July 19, 2010

Secret trove of Kafka papers forcibly opened


Max Brod with his secretary, Esther Hoffe, Eva Hoffe's mother

Max Brod with his secretary, Esther Hoffe, Eva Hoffe's mother

“After months of legal wrangling, one of the 10 safe deposit boxes in which documents belonging to the writer Franz Kafka (1883-1924 ) and his close friend Max Brod (1884-1968 ) were hidden for 40 years” was opened last Monday in Tel Aviv, according to a report by Ofer Aderet in Haaretz. It was, apparently, an emotional scene:

Witnesses who had been inside the bank at Kikar Hamedina when the team of lawyers arrived said Eva Hoffe burst into the building in an attempt to prevent the safe from being opened, shouting “It’s mine, it’s mine!”

Hoffe is the legal owner of the documents, according to the report, having inherited them from her mother, who had been Max Brod’s secretary and friend for decades and had inherited the Kafka documents from Brod, who had in turn inherited them from Kafka. She was reportedly in discussions with the German national archives about selling the collection to them.

The Haaretz story doesn’t reveal any more of what happened to Hoffe after she tried to disrupt the opening, and other key aspects of the report that are murky — it seems to establish that Hoffe legally owns the documents and question that simultaneously. Nor does it explain upon what grounds the state of Israel could thus declare a kind of cultural eminent domain to take away Hoffe’s private property. Yet Haaretz is no disinterested party: The boxes are being opened as the result of a lawsuit to make them public filed by Haaretz itself.

Now, it reports,

The team of lawyers will draw up an inventory of the documents they find in the boxes and present it to the Tel Aviv court. Judge Talia Pardo Kupelman will then determine the documents’ status – whether they are the private property of the Hoffe sisters, who can then do with them whatever they want, or whether they constitute a literary treasure that must be transferred to a public archive.

As to what might be in those security boxes: “Researchers and experts from Israel and Germany believe that some of the boxes may contain manuscripts by Kafka, widely considered one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, or documents that can shed additional light on the mysterious life of the artist ….”

Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.