The Lost Kafka Papers

The Lost Kafka Papers

I will never forget my first introduction to Kafka.

I was a college English major, taking Early Modern Literature– an incredibly difficult course with gargantuan amounts of required reading for an already “strapped for time” student who was working two jobs and taking 21 credit hours.  When I saw the length of The Metamorphosis, I groaned.  Once I started reading, I groaned even more.

The story, in a nutshell, is about a man who one day wakes up to find that overnight he has turned into a beetle (some scholars translate it “cockroach”). Seriously????  I groaned and rubbed my tired eyes.  I read about how Gregor (the man with the “beetle-like brows.”  Sorry that isn’t funny.  *snort* ok it’s kind of funny) was a regular guy, with a regular job.  He gets up every day, goes out and does a job that he hates, comes back to a home where nothing interesting ever happens, really, and then gets up and does it all again the next day.  One day he wakes up and finds that he is, ahem, verminized.  He can’t believe it, and when he tries to get out the door of his room he finds that he is now too wide to get out.  His family screams (his mom passes out, as I recall), and they all try to figure out what happened.  In the end the family decides that the worst part about Gregor’s beetling, I mean be-littling (see what I did there?) is that he is not going to be able to work and bring home a paycheck anymore.  Apparently Gregor’s family, other than being the most self centered people on the face of the earth, don’t really like Gregor that much.  I think Gregor should take note of this the next time he hands out Christmas presents.

At first, the family tries to accommodate Gregor.  They bring dinner to his room, but they are repulsed to find that beetle Gregor only likes the food completely rotten now (if he loves your cooking, look out. hehe).  Unable to share their dinner, they at least try to leave the room door open during mealtimes so that Gregor can feel like he’s participating in the conversation.  But soon the stench of the rotten food, as well as the sight of the Bug-Guy, drives them to close it a little bit, then a little bit more.  Soon the room is closed completely except for when the family throws rotten food through the door, instantly slamming it closed again.  Gregor gets more and more depressed.  No one comes to visit him or talk to him.  Eventually the family hires an old woman to care for Gregor so that they don’t even have to see him.  He becomes more and more depressed.

The Lost Kafka Papers

Eventually Gregor dies of neglect, and the family doesn’t notice it for quite a while.  When they finally do, they are embarrassed to admit that they are kind of relieved.  The story ends with their searching for a new apartment, where they won’t have any bad smells or bad memories.  Whew.  What a tale to read the kiddies at night, eh?

When I first read this story I rolled my eyes and pinched the bridge of my nose.  “Seriously?” I thought.  “How can a ridiculous story like this get published?  What makes this a ‘great work of literature?’  I don’t believe that they wasted however many minutes of my life I’m never going to get back, making me read this crap.  I guarantee you that I will NEVER need a story about “the man who feared nothing but Raid” in real life.”

I was irritated by it.  Yet, something about the story drew me back to it.  I found myself reading it again, believe it or not.  Then again.  Each time I read, I found something else in the story that I had missed before.  The writing was soft– nuanced.  Gregor’s plight seemed ridiculous– even comical– but the more I read, the more I started to understand.  Gregor spent his life giving, giving, giving to those in his family.  He worked a job he hated to bring home a paycheck that barely kept a roof over their heads, hating every moment of it, only to get up and do it again and again, each day.  The beetle thing was weird, I admit.  But as I thought about the way the story was designed, I started to get that too– I could definitely empathize with the feeling of surviving in a place or position to the point where you become completely unrecognizable. How many times have parents, spouses, breadwinners, shown up at a job they hate day after day, putting in the daily slog for their family’s survival, only to wake up one day, look at themselves in the mirror, and think, “Who is that old person staring back at me?  I don’t even recognize her anymore.  I don’t remember what she likes to do. I can’t remember the last time she smiled.”

Maybe Kafka envisioned this change to be so drastic that he wanted to come up with a piercing metaphor to describe it– to show just how intense and severe that shift is, from single, carefree, happy individual, to responsible adult with a family depending on you.  Maybe that change was so stark, in his mind, that turning into a life-sized cockroach was the only thing crazy enough to describe how he felt about it.  Equally astonishing was his description of the family (whom Gregor had, apparently, been doing all this for, all this time) and their disdain and even disgust when Gregor stopped meeting their needs and started having the audacity to possess his own.  Apparently the family thought of Gregor only as someone to provide for them– never someone to be loved, appreciated, cared for.  It was sad.

