Long-Standing Legal Dispute Over Kafka Manuscripts Ends

On Monday, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled against the daughters of Max Brod’s secretary

Young Kafka donning a bowler cap

If only Max Brod had burned those manuscripts…

Although, of course, if Brod really had followed through with Kafka’s wish, it would have denied us (and posterity) the opportunity of reading Kafka’s brilliance. Regardless, since Max Brod didn’t burn the estimated, mere 10% left of Kafka’s work that Kafka himself didn’t burn, we not only have his writings, but the subsequent legal battles over their ownership, too. It gets properly Kafka-complicated (Kafkacated?) from here.

According to The Guardian, as of Monday, the Supreme Court of Israel has ruled that a collection of Kafka manuscripts, which Brod had kept to himself, are now the property of the National Library of Israel. Your next question then: how did we get here?

It started with Max Brod fleeing Czechoslovakia in 1939 when the Nazi invasion had just begun. He fled to Palestine (the Jewish State of Israel wasn’t officially established until 1948). He thus kept the papers there with him until his death in 1968. This is when things get a little trickier. Upon his death, he handed over the collection to his secretary Esther Hoffe, whom he apparently instructed to transfer it “to the library of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem or the Tel Aviv municipal library, or (that of) any other public institution in Israel or abroad.” Straightforward enough. The message, essentially, was to make sure Kafka’s writing could reach as many people as possible.

Issues arose, however, when Ms. Hoffe decided that the precious collection of Kafka writings would better serve the world if they were in the sole possession of her two daughters. The State of Israel thought otherwise and followed through in the courts, beginning in 2009 (two years after the death of Ms. Hoffe). These legal battles have been well-documented.

Finally, Israel’s high court has put an end to this charade, ruling in favor of the National Library. These manuscripts, hopefully, can now rest at ease — one could almost hear Kafka’s groanings as the documents were yanked in either direction, embroiled in years-long legal/bureaucratic rigmarole.

It is an ironic turn of fate that the “good guy” in real life for Kafka’s writing — what will help him live on — is a court of law, though perhaps lacking the poetry of a more typical hero: “Max Brod did not want his property to be sold at the best price, but for them to find an appropriate place in a literary and cultural institution.”

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