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Zeitgeister On Air
Being Kafka #2 mit Stefan Litt

Being Kafka #2 mit Stefan Litt

Stefan Litt von der Israelischen Nationalbibliothek erzählt unserer Host Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson von der abenteuerlichen Reise der Manuskripte Franz Kafkas nach dessen Tod. Die entscheidende Rolle bei ihrer Rettung spielte Kafkas Freund Max Brod. Zuerst rettete er die Manuskripte vor Kafkas letztem Willen und verbrannte sie nicht. Später rettete er sie vor den Wirren des Zweiten Weltkriegs: Als er 1939 vor den Nazis aus Prag fliehen musste, hatte er einen Koffer voller Kafka im Schlepptau. In der Folge war es schwierig, einen sicheren Aufbewahrungsort für die Papiere zu finden. Schließlich folgten jahrzehntelange Prozesse wegen illegitimer Geschenke und Versteigerungen bei Sotheby’s. Ein Krimi mit … Vorsicht Spoiler … Happy End.


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Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: Welcome to Being Kafka. In this second season of ZEITGEISTER ON AIR by Goethe-Institut and the current affairs podcast Common Ground Berlin. I’m your host, Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson. It’s been a century since the world-renowned Franz Kafka passed away. To honor his legacy and explore his relevance, we bring you this fascinating series with articles you can find at – you will also learn more about Kafka and the people he influenced in audio episodes like this one. Who should keep Franz Kafka’s original writings has been debated by individuals and courts since his death a century ago. But in recent years, one library came up with a modern-day solution that makes his original writings available to anyone with access to the internet. My guest, Stefan Litt, will tell us more about that. He is a German-Israeli curator, historian, and archivist at the National Library of Israel. I reached him via Zoom in Jerusalem. Stefan, to the casual reader, it doesn’t appear Kafka attached much significance to the fate of his personal papers after his death. Is that true?

Stefan Litt: Well, that’s partly correct, I would say, and partly maybe wrong. Because if he would have been so careless, as you just mentioned right now, he would probably not have taken care for the fate of his papers after his death. But we know that he left two handwritten notes, so-called testaments, that he addressed to Max Brod, to his close friend, where he asked him to collect all of his papers from friends, from different places, offices, home, and so on and so forth – and not to read them and to burn them. So I wouldn’t say that someone who does not care about his papers would draft up such a letter. And he did it twice. So I do think that there was a kind of importance to him concerning his own papers. And my explanation is that maybe he felt that most of the things that he wrote, or the three unfinished novels and his diaries and many short stories he never published – he first and foremost actually wrote them down for himself, because he kind of struggled with so many different issues in the world and in everyday life that confused him. And that was his way of getting a therapy. And maybe he, correctly, I would say, felt that these papers are really very personal and very special.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: As you mentioned, his friend Max Brod ended up with these papers. Who was he exactly?

Stefan Litt: Both of them met when they were students in Prague University. Actually, Kafka was a year ahead, because he was one year older than Max Brod. And nevertheless, they met being students, young students, in law. And they were showing up at different events and not connected at all to the university, of course – about philosophy, literature and things people did more than 100 years ago. Actually, they started a conversation and discussion and felt pretty much, intellectually, pretty much attracted to each other. And they were, I would say, pretty different personalities and characters, because Max Brod was one who had hardly any doubts about his qualities in literature, in music – Max Brod was also a composer. And literally whenever he finished a piece, a short story or even a novel, he would never hesitate to publish it right now. And he was quite a successful author, actually, when he was alive in pre-war Europe. That was exactly the opposite with Franz Kafka, who was so full of doubts about his literary production and hesitated all the time, whether what he wrote would even be worth printing it and not mentioning that others would read it or wanted to read it, because he was absolutely not sure about his qualities. But Max Brod was deeply convinced that Kafka is a brilliant author. And he is the one, actually, who pushed Kafka all the time during his lifetime to finish his works, to publish them, to release them with publishers. And he was the one who decided, at the end, not to obey the letters that Kafka left him asking for burning all those materials. So he did collect all of them, but then he did exactly the opposite and published everything, literally everything. And by doing so, Max Brod, in fact, made Kafka the author, the world author that we know for many decades now and who is without any question one of the most important authors of the 20th century.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: So where were all of these manuscripts and personal papers located after Franz Kafka died? I mean, where did Max Brod find them?