The writing was so nuanced– it could never be fully appreciated in a single reading. His writing was stunning and dark– like a fairy tale swathed in dark, mysterious fog. And I think that my opinion of Kafka is hardly individual– many scholars through the decades have found his work puzzling, macabre, and inscrutable.  The term Kafkaesque was actually coined to describe situations which are dark, puzzling, and inscrutable– the eternal mental hamster wheel, if you will.  But honestly, I didn’t find Kafka to be a brooding genius who tried to trick his audience. I found him to be an intelligent, introverted creative who never felt like anyone understood him.  I don’t think Kafka was crazy. I think he was just weary and sad.  I think he was misunderstood and tired of explaining himself.  I think he had a view of life that only a view of impending death can give.  And this stark, sometimes chillingly dark, yet poignant view of life is what makes his writing so memorable.

For many years I continued to study Kafka– both through his writings and through things written about him by his family and close friends, as well as present day literary scholars.  I found a treasure trove in Letters to Milena, a copy of personal letters that Kafka wrote to one of the great loves of his life, Milena Jesenská.  Interestingly, only Kafka’s letters remain, while Milena’s have been destroyed.  Many tantalizing details lost to history are merely alluded to within what amounts to half of a great love affair, frozen in time for us on the page.  When Kafka says that something Milena said made him laugh or brought him to tears, we know that it is a travesty that these beautiful words which touched him are lost forever to time.  The letters represent the romance, itself, actually forming itself on the page exactly as the lovers would have experienced it, all those years ago.  We experience it exactly as they would have, reading the words for the first time, just as they did.  It gives me chills in the best way.  The two were able to meet in person only a few times over a lifetime.  Franz would eventually succumb to tuberculosis, the cruel disease which racked his body with pain and reduced him to a living skeleton who could barely eat, breathe, or sleep.  His writings during his progressing illness become more and more dark and depressed, even as their author wastes away to nothing, like the pointless vapors of time about which he writes.

But those glowing, beautiful letters to Milena, in my opinion, represent the “real” Kafka– the man behind the brooding, inscrutable image of his public writings.  They represent the man behind the disease– the man himself.  These letters were private– quiet– intimate.  They were a glimpse into the part of him that was happy, along with those wildly creative dreams that he rarely allowed out into public.  In fact, the letters were so private that Kafka commanded that Milena burn all of their correspondence; thankfully, Milena defied those wishes and kept the letters that Kafka sent her.  Kafka apparently burned all of Milena’s letters, in addition to hoards of his own drawings, writings, sketches, and journals. Some scholars estimate that Kafka burned up to 90% of his lifetime writings, which is a travesty of loss to the literary world.  Of the few surviving works, the stories which Kafka published in his lifetime were not well known or received.  Like so many artists, it was only after his death that Kafka’s work started to be truly appreciated for the genius it was.

The Lost Kafka Papers

The letters written to Milena represent a completely different side of Kafka from the strange, depressing world of Gregor– and ironically, knowing a little more about the man, himself, helped me to understand the writings that I had previously written off as a waste of time.  In his personal letters Kafka tells jokes, laughs, teases.  He scribbles little love notes in the margins (good translations of these letters often include the scribbles for the reader to see and appreciate, translated in the footnotes).  He is fun– goofy, even.  They initially started the correspondence when Kafka was looking for a professional translator to move his work from German to Czech, and he sends Milena several drafts to translate.  It is amusing to see his closings grow in warmth and intimacy– from “Cordially, F. Kafka” to “Franz,” to eventually, “Your Franz,” and then even more intimately to “Yours.”

Milena, we deduce through tantalizing, unspoken clues lost now to time, is in a difficult marriage.  Her husband is self centered and cares only for himself.  She is lonely– dying a slow death of neglect at the hands of one who promised to love her forever.  She is wildly creative and intelligent– and without even realizing it, her creativity starts to bloom again through writing to Kafka.  He reawakens her passion, her love for writing, her creativity.  He fans to life flames which she thought were lost forever.  Though she tried to fight it, she starts to fall in love with him– with this quiet, amazingly eloquent man who seems to have the knack of putting the most intimate secrets of the heart into words.

