Franz Kafka’s never-before-seen manuscripts and drawings go online

A Begger and a Generous Elegant Man

The National Library of Israel has published a long-lost collection of archival materials by Franz Kafka. They include, among other things, the Prague-born, German-speaking writer’s personal diary and a notebook in which he practised Hebrew. Israel received the missing documents in August 2019, after years of searching and court battles over Kafka’s legacy.

Ninety-seven years after the death of Franz Kafka, his long-lost documents have been finally made accessible to the public. One of the most surprising items was the writer’s notebook filled with doodles and sketches, library archivist and curator Stefan Litt told Czech Radio, upon the occasion of reclaiming the papers:

Franz Kafka | Photo: Atelier Jacobi,  Wikimedia Commons,  Public Domain

“We know that Kafka did small drawings just for relaxing. Apparently, he never thought that it was big art, as he was generally very sceptical about his own writing and work.

“He never intended to publish any of these, and we were not aware that there was another notebook kept in the Swiss bank vaults. So, that was a nice surprise. However, it doesn’t really change our understanding of Kafka.”

The collection was left to the National Library of Israeli by Kafka’s close friend Max Brod, whom Kafka had trusted to destroy all his manuscripts after his death. In the end, he refused to do so.

The Drunk | Photo: The National Library of Israel / Max Brod Archive,  Public Domain

When Brod fled Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939, he carried Kafka’s papers with him in a suitcase. He went on to publish most of his works, helping to establish Kafka as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.

In his own will, Brod left the entire archive to his secretary, Esther Hoffe, asking her to make sure it reached the National Library of Israel.

But she held on to the documents, selling some while keeping the rest either in her apartment in Tel Aviv, or in the city’s bank deposits and Swiss bank vaults.

Wedding Preparations in the Country | Photo: The National Library of Israel / Max Brod Archive,  Public Domain

It was only in 2018, when Esther Hoffe’s daughter died, that the notary opened the apartment to investigators to look for the missing documents.

Now, after two years of intensive restoration, cataloguing and digitalisation, the long-missing documents are finally available to the public, free of charge.

Apart from the notebook with Kafka’s doodles and sketches, the digitised collection also includes three draft versions of his story Wedding Preparations, hundreds of personal letters, and a notebook in which he practised Hebrew. Stefan Litt once again:

Franz Kafka's Hebrew notes | Photo: The National Library of Israel / Max Brod Archive,  Public Domain

“When we opened it, we saw literature, sketches and drafts written by Kafka. Right in the middle there were around eight sheets which were totally filled with word lists in Hebrew and even small texts that he wrote in Hebrew about events of his time, about 1922 and 1923.

“It was modern Hebrew and quite good, actually. He was an advanced student – that’s for sure. It is interesting for us, of course, to see that he was so actively investing time in studying this language. And for Israeli citizens it is very exciting, of course.”

https://www.nli.org.il/en/discover/literature-and-poetry/authors/franz-kafka