Kafka and the Court Case: Background information when reading Forest Dark

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Forest Dark

A Novel

by Nicole Krauss

Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss X
Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2017, 304 pages
    Paperback:
    Aug 2018, 304 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Davida Chazan

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About this Book

Kafka and the Court Case

This article relates to Forest Dark

Print Review

Franz KafkaWhile reading Nicole Krauss' novel Forest Dark, it occurred to me that although most lovers of literature know the name Franz Kafka, many might not realize that Kafka's rise to fame came mostly posthumously. Furthermore, even fewer people may know much about the court battle over his papers that finally reached its conclusion in 2016.

Franz Kafka died in Prague in 1924, leaving his papers to his friend Max Brod with instructions to "burn them unread." Brod, however, couldn't bring himself to carry out Kafka's dying wish, and succeeded in smuggling them out of Europe in 1939, just before the Nazis' invasion of Czechoslovakia. Brod brought the papers with him to (what was then) Palestine, and began editing and translating them, publishing some of Kafka's best-known works internationally. After World War II, Brod sent some of the papers to Kafka's sole surviving family member, his niece, and these are now in Oxford, England. When Brod died in 1968, he left the remainder of his collection, along with his own diaries, in the care of his secretary, Esther Hoffe, who most people believe was Brod's lover. Brod apparently left vague instructions in his will regarding the preservation of these papers, which Esther decided to ignore (just as Brod had ignored Kafka's dying request to destroy them). When Esther died, she left her inherited trove to her daughters, Ruth Wiesler and Eva Hoffe.

Brod and KafkaEnter the National Library of Israel and their lawsuit. Their aim was to obtain the papers from Wiesler, and later after her death, from Hoffe, claiming that the documents saved from the Nazis rightfully belonged in their supervision, to properly archive, catalogue, translate and publish for all to see. However, due to the vague instructions in Brod's will, the possessors of these papers didn't want to give up their treasure. Reasons for their refusal included that they wanted the papers to go to the German National Archives, which Israel found a distasteful idea, since most of Kafka and Brod's family members died at the hands of the Nazis. Aside from their argument that Kafka was "Jewish but not a Zionist," Wiesler and Hoffe believed that these papers rightfully belonged to them, to dispose of as they pleased, and they made all sorts of claims, including making up a story about a break-in at their (famously cat-infested) Tel Aviv apartment where thieves stole them. Mostly, the Library worried that they would sell the papers off to the highest bidders. At one point, a court ordered Hoffe and her family to hand over the keys to the safety deposit boxes where they stored some of the papers, only to find that the keys didn't fit the boxes.

Most sources attest to the family putting out exorbitant amounts of money in their endless attempts to keep the papers to themselves, some of which probably came from the infamous 1988 auction of Kafka's original manuscript of "The Trial" to the German National Archive. As late as 2012, Hoffe's lawyers tried to stop the conclusion of the case against them by claiming that there was another will, written after the one used in the court case. By 2015, the Tel Aviv District court awarded the papers to the National Library of Israel, but once again, Hoffe appealed, this time to the Supreme Court.

Max Brod and Esther HoffeThe end to this ironically Kafkaesque battle came in August 2016, when the Israeli Supreme Court upheld the previous court decisions, and awarded all of the papers to the National Library of Israel. As of December 2016, all of the papers from the apartment in Tel-Aviv, and the many safety deposit boxes in Israel and Switzerland, are in the hands of the National Library of Israel. What will they find? Perhaps another masterpiece, or maybe only the shards of the genius we already know. Who knows, they might even find evidence to prove the outlandish theory in Krauss' novel was true; that Kafka faked his death, moved to Israel, recovered from tuberculosis so that he alone could complete the works that Brod published, which brought his brilliance to the world.

Franz Kafka
Franz Kafka and Max Brod, courtesy of rhystranter.com
Max Brod and Esther Hoffe, from Eva Hoffe's family archives

This "beyond the book article" relates to Forest Dark. It originally ran in September 2017 and has been updated for the August 2018 paperback edition.

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