We see the professional relationship turn to friendship– then to love. A wild, passionate romance flows from the pen, and we see it happening in real time.  Since 95% of the couple’s relationship was through letters, we are actually experiencing the letters for the first time, as the couple would have done so many decades ago. We are smiling at the little flirty side notes.  We are grinning as the postscripts become more and more familiar and intimate.  We whisper, “There you go. Tell her how you feel,” finding ourselves invested in a love story which unfolded and ended over a century ago.  We are seeing love bloom in the most beautiful way before our eyes.

Kafka says that he remembers the first time he saw Milena– although they were not introduced.  He remembers her dress.  He remembers the blush of her cheeks– the sparkle of her eyes that showed him that she had an active, incredible mind.  He muses that she, unlike so many women he has known, has more to her than her looks.  He is excited to plumb the depths of her mind and discover the treasures inside.  Milena, apparently, does not disappoint, although we have only half the letters to prove this. Franz’s praise for her intelligence, her wit, her eloquence, grows with each letter.  Milena starts a stamp collection, and Franz goes all over Prague trying to find the ones she needs.  When she (apparently) tells him not to go to any trouble, he almost grins through the paper and tells her that he thinks about her all day anyway– why shouldn’t he complete tasks on her behalf?

They argue impishly about the house they would have, if they were together.  Apparently she has a large, ugly armoire which she insists she would bring.  He tells her that it is so ugly it would give him nightmares.  She jokes back that if she loves it so much, wouldn’t he reconsider?  He replies so tenderly– telling her that even if the armoire is the stuff of nightmares, it is a greater nightmare to see her shed even one tear.  He vows that he would find a way to live with it– even if he had to sleep in another room, where he hoped she would join him while they leave the master bedroom to the ugly armoire and its nightmares.

The Lost Kafka Papers

They write back and forth feverishly– at times writing multiple times a day, which is adorable considering that these were not quick emails fired forth from an iPhone, but actual letters which required writing, sealing, and a trip to the post office (as well as postage paid).  At one point the mail is delayed and he writes that he was so worried he hadn’t heard from her, until a stack of letters arrived all at once– and that he slowly read them, savoring them like a holiday.  Sometimes his longing for her was so strong that he rose in the middle of the night and frantically penned another letter, sitting out on his balcony, writing by moonlight.  Can you feel it Milena?  Can you feel my heart calling to you, bringing you back to me, where you belong?

He describes her as “a living fire, such as I have never seen.”  He tells her that “In their entirety as well as in almost every line, your letters are the most beautiful thing that ever happened to me.”  He told her that “with your eyes before me I can endure anything: distance, anxiety, worry, letterlessness. […] With you in my heart I can bear everything, and even if I did write that the days without letters were horrifying, it’s not true; they were just horribly difficult—the boat was heavy and its draught was horribly deep, but on your tide it floated nonetheless.”  His words are so piercingly lovely that you cannot read them quickly.  You don’t read Kafka over lunch.  You pour yourself a glass of wine at night, with a fire crackling in the grate on a cold, windy night.  And you savor.

Letters to Milena broke my heart in the best way.  At times the truths were so poignant– so indescribably lovely, that they almost hurt to read.  Kafka’s emotion was as deep as the ocean and nearly as dark at times, with pinnacles of glorious sunlight that were made all the more breathtaking due to their reticence in his public body of works.  Without such an intensely private, intimate portrait of his innermost thoughts, demons, and breathtaking capacity for love, we may never have fully understood his other works.  After getting to know the man behind the works, you can understand how someone so intensely private would craft a story where the worst imaginable demise is being ignored by the people you love the most– allowed to sequester and fester until there is nothing left worth living for.  For Kafka, the loss of life is not the most devastating blow to humanity– it is the loss of love and all that makes life worth living.  Gregor’s character proves Kafka’s belief that a life without purpose is more complete in its cruelty than simply ending that life.  At the end, though Gregor gives up life, he gains peace, something which he never possessed during his lifetime.  To be forgotten by those he loved is worse punishment than death. It is a stark word picture of Kafka’s own life and struggles.

