6) Siřem: could this north Bohemian village have been the real inspiration for Kafka’s ‘The Castle’?

In the previous episode of ‘In Kafka’s Footsteps’, we visited the town of Frýdlant, believed to have inspired Kafka’s novel ‘The Castle’. But there is another contender vying for the same accolade: the village of Siřem, a tiny hamlet in northern Bohemia surrounded by hop fields. It was here that Kafka went to stay after being diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1917, in search of peace, fresh air and nature on his sister's farm.

Photo: Petr Lukeš,  Radio Prague International

“We’re standing on the bridge that K. crossed to get to the village, and right there on that hill you can see the granary, which evokes the impression of a castle. The second building on the right used to be a pub belonging to the Dreher Brewery, and on the left we can see a blacksmiths’ shop, where the landlady’s husband from the pub across the street worked. That’s where K. stayed, and it’s also where Franz Kafka stayed when he came to Siřem.”

David Herblich is taking us on a journey through Siřem, following in the footsteps of Franz Kafka – and possibly also of a land surveyor known only as K., the main protagonist of Kafka’s final novel, ‘The Castle’. K. is summoned to a village, which is never named in the book, to carry out land surveying work, but quickly finds that the local inhabitants don’t trust him and look on him with suspicion. He gradually learns that everything in this strange place is governed by a mysterious bureaucracy operating in a castle overlooking the village and spends the rest of the novel trying, without success, to make contact with the castle officials who ostensibly summoned him there.

David Herblich | Photo: Petr Lukeš,  Radio Prague International

The book has many interpretations – K.'s struggle to gain access to the castle has variously been said to be about alienation, opaque bureaucracy, anti-Semitism, a man's search for salvation, the futile pursuit of an unobtainable goal, the desire for companionship, arbitrary systems over which one has no control, pain, religion, and many other things. There has also been a lot of speculation about the place that provided the inspiration for the castle in the story. David Herblich, however, who heads the Kafka Gallery, has no doubt that it was the granary in Siřem that was the model for Kafka’s castle.

Photo: Petr Lukeš,  Radio Prague International

“I came here for a holiday after 1990, I was about 14 or 15. I gradually met other people who were trying to trace Franz Kafka’s footsteps. There were several attempts to do things, projects in the order of tens of millions of crowns that never came to fruition: individual groups wanting to collect money to repair the church or build a dormitory, for example. And it somehow seemed sad to me that this village was just falling apart and nothing was happening here. So I decided to found an association dedicated to Franz Kafka, and eight years later the gallery.”

When Kafka came to Siřem on 12 September 1917, it was a Sudeten German village called Zürau, still part of the crumbling Austro-Hungarian Empire, and was much bigger and more extensive than it is now. Nowadays, it numbers a mere 68 inhabitants, while during Kafka’s lifetime, it had five to six times as many – hardly a bustling metropolis, but nevertheless, several times larger than today.

Siřem  | Photo: Archive of Jan Jindra/ Galerie Kafka

David Herblich explains what brought Kafka to this small backwater at the end of the First World War.

Franz Kafka with his sister Ottla in Siřem | Photo: Galerie Kafka

“Franz Kafka’s oldest sister, Gabriele, married a man called Karl Hermann, who was from a family that owned a lot of buildings and estates in Siřem. Franz came to stay with his sister on sick leave, because he had started coughing up blood on account of his tuberculosis. He took time off work and stayed here for eight months, until the spring of 1918. His youngest and favourite sister, Ottilie, affectionately known as Ottla, was also there at the same time as him, helping Gabriele on the farm. Some of his colleagues from work also came to visit him. They brought a camera with them, so there are several photographs documenting Kafka's stay here.”

These photographs can be seen in a glass display case in the village. The first one refutes the erroneous information that Kafka stayed in house number 35 when he was here – in fact, it was number 15.

House in which Kafka lived in Siřem | Photo: Petr Lukeš,  Radio Prague International

“Here you can see a view of the whole house – today, there is a window in place of the back door you can see in the photo. That house in the back is the house opposite. The old acacia tree is still there. A lesser-known photo is this one, where Ottla is standing in front of the barn with some visitors from Prague.”

David Herblich explains how the confusion over where Kafka stayed in Siřem came about.

“Researchers who came here were mystified by a postcard that he wrote to Max Brod, where his sister Ottla marked with an arrow the house where they were living – number 35. And indeed, he was living at house number 35 at the beginning of his stay, but someone playing the piano in the house opposite kept disturbing him. As he wrote, the only piano in north-western Bohemia was opposite his house.

“After the piano, next the sounds of the wagons driving past his window disturbed him. Mice disturbed him too, so they borrowed a cat, which also disturbed him. So his sister ended up moving him to a different house, number 15. There he had peace and a view of a field where he could see farmers sowing.”

Franz Kafka in Siřem | Photo: Archiv Jana Jindry / Galerie Kafka

Kafka spent much of his time in Siřem walking, reading, and of course, writing.

“He wrote letters and diaries here, and obviously, he wrote The Zürau Aphorisms here. But the big debate is about ‘The Castle’. While walking through the village you can imagine that he wrote it here.”

Photo: Galerie Kafka

Two people who were sure that Kafka wrote ‘The Castle’ in Siřem were Miloš Forman and Václav Havel. They came to the village together in the 1960s with the idea of making a film version of the literary masterpiece. But David Herblich says it was difficult for them to find out about the details of Kafka’s stay in Siřem, because the town’s German population, some of whom would have remembered Kafka, was expelled after the Second World War.

“In the 1960s, Miloš Forman and Václav Havel came here and tried to find out where exactly Kafka had stayed. A few older people from mixed German-Czech families who remained after the expulsion were still alive and could remember Kafka being here, but unfortunately, Forman and Havel didn’t speak to them. Instead, they went to the National Committee, where the chairman told them that he didn’t know of any Franz Kafka.”

Nowadays we tend to think of Kafka as an intellectual because we perceive him through the lens of his literary works, but in Siřem, he worked on his sister’s farm and played sports as well as writing.

“I keep getting more and more new information about what he did here, mostly thanks to Věra Koubová, who helps me collect information and gives lectures here.

“I know he picked potatoes in the field, he wrote letters to his girlfriend Felice Bauer in Berlin, he went to the pigsty and spent three pages describing the life of pigs. He also went to visit the Feigel family, a landowner who had seven daughters. Kafka liked the youngest one, who carried a white rabbit on her shoulder.”

This year, the centenary of Franz Kafka’s death, a good time to visit Siřem might be the last weekend of June for Festival Deziluze, or the Festival of Disillusionment. Organised by Mariana Cimburová, it is taking place for the 10th time this year, although it will be the first time it has taken place in Siřem.

Mariana Cimburová and David Herblich | Photo: Petr Lukeš,  Radio Prague International

“Right now we are working hard on an audio walk which will be called ‘Siřem Through the Eyes of Frank Kafka’. There will be light installations on the village square, where we want to emphasize the dominant feature of the place, the church. There will also be various performances and concerts with artists from Berlin, for example, because we worked together with the Czech-German Fund for the Future – also thanks to the fact that this year is the 100th anniversary of Kafka’s death, which has opened up tremendous opportunities for us. We are preparing a stage right in the granary that is the alleged inspiration for the castle in his novel.”


The 100th anniversary of Franz Kafka's death offers the opportunity to look at Kafka's work and life from current and new perspectives. All events, exhibitions, lectures, literary links can be found on the Project Kafka2024 website.



  • In Kafka's footsteps

    Franz Kafka was born in Prague, but where specifically did the world-famous writer grow up? Where did he draw inspiration, or even go on holiday?