Verdict in the trial of Kafka's legacy

A legal wrangle for ownership of the Czech master's unseen works has finally ended

The writings of Franz Kafka became a byword for surreal brutality and psychological alienation. The final chapter in his story that ended last week in a Tel Aviv courtroom is a tale of death, passion, greed and deception that reads more like an airport thriller than a work by the ascetic Czech master.

Kafka famously demanded that his life-long friend Max Brod burn all his papers when he died, in 1924. Instead, Brod published many of Kafka's works posthumously, enshrining his reputation as one of the greatest authors of the 20th century. When the Nazis invaded Prague in 1939, Brod fled to Palestine, carrying Kafka's surviving papers and manuscripts with him.

When Brod died in Tel Aviv in 1968, he bequeathed his archive – including the papers from Kafka – to his secretary and mistress Esther Hoffe, with instructions that they be "handed over" to an Israeli public archive.

Instead, Ms Hoffe broke up the collection, spreading it between her Tel Aviv apartment and at least 10 safety-deposit boxes in Israel and Switzerland, and began selling pieces of it to the highest bidder, chief among them the German Literature Archive in Marbach, which acquired the original manuscript of The Trial for $2m in 1988.

After Ms Hoffe's death at the age of 101 in 2007, she left the 40,000 pages that remained to her octogenarian daughters, Eva Hoffe and Ruth Wiesler. The sisters began making plans to sell the collection to the Marbach archive.

The collection contains Brod's unpublished diary, thought to contain new revelations about Kafka's life, and notebooks filled with Kafka's handwriting that could contain new literary treasures. There is also correspondence between Kafka, Brod and other notable writers, including Stefan Zweig.

The Israel National Library intervened with a legal challenge to Ms Hoffe's bequest, based on the conditions of Brod's will. In court, the sisters produced a two-page copy of Brod's final testament that did not contain the stringent request that his archive be made available to the public. In response, the National Library produced its own four-page copy of the same document with Brod's bequest.

The case continued for five years, but the sisters had lost.

"This case, complicated by passions, was argued in court for quite a long time across seas, lands, and times. Not every day, and most definitely not as a matter of routine, does the opportunity befall a judge to delve into the depth of history as it unfolds before him in piecemeal fashion," wrote Judge Talia Pardo Kupelman in her verdict last Friday. The trial, she wrote, had provided "a window into the lives, desires, frustrations and the souls of two of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century". She ruled: "Due to the strict requirements of proof required, I do not believe that the plaintiffs have met the requirements... the gift was never carried out to completion... One can determine that the Kafka manuscripts, like the Brod estate, were not given to the plaintiffs as gifts."

The judge added: "I hope that the inheritance of the late Brod will finally find its place according to the wishes of the deceased." She ordered Eva Hoffe (her sister died this year) to pay more than £15,000 in costs. Mrs Hoffe says she will appeal.

Until the legal proceedings end, no-one knows exactly what is among the papers, creating the possibility that Kafka's denouement has not yet been written. "I understand there is a diary there which tells the story of his meeting with Kafka and how they became friends," said Shimon Sandbank, emeritus Professor of English at the Hebrew University and author of After Kafka.

"Brod was the closest person to Kafka. He was his friend from high school to the end," Professor Sandbank added. "He was the one who was asked by Kafka to burn his writings and he didn't do it. This is his great achievement. I don't know any writing by Brod where he explains it. It would be interesting."

David Blumberg, chairman of the Israel National Library, said the collection would be catalogued and placed on public display as soon as possible. He said: "We don't know what's in there exactly but from our past experience in dealing with collections and archives like this, you can always expect surprises. There are always things that you didn't expect to find."

Mr Blumberg said there were no hard feelings against the Marbach archive. "I am ready to co-operate with them on the basis that it will be accessible to the general public." He added: "The verdict is a little tricky. It says that if any revenue is generated by the publication of the archive, the sisters will be the beneficiaries. We don't intend that there will be any money. We have no intention of turning this into a business."

Mr Blumberg said his main concern was to ensure that Israeli and Jewish cultural heritage was open for scholars and public alike. "We open the collections to everyone," he said. "If we can upload thousands of pages to the internet, we'll be happy to do so."

Prague-Berlin-Oxford: The travels of Kafka's other works

Kafka asked his last lover, Dora Diamant, to burn some of his writings, but she saved more than she destroyed. Diamant is thought to have held on to 35 letters and 20 notebooks, but they were confiscated in a Gestapo raid on her home in Berlin in 1933, and have not been seen since. The Kafka Project, which works on behalf of the Kafka Estate of London, continues to search for the works.

The Bodleian Library in Oxford holds the majority of Kafka's surviving manuscripts. By 1956, most of them had been reclaimed from Max Brod by the author's relatives. They were kept in a vault in Zurich until Kafka scholar Sir Malcolm Pasley persuaded the family to give them to Oxford in 1961.

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