Zeitgeister On Air Being Kafka #1 mit Kathi Diamant

Being Kafka #1 mit Kathi Diamant

Kathi Diamant ist die Gründerin und Direktorin des „Kafka Project“ an der San Diego State University in den USA. Sie erzählt Dina Elsayed von ihrer besonderen Beziehung zu der letzten Lebensgefährtin von Franz Kafka: Dora Diamant (sind Kathi und Dora etwa verwandt?). Seit Jahrzehnten bereits sucht Kathi nach Briefen und Notizbüchern von Franz Kafka, die 1933 von der Gestapo bei Dora Diamant beschlagnahmt wurden. Diese Dokumente sind mutmaßlich von Berlin via Schlesien via Moskau nach Israel gelangt, wo sich ihre Spur verliert – aber die Suche geht weiter!


Podcast abonnieren: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | RSS


Dina Elsayed: Welcome to Zeitgeister On Air, a joint project of the current affairs podcast Common Ground Berlin and Goethe-Institut. I’m your host, Dina Elsayed. It’s been a century since world famous author Franz Kafka passed away. To honor his legacy and explore Kafka’s relevance today, Goethe-Institut is bringing you Being Kafka. It’s a fascinating and informative series with articles you can find at goethe.de/kafka – and in audio episodes like this one. Today’s guest in our inaugural episode is an author, actor and a literary detective of sorts. She has spent decades searching for Kafka’s missing works. It started when she stumbled upon a mystery she felt compelled to solve – one that ended up changing the course of her life. I spoke with Kathi Diamant via Zoom in San Diego. [Music]

Dina Elsayed: Are you a descendant of Kafka’s life partner Dora Diamant? I ask because you share a last name with her.

Kathi Diamant: That’s exactly the question – “Are you related to Dora Diamant?” – that started me on the search. And the fact is, I still don’t know. I have found her family members and we could do a DNA test, but it’s not necessary. It’s what started me on my search for Dora. But as I learned more about her, I started to realize that it didn’t matter. Her story stood on its own and whether we were related or not was irrelevant. And then once I was able to tell her story and I found her family and they welcomed us into the mishpocha – we could do the DNA test, but life is a mystery, a great mystery and not all mysteries get solved. And in terms of the book, in terms of her biography that I wrote, it helps that I don’t know. Because in this way I’m not being accused of glorifying my great aunt or a family member. That adds supposed objectivity, which really doesn’t exist, I have to admit.

Dina Elsayed: What can you tell us about Dora Diamant?

Kathi Diamant: Well, I first heard her name when I was 19 years old in a German language literature class in college. We were translating “The Metamorphosis” and the professor interrupted to ask if I was related to Dora Diamant – Diamant [German pronunciation]. He wrote her name on the blackboard and it was spelled the same way. And at that time I had not encountered anybody who had the same last name I did. And I had a crush on the teacher, which was why I was in class that day. And so I said, “Yeah, who is she?” And he said, “Dora Diamant was Franz Kafka’s last mistress. They were very much in love. He died in her arms and she burned his work.” A kid behind me, I remember, a student behind me said, “Not enough of it.” And at the time I was inclined to agree. I did not get Kafka. I did not understand Kafka. But I wanted to find out if I was related to this woman, Dora Diamant, so I could tell my teacher I was. And I went running to the library. And this was the sort of student I was in 1971. It was the first time I’d been to the library on campus. I had not yet found it, it hadn’t been necessary. But now it was. I got to the card catalog, when they had card catalogs, and I leafed through it. I found Kafka and there was all this information on Kafka. He was famous – I had no idea – one of the world’s greatest literary geniuses who had changed literature. And when Dora was mentioned in his biographies, she was 19 years old – the same age I was. And she was by all accounts a fierce, independent, intellectual, loving, generous, beautiful, young woman who captured the heart of one of the most important writers of the 20th century. So I wanted to be related to her. And that began my search for her. What I discovered along the way is she was indeed an extraordinary human being. She was brave and courageous and forward thinking in a time when few women were able to be. She was generous, loving to a fault almost. And as one of her friends once told me, Dora understood human nature and made allowances for all. So her character was really extraordinary, but it was her life experiences that made her biography necessary. Kafka has been called “representative man.” Well, Dora is I think “representative woman.” She lived for the first half of the 20th century, experienced two World Wars, and made, as she says, made of herself a person.

