The strange case of the Franz Kafka archive, part 5.

21 Apr

Part 5: Those sharp lawyers and their knives

Eva and Ruth want to sell the papers to the German Literature Archive. The National Library of Israel wants to keep the papers. Some basic questions over private property, public good, and intellectual property rights are at play.

The three sides are all battling it out in the Israel courts. Legal ambiguities abound, centering on Brod’s will to Hoffe and then Hoffe’s will to her daughters. As long as Hoffe’s will is in dispute, the daughters are unable to inherit the large amount of money involved, much of it earned from the sale of the manuscript of The Trial some 40 years ago.

The salient and interlocking questions:

What was Brod’s intention with the archive? And how does the will bear this out?

Was Hoffe the executor of Brod’s will, or the beneficiary?

Do Eva and Ruth have the right to sell Kafka’s papers to the German archive?

Does Israel have eminent domain?

Does Brod’s letter of intent somehow trump physical ownership?

All of the legal questions circle around the larger philosophical issue of who, if anyone, owns Kafka’s papers. This is the major question. Some argue that his work, as he is a seminal writer of the 20th Century, belongs to the world. Brod’s daughters argue that the papers belong to them, are private property. Both archives want to preserve the work, but the conflict speaks to some major concerns in the library/archive field of study. Kafka wasn’t German. He was Czech, a Jewish minority in the Hapsburg kingdom. But he wrote in German. His Jewishness—and his ambiguous feelings towards his own ethnic and religious identity—clouds the picture further. Most of the papers are in Israel, some are in Switzerland, some are in England, and together the papers are worth millions. It’s complex, pitting property rights of two individuals against the future image and influence of a world-renowned author.

This much is clear: the papers are symbolically important. They are worth a lot of money and prestige. And because of their importance, they have been sucked into the complicated political quagmire of Israel, the Holocaust, Zionism, and collective German guilt. For the case holds one more unbelievable twist. Kafka’s three sisters, some seventy years ago, were all killed in a Nazi concentration camp.

The specter of the Holocaust hangs over the proceedings, punctuated by Kafka’s sisters and their horrifying fate. And this specter has brought international attention to the trial. Various Jewish writers have condemned the move of Kafka’s papers to Germany. They understandably, and perhaps predictably, bring up the Nazi atrocities.

Returning to the nature of Kafka’s work itself, his novels and stories seem open to dozens of different interpretations. Some see his work as religious in nature. Others see them as humanist, existentialist, anti-capitalist, anti-totalitarian, iconoclastic, modernist, anti-modernist, monomythic, and on and on. The vague nature of his plots and his refusal to explain the meaning of his strange metaphors makes his work resistant to hard definitions. Existentialist hero or plagued Jewish everyman? Forerunner to European modernism or apotheosis of Yiddish comic traditions? All readings are valid. But the reading Kafka intended?

Regardless, the various sides continue to press their points. The German Literature Archive asserts that they can care for the Kafka papers better than their Israeli counterparts, adding to the controversy and tendentiousness of the situation. I contacted the Archive to see what they had to say about the case. They responded with long silence, and then asked me for the questions. I sent them the questions, and then they responded with yet more silence. Their core legal argument is that Eva and Ruth are the owners of Kafka’s papers. Their cultural argument is that Kafka wrote in German. They never provided me with answers.

The National Library of Israel has its own arguments. One of the major arguments put forth by the Library of Israel is that Brod named Hoffe the executor of the will, and not the beneficiary. In this line of reasoning, her control over the archive only extended to her death, and is not transferable to her children. In an earlier version of his will, Brod gave the papers to the Municipal Library at Tel Aviv, or to the forerunner of the NLI. But, before dying Brod wrote a letter to Hoffe, promising her ownership of the papers, outright. The letter is another piece of contested evidence, unverified and apparently edited. The letter rests at the center of the trial, and is still being studied and scrutinized.

Eva and Ruth have physical possession and control over the papers, an incontrovertible fact that lends their case credence. But as the bulk of the papers reside in the state of Israel, they are subject to Israeli laws. A peculiarity in Israeli law has prolonged the case; Israel cannot forcibly seize the papers, but they can prevent them from leaving the country. This protracted stalemate angered everyone involved. The world waited. The contents remained a secret.


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