Kafka’s sketchbook among documents reclaimed and digitalised by Israeli library

Franz Kafka, photo: Public Domain

The National Library of Israel has started digitising a long-lost batch of archival materials, belonging to Franz Kafka’s friend Max Brod. They include, among other things, Kafka’s personal diary and a notebook in which he practiced Hebrew. Israel received the missing documents from a Swiss bank in August after years of international searches and legal disputes over the author’s legacy.

Franz Kafka,  photo: Public Domain
The Prague-born, German speaking intellectual Max Brod is perhaps best known for his friendship with the acclaimed writer Franz Kafka. He is also known as a man who refused to destroy Kafka’s manuscripts after his death although his friend had asked him to do so. Instead, he went on to publish most of Kafka’s works, helping to establish him as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.

Stefan Litt, the archivist and curator of the National Library of Israel’s humanities collection, says the documents recently reclaimed from the Swiss bank vaults don’t reveal any major surprises about Kafka, but they do shed more light on his personality:

“The only surprise we could find is a notebook filled with doodles and sketches. We know that Kafka also did small drawings just for relaxing. Apparently he never though that it was big art, as he was generally very sceptical about his own writing and work.”

“He never intended to publish anything 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.”

While it might not reveal much about Kafka himself, Stefan Litt says the manuscripts, which were inaccessible for more than 50 years, still represent a gold mine for researchers interested in the cultural scene in Central Europe before the Second World War.

“Max Brod was a key figure to the culture of the first half of the 20th century in Central Europe, because he was a brilliant networker. He was in contact with literally each and every one and he was very influential. He was a famous writer back in those days, much more famous than Kafka was during his lifetime.

“Because there was no access to it, we actually have to acknowledge that the figure of Max Brod is a bit neglected and not rightfully. We really hope that by bringing the materials here and opening them for the interested public and researchers the picture will change very soon.”

Max Brod fled Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939, carrying Kafka’s papers with him in a suitcase. After his death in 1968, a dispute flared up over his archive. In his last will, Brod left the entire archive to his secretary Esther Hoffe, asking her to make sure that it ends up in the national library.

However, Mrs Hoffe held on to the documents, selling some of them, while keeping the rest either in her apartment in Tel Aviv, in the city’s bank deposits or in Swiss bank vaults.

Max Brod,  photo: Public Domain
Stefan Litt says that while they knew about the documents’ whereabouts, they had no means to get their hands on the manuscripts:

“We were convinced that there must have been a good share of more documents, maybe third-rank from the market price perspective, which should have been kept still in this apartment in Tel Aviv.

“However, the last owner of this apartment, Eva Hoffe, the second daughter of Max Brod’s secretary, was absolutely unwilling to cooperate and forbade anyone to enter this apartment.”

When Esther Hoffe’s daughter died in 2018, her notary opened the apartment to the researchers from Israel’s National Library to look for the missing documents:

“When we entered the apartment, I understood from the very first moment that it was a nightmare. It was not really a human apartment. It was filled with cats and other species. It was a big mess.

“We had a hard time finding these documents to sort them out and to see whether it was useful to keep them at all or not. We are very happy that a good share of the documents is still usable.

“The whole story showed us that keeping those high-rank cultural documents in private places and doing whatever you think might be right is not a professional way of treating those materials.”

Apart from Kafka’s notebook filled with doodles and sketches, the batch of documents recently reclaimed by the National Library of Israel from Switzerland yielded evidence that Kafka was an avid student of Hebrew.

“We knew about the fact that Kafka studied Hebrew from 1917 onwards until a couple of months before he died. There is good testimony about that because there are several Hebrew notebooks.

“About six of them, I think, are in Oxford. There is another one that we have had here for more than 25 years, which was given to us as a gift back then. In the Swiss bank we found another notebook that was totally unknown to us. It was simply described as the ‘Blue Notebook’.

“When we opened it, we saw literature, sketches and drafts written by Kafka. Right in the middle there are around eight sheets which are 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.”

Although Franz Kafka never made it to Israel, having died of tuberculosis in June 1924, Stefan Litt says there is evidence that he planned to do so:

“One of his friends was Hugo Bergman, who was the director of the National Library between 1920 and 1935. He was a classmate of Kafka. They studied together in school for 12 years.

Franz Kafka,  photo: Public Domain
“When Hugo Bergman visited Europe again, in 1922 or 1923, he met Kafka again in Prague and Kafka spoke with him, and that is recorded in Hugo Bergman’s diaries, about the possibility of coming here to Palestine. He was really keen to visit and maybe even live here.

“However, Kafka was already so sick at the time that it was actually impossible for him to relocate from Europe to Palestine.

“So Hugo Bergman tried to calm him down and convince him that he first had to make sure he was a healthy man before coming here. We know he never made it, but he was definitely thinking about it.”

Despite Kafka’s wish for all his writings to be destroyed, the batch of documents from the Swiss bank vaults are currently being digitised and after that they will be available to the public.

Asked if it this is not an infringement on the famous writer’s last will, Stefan Litt says that luckily, the National Library itself is not the executor of Kafka’s testament:

“It would be really the best Kafkaesque piece if we, the National Library of Israel, would say: OK now we fulfil his last will and burn all of his documents. This is of course unthinkable.

“Since everything literary was published that Kafka had ever written, it doesn’t matter any longer if we keep the original documents or not. The texts are known and they are world literature and Kafka is regarded as one of the leading authors of all times.

“His work has found its rightful place and whether we keep the documents and save them for researchers or not doesn’t change that fact any longer.”