Stefan Litt: In one of these wills that Max Brod, sorry, Franz Kafka left, he pointed out that there are several places – first, at his parents’ home, in his office and with friends and so on. So, Max Brod indeed came to all those places, also contacted friends of Kafka who had in their hands manuscripts, letters and so on and he collected everything. So all these materials were with him until 1939, in mid-March when Max Brod left Prague because he understood that there is no way staying there because of the threat that the Nazi Germans would invade into Czechoslovakia – what they did exactly the same day when he left. And he, together with a common friend of Franz Kafka, whose name was Felix Weltsch, both of them with their wives emigrated to Palestine. And Max Brod had only very few suitcases with him on his way here. And in one of these suitcases were all the writings of Kafka. So he took them with him on the train, on the ship to Palestine, where he came in late March 1939 to Tel Aviv. And he settled down there in Tel Aviv. And in the beginning he had all those papers at his home. And in 1940, I believe it was that during World War II, Tel Aviv was bombed by the Italian Air Force. So he became anxious about the fate of those precious materials. And he asked the publisher, Salman Schocken, who came also from Germany and founded the famous Schocken Publishers in Germany, who had a private library here in Jerusalem. The building still exists. It’s a beautiful building and it’s built state-of-the-art for the 1930s as a library building with closed stacks, underground stacks. And Max Brod asked him to get a safe, actually, a vault downstairs to deposit all these materials. And Schocken agreed because he was the publisher who held all the world rights of Franz Kafka. He bought them from Kafka’s mother in 1934. And for him it was also not just thrilling, but also interesting, also from the point of view of a publisher to have the original manuscripts with him, of course. So they stayed there for roughly 15 years and from time to time when needed, Max Brod had access to those materials because he was the editor of Kafka’s works, beginning immediately after Kafka’s death until the mid-1950s. By then, all of Kafka’s works have been published. Then we had in between the 1948 Independence War of Israel, which passed over the library building of Schocken in Jerusalem without any harm. But then there was the next crisis in 1956 and both Schocken and Max Brod became, again, anxious about the question whether Israel in general is a good place to keep those materials. And so they decided to transfer them to a bank vault in Zurich in Switzerland. And since 1956 until, let’s say, the early 1960s, most all of those materials were in Switzerland. Then in the early ’60s, Max Brod had established contact with Kafka’s heirs. Kafka had, as we know, three sisters. All of them were murdered in the Holocaust, but their children survived. And they knew, of course, Max Brod. He was Uncle Max for them, and they re-established their contacts. And they also asked several times, apparently, “What about the manuscripts?” because they knew that on the one hand, Brod was obliged to collect all of them – but it was absolutely sure that Kafka never said that all of them would belong to Max Brod because he wanted them to destroy them. So they most likely argued something like, “Uncle Max, you helped us that all these materials survived, but – very nice of you, but they are not yours, so please return them to us.” There were a couple of items among them that Max Brod was able to prove that Kafka had given him as a present, for example, the complete manuscript of the novel, The Trial­ – “Der Prozess” in German. And almost all of the drawings and scribblings that Kafka made during his heirs, and several other pieces – short stories, sketches, literary sketches, and so on and so forth. But the main bulk was given by Brod back to the heirs, and they decided to deposit them in Oxford at the Bodleian Library, where they are since 1962, I think, until today. And this is the biggest Kafka collection worldwide, in Oxford.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: Some of them, though, eventually ended up back in Israel. Was this then Max Brod’s collection?

Stefan Litt: Yes.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: Okay, go ahead and tell me about that.

Stefan Litt: Yes, so everything that he was not forced to return to or to restitute to the heirs, he kept for himself. But most of these items, again, he decided that Zurich most likely would be a better place to have them there. And we also know that in the early 1940s, he met a lady who also came from Czechoslovakia – a Jewish lady with her family immigrated as well to Palestine, whose name was Ilse Ester Hoffe, and she became Max Brod’s private secretary. They had a very deep relationship, and she apparently showed great interest in Max Brod’s work as an author, his editorial work concerning Kafka, and also concerning the materials. So for a reason that we cannot 100% determine what it was, Max Brod decided to give all Kafka’s manuscripts remaining in his hands and letters and drawings and so on as a gift to this secretary. And he did that twice in the late 1940s and in the early 1950s. So there’s a deed of gift, two deeds of gift actually, saying that after his death all these materials will absolutely belong to Mrs. Hoffe. But there was one step that was never made: to make sure that this deed of gift is valid in a legal way, you would have been obliged to go to a notary or something like that in order to get the confirmation of this deed of gift. And they never did that. By sorting and arranging Max Brod’s personal archive I found a handwritten note that he left to Mrs. Hoffe, saying that, “Well, we still have to go to the notary in order to make this deed of gift valid 100%.” So they were aware about it, but they never did it. And that was the big question concerning the papers of Kafka when it came to the court case. But between that in 1968, Max Brod died and he left his last will in German. And there you had this paragraph 11 saying that his secretary Ilse Ester Hoffe, will be the executor of his will and will also be responsible for his papers. And she had to make sure to transfer these papers to a public library or archive. And he mentioned actually two places. The first place was us, the National Library in Jerusalem. The second place was the municipal library in Tel Aviv or any other place or library that Mrs. Hoffe would think would be appropriate.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: In Israel.

