History
3:46 pm
Wed May 30, 2012

Kafka's Final Absurdist Tale Plays Out In Tel Aviv

Originally published on Sun June 3, 2012 8:31 am

Franz Kafka published just a few short stories and a novella during his lifetime, yet he was considered one of the 20th century's most influential writers.

The rest of his work was largely kept secret, and literary scholars have long wondered what gems they might find among Kafka's papers.

The answer may ultimately lie on Tel Aviv's Spinoza Street, inside a small, squat apartment building covered with dirty, pinkish stucco that looks like it's seen better days.

The story of how Kafka's papers made their way into an apartment owned by a self-professed cat lady, Eva Hoffe, seems like a story only Kafka himself could have written.

The state of Israel and Hoffe, who's in her late 70s, are locked in a battle over those papers, and Hoffe has not been willing to allow outsiders to see them.

For the past 40 years, the women of the Hoffe family have held an assortment of Kafka's primary drafts, letters, drawings and, possibly, unpublished manuscripts.

Journalist Ofer Aderet, with the Haaretz newspaper, says the women have guarded them closely, and to this day no one is sure exactly what they contain. "It's a big secret. It's the $1 million question," he says.

Aderet has been following the three-year court case over the ownership of the papers. The legal wrangling has pitted the Hoffe family against Israel's National Library. Aderet says that within the month, the courts are expected to issue their ruling.

Kafka Wanted His Papers Burned

Anat Perry is an academic and former researcher on the Kafka case for the National Library. The story, she says, begins with a brown suitcase packed by Max Brod, a writer best known as Kafka's friend and biographer.

Kafka, who died in June 1924, wanted all his papers burned.

But Brod did not honor the request. He kept the papers, and from them published most of what are today known as Kafka's works. In 1939, Brod fled Czechoslovakia for British-run Palestine (now Israel and the Palestinian territories) with all of the collected papers in his suitcase.

In Tel Aviv, Brod had a relationship with Esther Hoffe. He often referred to Hoffe as his secretary, though most, including Perry, believe they carried on romantically under the nose of Hoffe's husband and their two daughters.

"She did not raise them at home because she was all the days with Max Brod. I am not surprised if they blamed him for the kind of life that they had — which was not very happy," Perry says.

When Brod died in 1968, he left the Kafka papers to Esther Hoffe. She, in turn, left them to her two daughters, Eva and Ruth.

Eva Hoffe's Legacy

Today, only Eva Hoffe is still alive. Never married, she lives with her cats on Spinoza Street and is rarely seen in public.

Perry says Eva Hoffe seems depressed, especially after the death of her sister just last month.

"What is interesting about Eva Hoffe, she said once — and this shocked me — she said, 'I never married, I have no kids, I have only this legacy,' " Perry says. "In a way, I pity her, but I don't think she deserves to have this legacy, because it was not meant to become her legacy."

Harel Ashwall, one of Hoffe's lawyers, rejects Perry's claims that the Hoffe family interpreted Brod's will to suit themselves. He says the state of Israel has ruthlessly and aggressively gone after the Hoffes to pressure them into handing over papers to which Israel has no claim.

"The attempt to describe Kafka as some kind of Israeli writer or a writer with a connection to the state of Israel is nonsense," Ashwall says. "Kafka's papers won't get the respect they deserve in Israel, nor the treatment other countries can offer."

Ashwall, like many involved in the case, has little hope that the upcoming verdict will settle the dispute over Kafka's papers once and for all. He expects that there will be numerous appeals, and that it could be years until the issue is resolved.

Aderet, the Haaretz journalist, says it's oddly fitting that this should also be part of Kafka's legacy.

"I think that Kafka now could not rest in peace when two old ladies from Tel Aviv, a city he had never visited in his life, are fighting with the state of Israel, which [did not exist] when Kafka passed away," Aderet says. "Yes, of course it's Kafkaesque. Kafka could not describe it better."