Dina Elsayed: Is it fair to say that she was Kafka’s muse and do we know what she thought of his works?

Kathi Diamant: She didn’t care that he was a writer. It didn’t matter to her other than it was important to him. And as she said, it was the very breath he took that writing was what he had to do. And she supported that. When Kafka was with Dora, his writing changed in that he always needed to be completely alone when he wrote. But with Dora, he wanted her in the room. He wanted her there. And then he read out his work to her after he wrote it. And as Dora says, he never explained – except one time in one story that he wrote while they were together, “The Burrow” – “Der Bau”. He told her that she was the castle keep in that story. She was his safe place. Up until Dora, Kafka didn’t think it was possible to marry and be a writer. The societal conditions at the time prohibited that kind of artistic leaning. But with Dora, it was possible, that she made it possible for him. So in that way, I think she was his muse. One of the stories that was written while they were together, “A Little Woman”, is about their landlady who was really ghastly. And he writes for pages about how ghastly she was to him. That if he were cut up into a thousand pieces that she would hate every single piece of him, that she just detested him. And there have been Kafka scholars who have come along who say that Kafka was really writing about Dora – that Dora was the “little woman”. And that’s part of what Dora has had to face. Not just disrespect, but she was ignored. Scholars didn’t like what she had said about Kafka, that he was a born playmate, usually cheerful, always ready for a joke. That didn’t go along with their ideas of how his literature had been formed and the meaning of his literature. And so I was told over and over again that Dora wasn’t real, that Dora didn’t know what she was talking about, that she was hysterical, that we just really couldn’t count on anything she had said. And that was why writing her biography rather than just the love story, which was what attracted me, but telling her whole story became necessary – to rewrite her back into history, to make sure her name was spelled correctly, to make sure she got the credit for giving Kafka the happiest year of his life.

Dina Elsayed: You founded the Kafka Project in Berlin. Tell us more about that project and why you started it.

