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Culture

Secrecy surrounds Kafka manuscripts amid ownership row

The fate of Franz Kafka's literary heritage has turned into a legal tussle. Boxes presumably containing some of his manuscripts were opened this week - the contents, however, remain a secret.

Franz Kafka

Author Franz Kafka causes controversy even after his death

Original manuscripts belonging to German-speaking Jewish author Franz Kafka were extracted Monday from the vault of Swiss bank UBS. Four safes which held manuscripts and drawings for over 50 years were opened in Zurich, international newspapers reported. Among the documents is presumed to be a well-known short story by Kafka, written in his own hand - and thus worth a fortune.

The exact contents, however, remain unknown as the parties involved refuse to comment.. The documents are at the heart of a legal battle which spans a century and includes a dead poet, his friend, a secretary and her daughters, and the state of Israel.

For the past two years, the case has been disputed in a Tel Aviv courtroom. It's not the literature but money that has two elderly sisters battling with the state of Israel over ownership of the Kafka manuscripts. The two sisters were bequeathed the papers by their mother, Kafka's secretary, while the National Library of Israel regards Kafka's manuscripts as part of the nation's cultural heritage.

As if taken from his books

Austrian author and philosopher Max Brod

Max Brod disobeyed Kafka's last request

The story of Kafka's legacy is one of labyrinthine complexities, absurdities and struggles that could just as well constitute one of Kafka's own novels. The first chapter begins with Kafka's letter to his friend Max Brod, two sentences on an ink-blotted piece of paper:

"Dearest Max, my last request: everything I leave behind me … in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters, my own and others’, sketches and so on is to be burned completely and unread, the same applies to everything drawn or written which you or others, who you should ask for it, possess. …. Yours, Franz Kafka"

Brod disobeyed. Instead of burning everything, he kept the documents and smuggled them from Prague to Tel Aviv on the eve of the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939. Later, Brod gave the papers as a present to his former secretary Esther Hoffe, who herself handed them to her daughters, Eva Hoffe and Ruth Wiesler, prior to her death.

Part of Jewish cultural heritage

The Hoffe sisters, both over 70 now, found themselves in an Israeli court room just as they decided to sell all the documents to the German Literature Archive in Marbach. Meir Heller, lawyer for Israel's National Library, said the Zurich manuscripts amount to a national cultural treasure for Israel.

"The documents have to be made accessible to the public in Israel," he said. Heller insisted that Israel was the rightful home of the works of all great Jewish scholars.

"A Jewish author, writing in German, born in Prague - which country would you assign Kafka to?" said Professor Manfred Engel, a Kafka expert at Saarland University. "It's not easy, but to me, Marbach seems to be the better place to store the documents."

First page of The Trial

The original script of "The Trial" is kept in a bunker under the Literature Archive

Apart from Oxford, Marbach owns the largest collection of Kafka manuscripts worldwide, including the manuscript of his grandiose but disturbing novel "The Trial," which was bought at a Sotheby’s auction for 3.5 million German marks in 1988.

"From a scientist's point of view, it's best to keep all the documents in one place so that the oeuvre isn’t fragmented even further," Engel added.

"The most important thing is that the documents are preserved and made accessible to the public," commented Ulrich von Buelow, head of the manuscript department at the archive in Marbach. "We're not participants but merely observers of the case."

Hidden literary treasures

The Tel Aviv court recently ordered the opening of the four boxes in the UBS branch in Zurich. The move followed similar action at two Tel Aviv banks last week where six boxes were opened. Although no one is allowed to say anything about the contents, speculations surfaced on the internet just hours later.

"It is known, for instance, that some pages from 'Letter to my Father,' a hurt and angry text which he wrote in 1919 and which is seen as the key to understanding the author’s mind, are among the contents," wrote The Guardian from London on Monday. "Other manuscripts in Kafka’s hand include 'A Country Doctor,' 'Wedding Preparations in the Country,' and 'A Dream.' They are estimated to be worth several hundred thousand pounds."

Truly Kafkaesque

Michael Engel doesn't expect any new discoveries in the Zurich safes. "However, Brod's diaries should be very interesting. They most likely contain a lot of biographical information, especially about young Kafka," he said.

The author's sketches and drawings are also particularly interesting to the literary world. "Kafka as an illustrator is a fairly unknown genius," according to Engel.

Franz Kafka in Prague in 1920

Franz Kafka in Prague: Four years later, in 1924, he died of tuberculosis

Renowned Kafka expert Itta Shedletzky will now compile an inventory of the Zurich papers. When the process is completed, lawyers will present a detailed document to the court and judge Talia Koppelman will then decide on the rightful owner of the manuscripts, letters and drawings: the Hoffe sisters, who can then sell them to the German Literature Archive - or the National Library in Jerusalem.

Twists and turns - if there was ever an instance where the term "Kafkaesque" was appropriate this would be it. And the ending has yet to be written.

Author: Monika Griebeler

Editor: Kate Bowen/Susan Houlton

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