Verdict in trial of Kafka's legacy makes author's papers public

The final chapter in Franz Kafka's story ended last week in a Tel Aviv courtroom. It is a tale of death, passion, greed and deception that reads more like an airport thriller than a work by the ascetic Czech author.

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 spread the collection 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, chiefly 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The collection contains Brod's unpublished diary, thought to contain new revelations about Kafka's life, and notebooks filled with Kafka's handwriting that could contain new literary treasures.

The Israel National Library intervened in 2007 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. 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. Not every day 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: "I do not believe that the plaintiffs have met the requirements [of proof]... One can determine that the Kafka manuscripts, like the Brod estate, were not given to the plaintiffs as gifts."

The judge ordered Eva Hoffe (her sister died this year) to pay more than £15,000 in costs. Ms Hoffe is to appeal.

David Blumberg, chairman of the Israel National Library, said the collection would be on 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."

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