The Lost Kafka Papers

Kafka’s health became so poor that he eventually entered a sanitorium, which at the time was a facility for those with chronic, incurable illnesses.  Many people in Kafka’s day suffered from the (then) incurable tuberculosis (also called “consumption”), a cruel, lingering condition which killed its victim slowly, by inches.  In Kafka’s day, TB was responsible for killing 1 in 7 people alive– a staggering statistic.  As Kafka eventually became weaker and weaker, he coughed up blood and had difficulty sleeping, eating, and even moving around.  He became skeletally thin, constantly using what little strength he had to rasp air into his ragged lungs.  The last few months of his life he was unable to eat at all, and present day physicians theorize that it could have actually been starvation that took his life.  Whatever the cause, his last days were painful, lonely (as he wasted away in solitary confinement at the sanitorium, “healing”), and exhaustingly difficult.  Writing became his only respite from the suffocating boredom intermingled with medical panic which had begun to consume his days and cause his thoughts to spiral into one of the darkest, most hopeless places of his life.

He begins to open up to her about his past– about his family, especially his beloved three younger sisters.  he describes their childish delight in the simplest things– how their faces light up with joy when they pick flowers to bring to him or when he plays games with them.  His favorite sister, Ottla (“the love to the others notwithstanding, the dearest by far“) is his pride and joy.  He delights in their childish wonder at everything, penning “Youth is happy because it has the ability to see beauty.  Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.”  He muses to Milena that his sisters are so perfect, so innocent and sweet.  Their dimples and smiles give him life– their giggles make his soul warm as nothing else in life does.  He loves them with such delight, writing that their curls and cheeks are the sweetest blessings of all, seeming to exist only to be kissed.  He is almost more doting parent than he is brother.  He lives to see Ottla’s two daughters born, becoming a proud uncle for several years until his tragic death at age 40, cared for and doted upon mostly by Ottla in his last days.  Sadly, all three of his beloved sisters perished in concentration camps, as Kafka most likely would have himself had disease not claimed his life beforehand.

In a way, Kafka’s life mirrored the one in his mind– the big question “what is it all for?” that permeated his works had also become the governing mantra of his existence.  When he passed away the world lost a literary genius– one that perhaps it had not yet even started to appreciate fully.  When Kafka’s beloved younger sisters all perished in Nazi death camps, their beautiful words, smiles, and magic were lost to pure evil with so many other souls taken before their time.  Yet, from the grave, Kafka speaks.  He tells us about them.  He shows us their beautiful words– their smiles which made magic seep out of the most common day.  Through Kafka’s surviving writings and Max Brod’s courageous flight to protect them, we see the beautiful people who were taken from the world far too soon.  We can know them.  We can grieve them.  And perhaps, most important, we can honor them.

The Lost Kafka Papers

Tragically, his beloved Milena would also become a victim of Ravensbrück concentration camp, desperately passing the journals and surviving letters which Kafka had sent to her to Max Brod, a mutual friend, days before she was taken.  Brod actually escaped concentration camps himself by passing over the Czech border a mere 5 minutes before the Nazis ordered it closed, a suitcase hastily stuffed with all of his important papers (including most of Kafka’s work that has surivived today).  Had Brod been captured, the world most likely would never have heard of Kafka, and another literary genius would have been lost to the folds of time.

But Brod DID make it across.  And Milena did save those letters, despite Franz’s begging her to destroy them.  She believed that they were a masterpiece– that to destroy them would be a travesty.  She believed that Kafka’s genius belonged to the world.  And she was right.

Now here is where the story gets really sticky.  Fast forward a bit.  The Holocaust is now over.  The world is still licking its wounds, unable to believe that such a tragedy has happened– that so many families, homes, and lives are disrupted forever, their hearts torn from their existences through the cruelty and unfathomable greed of others.  There is no internet at this time in history, and people post desperate, handwritten pleas for help finding lost family members on every community bulletin board they can think of.  Some of them never find out what happened to their loved ones– others spend a lifetime slowly descending into madness, always searching.  Homes, fortunes, families, and treasures have been ripped apart.  Many of these lost treasures and loved ones will never return home.  Max Brod never stops advocating for Kafka’s work– and he starts showing it to publishers, knowing that this is something that belongs to the world.

The tricky part is that Kafka told Max before his (Kafka’s) death that he wanted Max to destroy all of his works, journals, sketches, and letters.  He begged Max to burn everything as if it never existed. He wanted his work destroyed– all of it, unread.

