Kafka's Last Love by Kathi Diamant

Tender hands with bloody work to do
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The Independent Culture

Haunted by the Talmudic injunction that a man should marry and have children, yet fearful that marriage would threaten his dedication to writing, Franz Kafka spent most of his adult life in a series of doomed "marriage-attempts". Then , right at the end, at the Baltic seaside resort of Müritz in 1923, he found complete happiness with another woman, Dora Diamant. He lived with Dora his remaining 11 months, first in the harsh winter of 1923-4 in Berlin during the hyper-inflation, then in a series of Austrian clinics until his death on 3 June 1924.

Dora was 25 and Kafka just 40 when they met in the holiday-camp kitchen kitchen of the Berlin Jewish People's Home. Dora was scaling fish. "Such tender hands and such bloody work for them to do," observed Kafka, who had already been spotted by Dora - this tall, neatly-dressed man with large luminous eyes, who was dying of tuberculosis of the larynx.

Since the rediscovery of his Jewishness sparked by the arrival in Prague of a troupe of Yiddish actors in 1911, Kafka had become convinced that Ostjuden from places such as Galicia in the east were the authentic Jews. Dora, therefore, was the real thing. He was mesmerised by her Polish Hasidic roots, and her knowledge of Hebrew, which he was struggling to learn.

With Dora, he was able to escape Prague and his parents. Their life in Berlin - hard as it was - was truly happy. Dora discovered in him a playfulness and humour well-concealed in the grim self-searching of his diaries and letters.

Kathi Diamant, spurred by the coincidence of sharing her surname, has spent 15 years pursuing Dora's story after Kafka's death. She has discovered a notebook in which Dora struggled - without conspicuous success - to describe the essence of the Kafka she knew. She wanted to celebrate Kafka and had little to say about his writings, being unaware of works such as The Trial until they were published posthumously by Max Brod. "His work was unimportant," she told Brod in 1930, and objected to what Milan Kundera would later call "Kafkology".

The real interest in this thoroughly researched account is in the life of Dora, a displaced Jew in the awful middle years of the 20th century. She became an agitprop actress in Germany before emigrating as a Communist to the Soviet Union. Dora's indiscipline disappointed the comrades. She was ejected from the Soviet paradise before the war, leaving behind her husband, who gave her a daughter but whom she showed little later interest in tracking down.

Dora arrived in Britain only to be shipped to the Isle of Man as an enemy alien and, after the war, lived hand-to-mouth in London. A passionate Zionist, she visited Israel and was planning to go again when she died in London in 1952. All her life she had been a fervent advocate of the Yiddish language, and was part of a performance group which still meets today at Toynbee Hall in east London. Kathi Diamant has told the story of a remarkable survivor, and a representative one.

The reviewer's biography of Kafka will appear next year from Little, Brown