Kathi Diamant: The Kafka Project was born in 1996 when I was working on a screenplay version of the story. I kept trying to tell Dora’s story in whatever method I could and whatever format became available to me with the skillset I had. And I didn’t have…I had already written a play about Dora and I had submitted it for contests and it won a couple of contests. But generally the criticism was that it didn’t really have an ending. The story in the play ends when I find Dora’s unmarked grave in London and I place stones spelling out her name and I promise her that someday I’ll write a book about her and someday I’ll place some memorial here so she won’t be buried in an unmarked grave. So I needed to come up with an ending that was more complete. And I was working on a screenplay with a partner and I called my sister to wish her a happy birthday and she said, “Oh, I’m so glad you called. I had a dream about you and Dora last night! And it was the strangest dream! It was just you and Dora and she kept saying the same thing to you over and over again. She kept saying, ‘It’s all about the papers. Find the papers.’” And Trudy said, in the dream I kept repeating “What papers?” And Dora kept repeating, “It’s all about the papers. Find the papers.” Trudy said, “I have no idea what it means.” And I said, “I do.” I had read an article a couple of years earlier in Newsweek Magazine about how after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall, archives, basements, bunkers, attics, mines were being uncovered, stacked to the ceiling with documents and insurance policies and artwork and gold that was possible to be recovered by the owners. So I filed a petition with the German government for the return of Dora’s possessions that were confiscated by the Gestapo in 1933. What was confiscated from her was 35 letters that Kafka had written to her and up to 20 notebooks that he had kept in the last year of his life. So this really does comprise the last year of his writing. When Kafka died, Max Brod, his friend and literary executor, started gathering everything together for publication. Dora knew Kafka didn’t want his diaries or his letters or the stories that weren’t finished or the novels that weren’t finished published. So she kept what she had and she lied. She said she had burned everything – but she hadn’t. She had kept things secretly for nine years from 1924 until 1933 when the Gestapo raided her house. She was working as an Agitprop actress for the German Communist Party, fighting the Nazis. And the first group that were illegal under the new Nazi regime in Germany were the communists, the political opponents to Nazism. And so her flat was raided and every scrap of paper taken, at which point she confessed her lies, she called Max Brod, and let him know that it was all gone and it needed to be recovered. Max then mobilized the cultural attaché in Berlin, a Czech poet by the name of Camill Hoffmann. He went to the government and asked for the return of Dora’s possessions and was told that the mountainous stacks of papers confiscated in the early days of Nazi rule made it impossible to locate any specific document. And because Camill Hoffman was Jewish and so was Kafka and so was Dora and so was Max Brod, they were not encouraged to continue the search. After the war was over, Max Brod, who had escaped to Tel Aviv now, worked with a German scholar, a young man, Klaus Wagenbach, and they continued the search, which lasted until the Iron Curtain descended. Before that happened, they were informed by the chief of police in Berlin that Dora’s possessions had been taken, probably, by train transport out of Berlin for safekeeping during the allied bombing, and were stored somewhere in Schlesia. So that was where their search ended. And after the collapse of the [Berlin] wall, now it was possible to research again. So when Trudy told me about her dream, I thought, “Those are the papers. Those are the papers that now can be recovered.” So I wrote to the Kafka estate in London, England, and asked them if I could begin the search again, pro bono, on their behalf, and I got a letter of permission. And with that, I started forming the Kafka Project. I found an academic home at San Diego State University, and I formed an advisory committee, and I petitioned the German government for the return of Dora’s possessions under the issue of Holocaust-era assets. And I started the search when the German government accepted the case and said they would be looking at it in the summer of 1998. I planned four months to be there for the opening of the case and the closing case and to do whatever I could around it. So I spent four months in 1998. And I found the confiscation order of Dora’s property. And I found other documents that encouraged me – and not just encouraged me, the German government told me, “Okay, this is real, and don’t give up. It’s going to be years before all the archives are uncovered and catalogued.” In 2008, I returned, and this time concentrated in Poland, the Czech Republic, and in Eastern Europe, I visited archives, universities. We had a Kafka Project alert describing what was missing, who it belonged to, and we disseminated that all throughout three countries. And then in 2012, after hitting block after block after block, I got a residency at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. as an Eastern European scholar. And I was researching laws and policies surrounding captured German documents after World War II. And what I learned was there was nothing left in Eastern Europe. Everything had been taken and what the Americans didn’t get was taken by the Red Army to Moscow. So we had to look to Moscow. But there was good news in that Moscow started returning these confiscated documents starting in the 1960s, sometimes even in the late 50s, started returning them to Germany, to the East German Communist Party, hoping that there was some material in there that would help them route out traders. And with that, we knew that we needed to find one of these archives that had been returned. And we did. In 2013, we located a secret archive that was named “9/11,” uncatalogued, and in Berlin. At that point, German researchers took over. I gave them the lead. Dr. Hans-Gerd Koch took the lead and became very frustrated that the Ministry of Culture would not fund this research. And frankly, I understand why not. I mean, it’s a can of worms. There’s all sorts of issues when you start to open up archives like that – restitution, criminal activities, it just could be a horror show. So there’s not a whole lot of interest or push to open these files, except from people like me and Dr. Koch and others who want to know what happened and what’s in them. So Dr. Koch has to finish the final edition of the critical edition of Kafka’s Letters. And so we have a new director in place, Dr. Christoph Geiss, who is absolutely perfect for the job. He’s now working in Koblenz in the archives there. And that’s where the Kafka Project stands right now. We have found many, many things. I found Kafka’s hairbrush – not that that helps find the documents, but we have found things that no one knew about. And it has changed the Kafka story. It has changed the story of his life, how he died and how he lived his last year. So the search is continuing. It’s not over. The more we look, the more we discover needs to be found. And now there’s 75 letters that Dora wrote to Max Brod over a 25-year period that are also missing that we’re also looking for. So the search, while it’s as complete as it can be, only leads to new questions.