Max did not honor this request.

Eventually Max does publish a large body of what he considered to be Kafka’s best, most defining works– pieces which changed world literature and the way we view Holocaust era writings for all time.  The works are breathtaking in their complexity and inscrutable in their beautiful agony.  Yet.


Kafka never wanted them published.

Is it wrong to save something that the creator wanted destroyed?  Is it wrong to honor a friend who does not wish to be honored?  Is it a travesty to destroy something that is so fantastic that it truly belongs to all mankind, just because the person who created and owns it wants it that way?  These were puzzling conundrums that faced Max and the book that he had published after Kafka’s death.  Even though Kafka’s family had been murdered in the Nazi death camps, others clamored for justice for them– for the earnings from the books of Kafka’s writings to be donated to Holocaust victim charities or given as recompense to Kafka’s nearest living relatives.  Max Brod always maintained that publishing the works of his friend was never to “get rich,” but to remember and honor the genius of a man he knew, believed in, loved.  All that he had was lost in the Holocaust, and he had risked his life to save these documents.  He was not a rich man– why shouldn’t he use the last gift of his friend to honor that legacy and start over?  Why were so many people who hadn’t even known Kafka so vested in this case that was none of their business?  Kafka was his friend.  He had saved the works– without Max, there would have been no Kafka.

The Lost Kafka Papers

What does knowing the creator have to do with rights and final wishes, the opposition argued.  Must someone know Picasso, personally, to appreciate his work?  Is a writer’s final wish to be ignored, simply because the work is good and the person benefitting was a personal friend?  Again and again, the battles waged.

To add even more complication to the puzzle, toward the end of his life Max became very close with his secretary, Esther Hoffe.  Some people felt that the two were having an affair– but others believed that the two bonded for all time based upon their mutual Holocaust losses.  Whatever the story, upon his death, the childless Brod left Esther his entire estate, including Kafka’s entire surviving collection of work and the rights to Kafka’s published works.  In his will Max wrote something to the effect of, “I leave all my earthly belongings to Esther, including the Kafka writings.  I allow her to do with these works as she pleases during her lifetime, but it would be my preference that they are given to some sort of public library or institution where the public can access and appreciate them, such as the National Library of Israel.”  That little blurb was to be the subject of the most bloody legal battleground imaginable– a bitter dogfight of intense scrutiny, debate, and legal wrangling for years to come.

For decades, people fought over this vague little clause in the will.  First of all, did Max REALLY have the right to “bequeath” anything that wasn’t his to start with?  His friend ordered those documents destroyed, and here was Max, profiting, some said, from what amounted to the thievery of Kafka’s private documents and property.  If one argued that Max actually did mankind a favor by saving these incredible writings, then let them belong to humanity– give the papers to a library somewhere where they could be appreciated and enjoyed by the world.  Why was Max continuing to make money on the sale of books, even as he withheld whatever documents were left, unpublished, in his files?  People demanded an explanation, probably in equal vehemence of their love for drama as their love for Kafka.

During Esther Hoffe’s life, there wasn’t much that anyone could do to challenge Max Brod’s will.  Esther was mentioned by name as his beneficiary.  She sold several pieces of Kafka’s writing for millions, becoming what some considered unrightfully wealthy.  Still, litigators were biding their time, waiting until she passed away to swoop in and claim that the public had the right to the rest of the writings.

They waited.

And waited.

Esther continued to live, and live, and live.  During that time the courts continued to uphold the ruling that Esther was the beneficiary of Max Brod’s will.  So the world continued to wait.

Finally Esther passed away, at the ripe old age of 101.  Her will specified that all her earthly assets be transferred to her two daughters, Eva and Ruth.  But almost before the ink had dried on the will, the vultures swooped in to attack the carcass that they had long waited to feast upon.  The battle for the remaining Kafka papers had begun.

The number of people interested in the fate of these papers was staggering.  The German government placed a claim, saying that since the works were in German, it was only right that the Kafka papers were placed at the German National Library in Frankfurt.  The papers are in German. They can only be understood best in their mother tongue, which is German, the representatives for the German government argued.