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

A battle is being waged over the literary legacy of Franz Kafka. On one side, the state of Israel; on the other, a family in Tel Aviv. During his lifetime, Kafka published very little. Much of his work has been largely kept secret under the watchful eye of a mysterious reclusive woman. Literary scholars have long wondered what gems they might find among Kafka's papers and, as Sheera Frenkel reports, they may finally get a chance to look for themselves.

SHEERA FRENKEL, BYLINE: I'm standing in front of a small building on Tel Aviv's Spinoza Street and there are cats everywhere. The building in front of me is small and squat with a dirty pinkish stucco that looks like it's seen better days. How Kafka's papers made their way to this small Tel Aviv apartment owned by self-professed cat lady Eva Hoffe seems like a story that only Kafka could have written.

OFER ADERET: It's a big secret. It's the one million dollar question.

FRENKEL: For the last 40 years, the women of the Hoffe family have held an assortment of Kafka's primary drafts, letters, drawings and possibly manuscripts.

Ofer Aderet, with the Ha'aretz newspaper, says the women have guarded them closely, and to this day no one is sure exactly what lies in their family home in Tel Aviv. Aderet has been following the three-year court case over the ownership of the papers. The legal wrangling has pitted the Hoffe family against Israel's National Library. Aderet says that within the month, the courts are expected to issue their ruling.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAPER)

FRENKEL: Newspapers, catalogues and notebooks are stacked floor to ceiling in the apartment of Anat Perry, an academic and former researcher on the Kafka case for the Israel National Library. The story, she says, begins with a brown suitcase packed by Max Brod, a writer who is best known as Kafka's friend and biographer.

When Kafka died in June 1924, he ordered all of his papers to be burned. But Brod did not honor the request. He kept the papers and from them, published most of what are today known as Kafka's works. In 1939, Brod fled Czechoslovakia for Mandate Palestine, with all of the collected papers in his suitcase. In Tel Aviv, he took up with Esther Hoffe, a woman he often refers to as his secretary - though most, including Perry, believe they carried on romantically under the nose of her husband and two daughters.

ANAT PERRY: She did not raise them at home because she was all the days with Max Brod. I am not surprised if they blamed him for the kind of life that they had, which was not very happy.

FRENKEL: When Brod died in 1968, he left the papers to Esther Hoffe. She, in turn, left them to her two daughters, Eva and Ruth. Today, only Eva Hoffe is still alive. She never married. She lives with her cats on Spinoza Street and is rarely seen in public. Perry says she seems depressed, especially after the death of her sister last month.

PERRY: What is interesting about Hoffe, that she said once - and this shocked me - she said, I never married, I have no kids, I have only this legacy. In a way, I pity her. But I don't think she deserves to having this legacy, because it was not meant to become her legacy.

FRENKEL: Harel Ashwall is one of Hoffe family's lawyers. He rejects Perry's claims that the Hoffe family interpreted Brod's will to suit themselves. He says the state of Israel has ruthlessly and aggressively gone after the Hoffe family, to pressure them into handing over papers to which it has no claim.

HAREL ASHWALL: (Through Translator) The attempt to describe Kafka as some kind of Israeli writer or a writer with a connection to the state of Israel is nonsense. Kafka's papers won't get the respect they deserve in Israel, nor the treatment other countries can offer.

FRENKEL: Ashwall, like many involved in the case, has little hope that the upcoming verdict will settle the dispute over Kafka's papers once and for all. He expects that there will be numerous appeals and it could be years until the issue is resolved.

Aderet, the Ha'aretz journalist, says it's oddly fitting that this too should be part of Kafka's legacy.

ADERET: I think that Kafka now could not rest in peace when two old ladies from Tel Aviv, a city he had never visited in his life, are fighting with the state of Israel, which was not existed when Kafka passed away. Yes, it is of course Kafkaesque. Kafka could not describe it better.

FRENKEL: For NPR News, I'm Sheera Frankel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.