Dina Elsayed: And what’s special about these manuscripts that you’re trying to recover? What do they tell us about Kafka? What can they tell us about Dora? What secrets are you trying to reveal?

Kathi Diamant: Well, Kafka is famous for being a failed lover. He was engaged twice to Felice, and that didn’t work out, the relationship with Milena Jesenska didn’t work out. It’s always the story of how he just couldn’t find “the right gal.” And the fact is he did. It was just too late. Max Brod said that the irony of Kafka’s life was that he had not met Dora sooner, for that if he had, his will to live would have been stronger sooner. The 35 letters that Kafka wrote to Dora that are missing represent his happy love affair. So instead of the longing and the unhappiness that he experienced in the other letters that people read and cling to and think of Kafka, the letters to Dora would have been completely different, would have been filled with hope and possibility. Dora describes in one of the letters to Max Brod, that is still missing, but we have those letters catalogued in the 1980s. So we know what was in those letters in terms of when they were sent, what the address was she sent them from, whether it was a postcard or a telegram or a full four page letter. In the catalogue, there are little notations of what was in those letters if it was meaningful. The day her apartment was raided by the Gestapo, she wrote, “All of Franz’, things are gone. The Gestapo took them.” There’s just three or four sentences from a four page letter. So in terms of finding those missing Kafka papers, Dora’s letters that are supposedly in Israel now, that are still missing, would help find those. So that each piece is a clue to a puzzle that could fill out the edges where we don’t have it. We would also see a different Kafka who was writing finally freely, who was living the life he had always dreamed, a free life in Berlin. His dream was to live the free life of a writer in Berlin. And we would have seen that. We would see the evidence of that. And in the absence of it, the final chapter of Kafka’s story still has not yet been told.

Dina Elsayed: Are you still hopeful you’ll find these manuscripts a quarter century after you began your search?

Kathi Diamant: Well this is one of the reasons I knew that Dr. Geiss was right for the job – when he told me that he didn’t expect to find anything. Of course we have to have hope, but we can’t depend on that as the reason for our search. The search is important in and of itself. I don’t know if we’re going to find anything, but it’s not important to focus on that. It’s more important to focus on taking the next step. Okay, if I’m going to be totally honest, yes, we’re going to find the things. I do believe that. It may not be in my lifetime, but they are going to surface and they will be protected because of the work we have done and that we have built so much knowledge about these letters –  that they exist. So when they are discovered, people will know what they are. They won’t be thrown away. They will be counted as the treasures they are. My job has been to lay the groundwork and to put the right people in place to find them.

Dina Elsayed: Berlin is a central focus of your project. What do you reckon Kafka would think of Berlin today?

Kathi Diamant: I think what Berlin represented for Kafka and for Dora was a place where anything was possible, where you could be authentically yourself. And as long as that’s still true in Berlin, and I think it is, I think they would still feel at home there. Dora was, as she wrote in one of her letters, “intoxicated by Berlin,” that she just walked around when she first arrived in the days, so amazed by the freedoms and the mixing of cultures and ideas and people.

Dina Elsayed: That was Kathi Diamant, whom we reached in San Diego. I’m your host, Dina Elsayed and thank you for listening to this interview in our series “Being Kafka.” We will be back next week with German-Israeli historian and curator Stefan Litt, who helped develop a new tech way to bring Franz Kafka to the world today.

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]