Stefan Litt: No – I think he even pointed out that possibly also outside Israel. After saying all this, he added this last sentence that beyond that, she is free to decide whatever she thinks would be the right way to treat those materials. So that was kind of a carte blanche. And as we know, she very soon started to sell away the most precious items, which is most likely not exactly what Brod intended – I don’t know. So from, at least from 1972, we have proof that she began selling Max Brod’s or letters by Kafka to Max Brod, short drafts and manuscripts by Kafka. And she would do over the years the same time and again. And she also sold interesting letters that Max Brod received from his contemporaries, for instance, more than 40 letters he received from Stefan Zweig and other similar materials, which was definitely not the intention of Max Brod because by doing so, she actually made damage to the whole picture of the Britain estate of Max Brod. We know also that there were negotiations between her and the National Library in the 1980s about transferring the main bulk of Brod’s archive to the National Library – not Kafka’s materials, because she was convinced that they are hers. And by the end, she never did anything beyond selling most precious items. So the ‘big bang’ was actually in 1988 when she decided to sell the manuscript of the famous novel The Trial in Sotheby’s in London. Well, she was quite successful because she got $2 million by then, which is, also even today, quite a lot of money and 40 years earlier, it was even more. So the manuscript was in the first place bought by a private donor who at the same week donated it to the literature archive in Marbach, which is fine because it’s a public institution and state-of-the-art, and they know how to treat these kinds of materials.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: Tell us how you got to the court case. I mean, in the end, how were you able to get this collection or what parts of the collection were you able to get back to the National Library?

Stefan Litt: The situation became interesting again when Mrs. Hoffe died in 2006. According to the Israeli rules, the family or the heirs of someone who just passed away have to go to the family court and ask to release the testament to make it valid in a legal way. So they went, but then the library stepped in and said, “No, sorry, we know that there is still an issue unsolved from Mrs. Hoffe because she actually never fulfilled the will of Max Brod. And that’s why we do not agree that all these materials – which are still in her hands – will just be given away to the next generation because there’s something absolutely unsolved from our perspective.” And in 2008, the court case began and it took more than a decade and three different levels of courts, up to the Supreme Court in Israel, dealt with the same question of who is the owner of Max Brod’s papers and including Kafka’s papers. Because the library lawyers said, “Well, the deed of gift never got 100% confirmation by the legal authorities in the 1940s and ’50s and that’s why the gift is not valid, actually. So these papers are still part of Max Brod’s personal archive.” In all the courts, the National Library anonymously got 100% what she wanted. So all of the judges involved decided in favor of the library. And by the end in 2019, we were able to collect the last and most important and most precious part from the mentioned bank vaults in Zurich where still the Kafka papers were kept over the decades.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: But did you get the manuscript of The Trial back?

Stefan Litt: No. The courts in Israel also said, “What happened, happened.” Okay – unfortunately – but we do not touch this again because it will make a lot of noise and unnecessary conflict. And we never asked to get it back and that’s fine because we are convinced as long as it is not in private hands where you would not have access to it, but in a public institution, that’s fine for us. And still, we received quite a bunch of materials – and very interesting materials, early sketches of the novel, of course, unfinished, because Kafka did not like to finish his novels – The Wedding Preparations in the Countryside it was called. And we have more than 100 drawings and sketches. We have more than 200 letters he sent to Max Brod, which is really a nice group of correspondence. And we also have a notebook filled with Hebrew exercises from 1922, apparently, which proves that Kafka was quite advanced in Hebrew. And this is, of course, something that thrills the Israeli public because it was rarely discussed before, that Kafka did show deep interest in this language and was able to read and write and even to talk as his contemporaries witnessed.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: In 2021, your library decided to make these works available online. Is this the only online collection of Kafka that you’re aware of?

Stefan Litt: To the best of my knowledge, yes. There are two other main collections – the one I mentioned before, in Oxford. And we know that they did digitize their materials, but as far as I know, they are not available for free online. And the other bulk is in the German literature archive in Marbach. And I also think that they did not make any progress in making accessible these materials.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: How many works are available online in the service that you offer?

Stefan Litt: All together, I think it sums up to more than 100 catalogue records, meaning that a record could be a bunch of letters or a manuscript or a drawing or several drawings. We also try to keep in a certain way the arrangement that we found among the papers. But it’s, I think, around 100 records, which are available.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: So my last question is: what do you think Franz Kafka would have thought about having an online collection considering that he initially wanted his works or his letters to be burned?

Stefan Litt: Yes, that’s a question that I was asked several times. And that’s also, of course, a question of ethics. The first we should have asked was Max Brod and he was indeed asked what about the fact that he, in a way, betrayed his best friend. And he said “Yeah, that’s a dilemma. On the one hand, you have the last will of your best friend, but on the other hand, you see that you would destroy first class literary material and you can’t do that.” And I think we simply should follow with Max Brod’s thought in that way.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson: To access Kafka’s works online through the Israel National Library, go to and then in the search field type in “Kafka Manuscripts” or you can also google it on the internet. My guest today was Stefan Litt of the National Library of Israel and I’m your host, Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson. Thank you for listening to this interview in our Being Kafka series.

Host:ZEITGEISTER ON AIR is brought to you by the Goethe-Institut. Thanks to all of our friends and partners for making this series possible. [Music]