Bank vaults could deliver Franz Kafka literary treasure trove

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A legal battle centred on the legacy of Prague-born writer Franz Kafka took a new turn this week with manuscripts and other material locked away in Swiss bank vaults being opened up for expert examination. The move should help determine whether a literary treasure trove has been kept hidden away for decades and could help to make it public.

Franz Kafka
The opening of the Zurich bank vaults this week following a similar operation in Tel Aviv is part of a long legal battle over papers left by Franz Kafka.

The battle pits the Israeli National Library against two daughters who say they inherited them from their mother, the secretary of Kafka’s literary executor, Max Brod. The two sides, together with a German literary archive, are fighting over ownership of the mysterious papers. Opening the bank vault was ordered by a Tel Aviv court to determine exactly what is at stake.

Mr. Meir Heller is a lawyer representing the Israeli National Library. He says getting to the bottom of what is in the bank vaults is proving more problematic than first thought.

“The process will take some time. It seems that there was a lot more material in the boxes than was anticipated and the expert needs some more time to revisit some of the boxes and also open some of the safes which need to be broken into because there are no keys.”

The fact that there is more material than anticipated should whet the appetite of literary scholars and fans of the enigmatic author. Some believe the papers could include an uncompleted novel by Kafka.

That would not be so surprising. Kafka, who belonged to a Prague Jewish family and wrote in German, gave his manuscripts to his friend and fellow writer Max Brod with instructions to burn them before he died, aged 40, in 1924. But Brod refused to carry out those last wishes, publishing some of the novels such as The Trial and The Castle, and fled with other material to Tel Aviv when the Nazis occupied Prague in 1939.

When Brod died in 1968, the documents came into the hands of his secretary Esther Hoffe who then passed them down to her daughters. At some stage over the last 50 years, some of the material was deposited for safekeeping in bank vaults in Zurich and Tel Aviv.

But while the contents of the bank boxes is the key issue for the rest of the world, it is not for the court. Mr. Heller again: “Unlike several of the reports which I saw in the world press, it is nothing to do with whether the documents are important or not. The national library is in court because it asks the court to fulfil the last wish of Max Brod, which was to bring the documents to the National Library of Israel. So this is purely about the interpretation of the will of Max Brod.”

Meir Heller
The sisters say that Max Brod left Kafka’s manuscripts to their mother and she passed them on to them. They have said they want to sell them to a Germany literary archive, something which has created uproar in Israel.

But with Kafka’s manuscripts now being examined by an expert, Mr. Heller believes a court ruling could be given within the next year which could pave the way for them being made available to the public.