“And how did Kafka’s three sisters fare the last time they were entrusted to German care?“ Somebody shot back. The German legal team blanched and said nothing.

Representatives of Holocaust special interests and charities groups argued that the papers should be placed in the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem, where they could be digitized and appreciated by the world.  After all, wasn’t this Max Brod’s original wish?  After the death of Esther Hoffe, should not Max’s original and obvious intentions for the papers be fulfilled?  They argued that Kafka’s Jewish heritage, as well as his family’s murder at the hand of the Nazis demanded that proceeds from his works be used to repair damages incurred to the Jewish people during the Holocaust.

The Lost Kafka Papers

The recipients of Eva Hoffe’s will, her two daughters, put together an impressive legal team of their own as well, which argued that governments had no right to interfere in personal wills. They pointed out that Hoffe’s family was also a victim of the Holocaust (Esther Hoffe’s own parents refused to flee the country when their daughter did, insisting that they were old and nothing would happen to them. They were murdered in concentration camps only a few weeks later).  If it was acceptable for Kafka’s work to benefit Holocaust victims, then who better to receive the proceeds than an actual Holocaust victim and her family?

The battles raged. Each team consisted of multiple lawyers. When one side was asked if it was truly necessary to employ seven separate legal teams, the representative replied, “I need every single one of them.”  The Hoffe sisters were horrified to discover that their bank accounts and financial assets had been frozen, pending the findings of the inquest. They were basically being slowly financially starved to death until they agreed to give up the rights to the papers.  And unlike the Hoffe sisters, the wolves waiting in the wings had all the time and money in the world.

The sisters argued that other than the Kafka papers, their mother’s assets should be transferred to them. Esther Hoffe’s settlement from the German government for being a Holocaust victim should be released to them. Why was the government being allowed to continue to make their family’s life hell, even as it had done during their mother’s youth and their childhood?  When would the government be stopped from what the sisters considered further raping and pillaging of their personal property?  When would it end?

The legal battle dragged on for decades.  The Hoffe sisters basically became destitute, fighting a battle that they were destined to lose. Were they in the right or in the wrong?  Were they greedy thieves or horribly wronged victims?  Eva Hoffe, The most outspoken of the sisters, had lived with her mother alone in a tiny, derelict Tel Aviv apartment for almost half a century prior to her mother’s death.  She continued to maintain that the rights to the Kafka papers had nothing to do with money and everything to do with her family’s privacy. She claimed that the documents preserved by Max Brod contained information about her family and about her mother, specifically, and that she didn’t want these documents revealed to the world.  She said, “There is no economic motive here. You tell me: How is it possible to say about an 82-year-old single woman with no children or grandchildren that all she wants is to get rich? What for? To buy a luxury garden apartment and live there for two days? That’s how the mind of you people works, not mine.”

The Lost Kafka Papers

Journalists, lawyers, and random interested parties began camping out in the hallways of Eva‘s apartment building, hoping for a chance to see or speak with her.  People became increasingly concerned at the sounds and smells emanating from the apartment. They could hear the phone ringing inside, but no one ever answered it. At times they heard shuffling near the door, as if someone were propping things up against it. People watched the door round the clock for years. Eva had become a prisoner in her own home.  The rotten scent became stronger and stronger. A few times when the police were called to perform well visit checks, they reported seeing Eva living in near squalor conditions with an estimate of 75 to 100 cats.  There were piles of documents almost to the ceiling, and cats were urinating and sleeping on the piles. People became frantic. Were the Kafka documents being slowly destroyed as the courts hammered out who had the rights to them?  When ownership was finally determined, would there be anything left to fight for?

The prosecution filed an emergency injunction to have the papers removed from the cat infested house for their preservation until a final decision could be reached. The court ordered that Eva present the Kafka papers for cataloguing and, pending the final decision about ownership, allow them to remain in a neutral and clean area for their preservation. Eva refused to turn anything over, and when police forcibly removed documents from her home she continued to purposely give them the wrong keys to bank security vaults where she had hidden caches of Kafka papers.  After six or seven false keys, the bank was forced to cut into the safety deposit box manually.

