him? Read Kafka … and enjoy.