Protracted battle over Kafka’s legacy ends in Jerusalem at Hebrew U

Stefan Litt, the curator of the National Library of Israel’s humanities collection, showing drawings by Kafka at a news conference in Jerusalem on Wednesday.

Stefan Litt, the curator of the National Library of Israel’s humanities collection, showing drawings by Kafka at a news conference in Jerusalem on Wednesday.

In one of his notebooks — revealed to the public for the first time in Jerusalem on Wednesday — he sketched a man lying in bed, perhaps depicting his own terminal illness and auguring the end. The drawing was a fitting, if grim, coda to a yearslong, labyrinthine legal battle over the author’s legacy nearly a century after his untimely death.

The notebook and materials arrived recently at the National Library of Israel at Hebrew University from Zurich, where they had been held in safe deposit boxes. They are the final batch of a vast trove of original texts and manuscripts by the celebrated German-speaking, Jewish writer that had been entrusted to a friend.

The retrieval of this last portion of the archive from a Swiss bank vault is the culmination of more than a decade of tortuous courtroom wrangling over the writer’s papers that many have likened to a Kafka novel, as well as a more scholarly argument between Israel and Germany over the ownership of the cultural legacy and its rightful home.

Kafka left the documents to his close friend and literary executor, Max Brod, upon the writer’s death from tuberculosis, at 40, in 1924.

Among the dozens of manila file folders unveiled Wednesday were hundreds of documents, most of which have already been published, including a typed version of Kafka’s anguished “Letter to His Father,” which Mr. Brod said Kafka had typed himself; three handwritten versions of Kafka’s “Wedding Preparations in the Country,” one of his earliest works, from around 1907, each rendition more concise than the last, until 58 pages were boiled down to five; and postcards that Kafka wrote to Mr. Brod just weeks before the writer died.

David Blumberg, the chairman of the National Library of Israel, told reporters at a news conference on Wednesday, “Cultural assets have a tendency to evaporate if efforts aren’t made to preserve them.”

The Kafka papers are due to be digitized, and construction is underway for a larger building to house the library’s treasures, he said, adding that the intention is to make the archive accessible “for the good of the public in Israel and abroad.”

Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka

The papers arriving from Zurich join other documents gathered from around Germany and from a fetid Tel Aviv apartment that was once overrun by cats.

The saga began with Mr. Brod’s fleeing to Tel Aviv, in what was then British-ruled Palestine, from Prague in 1939, carrying a suitcase of Kafka’s work.

Kafka, a relatively unknown figure during his lifetime, had instructed Mr. Brod to burn his manuscripts, letters and papers after his death. Instead, Mr. Brod published many of the writer’s most monumental, if incomplete, works, including “The Trial” and “The Castle,” bringing Kafka posthumous fame.

When Mr. Brod died in 1968, he bequeathed his archive, including Kafka’s papers, to his secretary, Esther Hoffe, who stashed them in her Tel Aviv apartment. She sold off some works, including the manuscript for “The Trial” for $2 million in 1988. When Ms. Hoffe died in 2007, the materials passed to her two daughters.

Israel sued for the trove in 2008, arguing that Mr. Brod’s 1948 will said that his archive should go to a “public Jewish library or archive in Palestine,” and that he had later specified the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which houses the National Library. Israel’s Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that Mr. Brod’s estate, including Kafka’s writings, belonged in the National Library.

The contest also involved legal processes in Germany, where some manuscripts that the Hoffe family claimed had been stolen from the Tel Aviv apartment turned up on the private market. A court in Zurich upheld the Israeli ruling and said that the safe deposit boxes’ contents, which were stored in the headquarters of the bank UBS, should be handed over to Israel.

Both Kafka and Mr. Brod were born in Prague, which was then part of the state of Bohemia in the Austrian-Hungarian empire and is now the capital of the Czech Republic. Though both writers were part of the literary scene known as the Prague Circle, the Czech government never made claims to the archive, said Mr. Blumberg, the national library chairman.

The lingering debate over the rightful home for Kafka’s legacy has been fanned by the complexity of Kafka’s relationship with Judaism and his apparent ambivalence about Zionism. He was, however, a maven of Yiddish literature, considered moving to Palestine at one point and studied Hebrew.

The retrieval of this last portion of the archive is the culmination of more than a decade of courtroom wrangling.

The retrieval of this last portion of the archive is the culmination of more than a decade of courtroom wrangling.

“It is interesting that the assumption by the Israeli party in all the 12 years of legal battle was that by virtue of Kafka’s Jewishness, his cultural heritage belongs somehow in Jerusalem, a place he never visited,” said Benjamin Balint, who wrote a 2018 book about the saga of the archive, “Kafka’s Last Trial.”

“He died before there was a state of Israel,” Mr. Balint said. “So for the Germans, this was all bewildering.”

Whether Mr. Brod defied Kafka’s dying wish is yet another ambiguous aspect of this tale.

According to Mr. Brod, Kafka left two notes instructing that his papers be burned after his death. But those notes have never been found.

“Unfortunately,” said Stefan Litt, the curator of the National Library’s humanities collection and the archivist responsible for Mr. Brod’s estate, “we don’t know where they are.”

In an epilogue that Mr. Brod wrote for “The Trial,” he described finding a folded note in Kafka’s writing desk, beneath a pile of other papers, written in ink and addressed to him, instructing him to burn all of the writer’s manuscripts, notebooks, letters and sketches “unread and to the last page.”

A closer search brought to light another “yellowed and obviously more ancient piece of paper” written in pencil requesting the same, Mr. Brod wrote.

But Mr. Brod said he had refused to “commit the incendiary act” that his self-critical friend demanded of him, adding, “I have good reasons for it.”

Among them, he said, were that he had told Kafka that he had no intention of burning the papers, and that Kafka would have appointed another executor had he truly wanted his wish to be carried out.