This delightful little game of Kafka Ring Around the Rosie continued for an egregious amount of time, as Eva Hoffe took the police on a wild goose chase worthy of cinema. She scattered the documents to and fro, in many different countries, in many different bank vaults. Each time the courts demanded that she give up a hiding place she would file numerous extensions and injunctions to delay the process. When she was finally pressed up against the wall and forced to turn over access to one of her collections, she would always give the collectors the runaround, the wrong keys, the wrong directions, the wrong passwords.  She lived on crackers but refused to give up any of her lawyers.  Perhaps she felt that the world had stolen enough from her family, and she was determined to hold onto everything she had from now on with the voracious appetite of a bulldog.

Scholars continued to salivate, wondering if the papers fought over so vehemently contained a treasure of previously unknown Kafka works which could change the way we see literature for all time.  The Hoffe sisters continued to demand their rights as personal beneficiaries, while the world continue to demand, equally as vehemently, their rights to a treasure which belonged, in their minds, to all of humanity.

The Lost Kafka Papers

Finally, after decades of fighting, the courts awarded the totality of Kafka‘s writings to the National Library of Israel. Judge Hagai Brenner commented, “From Kafka’s perspective, is the auctioning of his personal writings – which he ordered to be destroyed – to the highest bidder by his friend’s secretary and her daughters, consistent with justice?” Eva Hoffe wept and ordered her head to be shaved in mourning, even as the rest of the literary world rejoiced that, finally, these documents would be saved, preserved, read, and appreciated by the world.

Israel now legally owned the Kafka documents, but taking control of them was another matter. For multiple more years, collecting agents attempted to search Eva Hoffe’s multiple bank faults and animal infested apartment, as well as brave her openly belligerent attitude as they attempted to collect the remaining documents.  In the end, Eva Hoffe and her sister died (families blamed the stresses of the trial for their deaths), and the filthy apartment was at long last able to be searched thoroughly. Agents discovered that for years Eva had been living without heat and sleeping in filth, choosing to fight the courts rather than pay for her own needs.  However, after extensive searching, experts finally believed that they had the Kafka collection together at last, housed in the Israeli National Library in Jerusalem.

As experts opened the safety deposit boxes and pored over the fruit of decades of litigation, they couldn’t wait to see what they would discover.  The world held its collective breath.  Would there be a previously unknown Kafka short story equal to the stunning Metamorphosis?  Would there be a prologue or notes to one of Kafka’s other great works?  Would these documents so long and bitterly fought over change the course of literature for all time?  Scholars eagerly lined up to study the collection that so many had waited a lifetime to see.

In an ending worthy of Kafka himself, these dearly fought for documents contained almost nothing of value. Max Brod had already published the major works which he considered to be defining. The only pieces left untouched were unfinished scraps, doodles and drawings, and a few unimpressive letters to friends. Researchers were heartbroken. The documents which had cost hundreds of millions of dollars in litigation were practically worthless.

The Lost Kafka Papers

To this day people wonder whether Eva Hoffe secretly hid or destroyed many of the remaining valuable Kafka documents out of spite. She admitted in later years to never actually reading the papers that she spent the better part of her life fighting to keep.  Was she determined, like Kafka himself, to destroy the works rather than to allow them to fall into the wrong hands? Was she doing what she felt her mother would have wanted? Was she protecting the details of a love affair between her mother and Max Brod? Or perhaps, after the Holocaust had already taken so much from her family, she just said, enough.  You’re never taking anything from me again– I don’t care what it is.  We may never know. Eva took that secret to her grave.

But one thing we do know – Kafka would have approved of this ending.  Somewhere, from the grave, we feel that Kafka is smiling– his final dark secrets swirling around him like a vapor. In a tale worthy of his dark and twisted stories, his personal secrets will remain just that way– secret. He remains as enigmatic as ever, as inscrutable as his stories. And perhaps that’s precisely the reason we love him in the first place.




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  1. Brian

    PB 🥜🥪. I read this in segments but will read it again in full. I can see why you read and re-read it. So many times

    1. Emilie (Post author)

      Thank you for taking time to read PB <3

  2. Jo Ann McConnell

    Emilie, I was hooked from beginning to end! You should have gotten an A+++++++ and more for every paper you ever wrote in college. I literally feel privileged to be able to read your blogs and this one especially. I miss you dear one❣️

    1. Emilie (Post author)

      I’m so thankful you took time to read. I have always loved the fantastic mystique of this story. True life is stranger than fiction!

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