The strange case of the Franz Kafka archive, part 4.

20 Apr

Part 4: Three Lonely Old Ladies

(adapted from a case study I wrote for grad school; bibliography available upon request)

Hoffe was in her sixties when Kafka’s papers came into her hands. She had worked as Brod’s secretary for over 20 years. In her role as secretary to Brod, she had worked on and with the papers, and, believing what many writers have intimated, she had been intimate with Brod for years. Her physical closeness to Kafka’s papers has never been called into question. But the extent of her ownership, and what that ownership entitled her to, was questioned from the beginning.

Hoffe made her intentions clear early on. In 1974, she sold some of Kafka’s letters to unknown, private buyers in Germany. This raised the ire of the Library of Israel, who had her arrested for not following proper archival procedures with the Kafka papers. (She attempted to sell original materials without making copies, first.) Jewish authors around the world, including Philip Roth, were outraged.

Her profits continued. In 1988, she auctioned off a manuscript of The Trial for millions. The German Literature Archive purchased the manuscript. She then negotiated to sell all of the Kafka archive, including Brod’s papers, to the German Literature Archive. This was a controversial decision, for reasons we will soon explore.

Located in Marbach, the German Literature Archive exists to “awaken knowledge of original sources and to awaken joy in literature.” Focused on German literature, the archive promotes conferences, scholarships and workshops. They have an extensive collection of German manuscripts, a large staff, and a stunning array of museums and buildings. They also have a devoted archive to 20th century German literature, a category which both makes sense for Kafka and doesn’t make sense at all.[1] The German Literature Archive is state of the art, a well-funded research and public space.

The deal, however, was never completed. Hoffe died in 2007. The papers went to her aged daughters, Eva and Ruth. The two daughters were in their seventies when they inherited the papers, and although they’ve never said so to the press, they see the papers as an inheritance that they can do with as they please.

Eva carried some of the papers to her house, which is, to quote the New York Times, “inhabited by . . . between 40 and 100 cats.” The unhygienic nature of this type of habitat makes scholars nervous. As the archive was never fully cataloged—over the years a number of archivists have tried to survey and catalog the existing papers, but the physical distance between the various papers, and the reluctance of Eva and Ruth, makes this task close to impossible—the content of the archive is unknown. This ambiguity makes scholars doubly nervous, as pieces can go missing without anyone knowing they were there in the first place.

Large sums of money are involved, but Eva and Ruth seem to be pathological in their insistence of ownership of Kafka’s papers. They are also secretive and reclusive. They have refused to give any interviews, instead communicating through their lawyer. By all accounts, they were and are intractable in their belief that they have the right to sell the papers. They set about to do so, and the byzantine affair seemed to be at an end.

But then, an injunction was filed. Eva and Ruth, the German Literature Archive, and the National Library of Israel all hired lawyers.


[1] I contacted the German Literature Archive a number of times concerning the case, they responded up to a point, but never actually answered any questions or conveyed any information.

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