The Trial Fight for Kafka's Papers Winds through Israeli Courts

Before his death in 1924, Franz Kafka left his papers to Max Brod who rushed them out of Czechoslovakia ahead of the advancing Nazis. Now, the daughter of Brod's late secretary wants to sell them to a German institute. But the legal battle in Israel has become Kafka-esque.

Someone must have been spreading lies about Eva H. because, although she keeps no valuables in her apartment, an intruder broke in late one night. Her cats suddenly raised their heads, and then the silhouette of a muscular man wearing white gloves appeared in front of the glass pane of her bedroom door.

Eva Hoffe, 75, picked up her mobile phone and dialed 100, the number of the Israeli police. "There's a burglar in my house, Spinoza Street, Tel Aviv," she whispered. "Are you sure that he's still in your apartment?" asked the voice on the other end of the line. "He is standing in front of my bedroom door," replied the old woman. By the time the police arrived, the mysterious intruder had fled.


Photo Gallery: The Fight for Franz Kafka's Papers

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Hoffe doesn't believe this was a coincidence. A few days before the sinister nocturnal encounter, a detailed article had appeared about her in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz -- exactly the kind of attention she didn't want. Eva Hoffe is the daughter of Ilse Ester Hoffe, the former secretary of the late author Max Brod.

Brod is primarily known as Franz Kafka's friend, mentor and biographer. It wasn't until Brod posthumously published the novels "The Trial" and "The Castle" in the 1920s that Kafka became world famous. Without Brod, Kafka's works would have been forgotten.

Kafka suffered from a wide range of mental and physical conditions and, before he died of complications connected with tuberculosis in 1924, he entrusted Brod with a sheaf of handwritten documents and asked him to destroy the unpublished manuscripts after his death. Brod ignored his friend's last wishes. When the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939, he packed the documents in a suitcase and fled to Tel Aviv. Brod died there in 1968 and bequeathed these papers to his secretary Ester Hoffe. When she died two years ago at the age of 101, her two daughters, Eva Hoffe and the older sister Ruth Wiesler, inherited the collection -- at least that's what they thought.

Mysterious Treasure

Now this literary legacy has become the subject of a Kafkaesque dispute that will have to be resolved in court. Much of the controversy remains puzzling, the claims made by various parties are difficult to understand, and no one seems to know what the mysterious treasure may still contain.

The Israeli National Library has filed for an injunction on the execution of the will. Even during Ester Hoffe's lifetime, this institution had tried in vain to acquire the rights to the Kafka/Brod archive.

For over a year now, the Hoffe daughters have been awaiting a decision by the Tel Aviv family court. An increasing number of parties want to take part in the trial. The lawsuit launched by the Israeli library even alleges that Ester Hoffe unlawfully took possession of papers from Brod and illegally sold a portion of them abroad. Sure enough, in 1988 Sotheby's in London auctioned off the original manuscript of Kafka's novel "The Trial." It went for 3.5 million marks (€1.8 million) to the German Literature Archive in Marbach.

What treasures remain hidden in the safety deposit boxes of the late Ester Hoffe? During his short life, did Kafka perhaps write other works of fiction that are still unknown? And what new insights could be gained by reading Brod's personal notes on Kafka?

It goes without saying that this is also about money, and moreover about German-Israeli sensitivities. Should the literary bequest of Jewish author Max Brod, who had to flee the Nazis, end up in Germany of all places? At any rate, the Hoffe daughters are considering selling the remaining manuscripts to the literary archive in Marbach. Two months ago, the renowned institute also applied to the Tel Aviv family court to be admitted as a party to the inheritance dispute.

And another claimant has come forward: Israeli publisher Amos Schocken. His grandfather Salman Schocken, who owned a chain of department stores in Germany in the 1920s, purchased the rights to the author's manuscripts from Kafka's parents. Grandson Amos today publishes the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, whose reporting has attracted great attention to the trial.

Fighting the 'Lies and Slander'

The newspaper has painted a picture of Ester Hoffe and her daughters as a stubborn, money-grubbing family, which is preventing researchers from gaining access to a world cultural heritage. Not only has the newspaper cast doubt on their rights to the literary bequest, but also on their ability to take proper care of the manuscripts.

