Franz Kafka instructed that all his manuscripts were to be burned after his death, but his friend Max Brod chose to disregarded the request, setting-up a complicated legal tussle over thousands of pages of manuscripts that has the literary world in a tizzy. That legal imbroglio took a new twist on July 19th as four safety deposit boxes in a Zurich bank containing the manuscripts were opened.
The boxes are purported to hold thousands of manuscripts by Kafka and Brod, including letters, journals, sketches, stories and drawings, some of which have never been published and could offer literary detectives, academics and psychologists some insight into one of the 20th century’s greatest writers.
The action in Zurich follows similar moves at two Tel Aviv banks, which were ordered by an Israeli tribunal to open Kafka’s works in their vaults.
The documents form the core of a long-standing battle over ownership between the state of Israel and the Hoffe sisters who say they inherited Kafka’s estate from their mother Esther Hoffe – Max Brod’s secretary. After Kafka’s death, Brod not only disregarded Kafka’s directives, but published his work and then bequeathed the manuscripts to his secretary.
The government of Israel, however, claims that Kafka’s papers are the property of the state since Max Brod migrated to Israel in 1939.
Esther Hoffe’s daughter, Eve , was expected to be present at the opening of the boxes, along with a panel of attorneys appointed by the court. Assisted by German literary experts and a manuscript expert, they will report to the court an exact record of what the boxes contain.
The Israeli court will then decide whether to return the manuscripts to the safety deposit boxes or transfer them to a public archive, to be published for the benefit of future generations.
Meanwhile, the Israeli court is expected to rule on Hoffe’s petition calling for a gag order on the contents of the box. The Israeli paper, Haaretz, has asked the court to allow the documents to be published, citing their public and literary value.
Kafka died from tuberculosis in 1924, his will instructed Brod: “Dearest Max, My last request: Everything I leave behind me [is] to be burned unread.” However, Brod instead published for the first time Kafka’s novels The Trial, The Castle and Amerika.
In 1939 Brod escaped his home in Prague as the Nazis approached and took a suitcase of Kafka papers to Tel Aviv, where he started a new life. He later donated manuscripts of The Castle and Amerika to Oxford University, but kept the original of The Trial for himself.
Following the death of his wife, Brod entered into a relationship with his secretary, Esther Hoffe. When Brod died in 1968, he left a will that is now disputed. Hoffe sold documents over several years and when she died in 2007 she left the remaining papers to her daughters Eve and Ruti.