Now Eva Hoffe has spoken with SPIEGEL and, for the first time, related her version of events to the press. She says that she wants to take action against the "lies and slander."

Hoffe was sitting in her lawyer's office, with a bookcase filled with legal tomes towering behind her, and a large pile of documents stacked in front of her. She was modestly dressed, wearing tennis shoes and a black sweater under a red tank top. Her small blue eyes darted apprehensively, and her elbows were placed wide apart on the table, as if to ward off an attack.

"I escaped the Holocaust," the old woman says. She worked for the Israeli airline El Al for 30 years, but she never felt like visiting Germany. "I couldn't forgive."

Just like the Brods, the Hoffe family came from Prague. They fled in 1940; Eva was five at the time. In Tel Aviv her father Otto Hoffe and Max Brod met at a Hebrew course and became friends.

Brod's wife Else died a few years after her arrival in Palestine, and Ester Hoffe went to work for the author. She corrected his spelling and typed up his manuscripts. He always presented her as "my assistant."

Ester Hoffe had a small office in Brod's apartment at 16 Jarden Street in Tel Aviv. Eva says that her mother brought croissants when she arrived in the morning, and she heated the samovar before she left, so there would be enough tea for Brod's guests during the afternoon. In the evenings, they would go to the theater. Brod always got two tickets for opening night -- sometimes he invited Otto, sometimes Ester. "They were a threesome," says Eva. "Both men died in 1968 within five months of each other."

Spiritual Love

In his last will and testament from June, 1961, Brod named "Mrs. Ilse Ester Hoffe" as the "sole executor." But he didn't specify where his manuscripts and letters should be placed. In clause 11 of the will, he mentioned possible locations such as the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem, the Tel Aviv city library, but also "every other public archive in Israel or abroad." It was up to Ester Hoffe to determine which of these sites would serve as a repository after her death, wrote Brod, "if she had not made other arrangements during her lifetime."

Rumors persist to this day that Brod and Hoffe were lovers, and that the determined Ester may have been a legacy hunter who also won Brod's favor through intimacy. Such suspicions are based primarily on one passage in the will, specifying that the correspondence between him and Ester can only be published 25 years after their deaths. "My mother was definitely not Brod's lover," says Eva Hoffe, "her love wasn't carnal -- it was spiritual."

Right from the start, the state of Israel has disputed Ester Hoffe's inheritance. The legal adviser to the Israeli government sued Hoffe in the early 1970s, contesting her as executor of the will. The Brod confidante won the trial. The will, confirmed the judge in January, 1974, "allows Mrs. Hoffe, for the rest of her life, to proceed at your own discretion."

The government then apparently switched tactics. On July 23, 1974, Ester Hoffe was arrested at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport under suspicion of attempting to smuggle handwritten documents abroad. A search of her luggage revealed six envelopes with photocopies of Kafka letters, but no Kafka originals. The head of the National Archives later sent Hoffe a written statement apologizing for any inconvenience. The Archives Law of 1955 requires every Israeli to provide the state archive with copies when original handwritten manuscripts are taken abroad. The current state archivist, Jehoshua Freundlich, told SPIEGEL that he has no evidence that Esther Hoffe broke the law. He said that during her lifetime she sent a number of copies of letters, diaries and manuscripts to the archives.

Afraid of Being Robbed

For reasons that remain unclear, Brod's assistant was always jealously secretive. Berlin publisher and Kafka connoisseur Klaus Wagenbach was one the few individuals who Brod allowed to view his archives during the 1950s. "He had to show me the material secretly out of fear that Hoffe would find out," recalls Wagenbach, who is now 79. After Brod's death, Hoffe allowed practically no one to have access to the literary treasure, not even serious researchers. One can only speculate on her motives. Perhaps she was afraid of being robbed -- or she wanted to rake in the money.

In any case, she ended up selling a large number of papers. Over the following decades, Kafka documents regularly surfaced at public auctions. In 1974, for example, a total of 22 letters and 10 postcards sent by Kafka to Brod, along with other documents, were auctioned off for 90,000 marks (€46,000). Then, in 1985, a letter from Kafka to his fiancée Felice Bauer came under the hammer for 11,000 marks. This was followed by the auctioning of the original manuscript of Kafka's "The Trial" in 1988. Prior to that sale, there had been plans to loan the manuscript to a Paris Kafka exhibition. This failed, however, because Hoffe wanted an enormous amount of money and a personal request by phone from the French president. Hoffe's behavior violates Brod's intentions, said Wagenbach, who, at the time, had already started voicing his criticism: "Max Brod certainly did not risk his life to save Kafka's manuscripts from the Nazis so that they can now be sold off by Ester Hoffe with total contempt for literary obligations."

In one case, Hoffe even collected the cash without delivering the goods. In 1988 she concluded a contract with German publisher Artemis & Winkler, in which she ceded all rights for the publication of Max Brod's diaries. She received a five-digit sum, but never handed over the journals.

One thing is clear: Thanks to the inheritance, Esther Hoffe became a well-to-do woman. Her daughter Eva, however, complains that she has to live a modest life. She and her sister have no access to the money, reportedly roughly €1 million ($1.47 million), because the ongoing proceedings have prevented the court from issuing a certificate of inheritance. The legal dispute being heard in the Tel Aviv family court is becoming increasingly complex. The lawyer representing the two Hoffe sisters has proposed dealing with the inheritance in two separate stages, releasing the money now and negotiating the contentious Brod estate later. But the presiding judge has rejected the idea. Now the Hoffe daughters have appealed to the Israeli Supreme Court to expedite the process. Evidently, the Israeli authorities are endeavoring -- just as they did years ago with Ester Hoffe -- to portray the daughters as illegitimate heirs. "The papers did not belong to Ester Hoffe, so they don't belong to her daughters," says the Director of the Israeli National Library, Shmuel Harnoi. "According to the will, the manuscripts belong to us."

Attaching a Price Tag Is Impossible

By contrast, the Hoffe sisters think that the best solution would be to transfer the collection to the German Literature Archive in Marbach, Germany. This is where one of the world's largest collections of Kafka manuscripts -- second only to Oxford -- is housed. And the Germans have been energetically wooing the Hoffes. In a letter to Eva Hoffe dated June 2 of this year, archive director Ulrich Raulff wrote that Eva's mother "expressed her intention on a number of occasions to convey the Max Brod bequest to Marbach." And "as the first step to realizing these intentions," according to Raulff, she sent the German archive 40 letters and postcards mailed by German author Stefan Zweig to Brod.

Raulff also extols the archives as having "cutting-edge capabilities for professional storage and archiving." He added that the archives were of course prepared "to work together with the Israeli state, with Israeli institutions and researchers."

That has convinced the Hoffe daughters. They feel that the Israeli National Library is too poorly equipped. "It is true that our storage capabilities do not meet international standards," admits Library Director Harnoi. But he says that it's not acceptable to sell Jewish cultural heritage abroad.

In May of this year, the German archive reported that it had acquired a number of Brod letters. This news prompted Haaretz to speculate that Eva Hoffe has already converted part of her inheritance into cash. However, the seller was an elderly woman from Cologne, who maintained a correspondence with Brod decades ago, as Ulrich von Bülow, who heads the handwritten manuscript department, has confirmed.

Nobody knows exactly what the Hoffe literary bequest contains and, without knowing exactly what's in it, attaching a price tag is impossible. There are definitely unpublished drawings by Franz Kafka, says the German publisher Wagenbach. Bülow even assumes that the collection contains the original manuscript of Kafka's uncompleted novel "Wedding Preparations in the Country." But there is definitely nothing of value in her apartment, says Eva Hoffe. The documents are stored in safety deposit boxes at two banks.

A few months ago, the Hoffe sisters visited both financial institutions and glanced inside the boxes. Eva Hoffe won't say exactly what they contain -- or she is not in a position to judge. She will only divulge this much: "The papers are in good condition."

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen