Franz Kafka (1883-1924) was one of the most influential novelists of the 20th century, with works such Metamorphosis (1915) and The Trial (1925) considered among the most original in Western literature. His themes present the experience of man’s total isolation and capture in a labyrinth that defies understanding. His imaginative tales, with their enigmatic mix of the ordinary and the bizarre, have led to a plethora of interpretations, and his characters are often perplexed people betrayed by a meaningless and nonsensical society.
Thus, the term “Kafkaesque” has come to mean the nightmarishly fantastic helplessness of man in the face of powerful, unknown forces that persecute him without reason.
Raised in Prague, where he earned a law degree and worked for an insurance firm, Kafka began publishing stories in 1907, but virtually all his major works appeared after his premature death from tuberculosis at age 41. He left instructions after his death that his writings be destroyed, but his friend, Max Brod, instead edited and published his work, including The Trial, The Castle, and Metamorphosis.
According to Kafka’s own accounts, his hardworking and domineering patriarchal father was a strong assimilationist and secularist; the family would go to synagogue only on special occasions, and even those were more like routine visits than serious encounters with Jewish tradition. Kafka viewed the few religious practices of his father as hypocritical and meaningless, and he was left cold by the spiritless Jewish community of Prague, which was not only irreligious but actively anti-religious.
Kafka’s interest in Judaism was sparked when he accompanied Brod to a performance by a Yiddish theater troupe from Lvov, and his Jewish identity deepened after his exposure to the East European Yiddish actors, whom he characterized as “people who are Jews in an especially pure form because they live only in the religion, but live in it without effort, understanding, or distress.”
Through them, he came to generally admire the Jews of Eastern Europe, who began to flood into Prague at the beginning of WWI, as “bound to each other by their Jewishness to a degree unknown to us.” He wrote that “Jewry is not merely a question of faith; it is above all a question of the practice of a way of life in a community conditioned by faith.”
These foreign Jews slaked his thirst for Jewish community in his life. Kafka observed them and interviewed them at length and, though he had never engaged in any meaningful reading of Jewish Scripture and related texts, his diaries began to reflect expositions on rabbinical law, discussions of Jewish communal activities, thoughts on Talmudic discourse, and, most particularly, chassidic folk tales and tales of wonder involving mystical rabbis (including a noteworthy account of his visit with the Belzer Rebbe).
There are also substantial references in his correspondence, especially with Brod, of his Zionist dream to make aliyah. Kafka was very attracted to Zionism, but from a cultural and humanist perspective. He was close friends with many fervent Zionists, including Brod, he read reports of Jewish agricultural colonies in Eretz Yisrael with great interest, he participated in debates at the 11th Zionist Congress in Vienna in 1913, he purchased an ad for his asbestos factory in Die Weld, and some of his stories may be read as reflecting a Zionist perspective.
He became somewhat proficient in Hebrew, hoping to be able to communicate with Jews in Eretz Yisrael when he made aliyah and, before his death, he spoke constantly of Jerusalem.
On the other hand, with typical Kafkaesque ambiguity, he criticized the organized Zionist movement and famously stated, “I admire Zionism and am nauseated by it.” He considered himself somewhat of a pariah because of his “clumsy Judaism,” which underscored his central existential dilemma – his alienation from Jewish orthodoxy, which left him being self-identified with the Jewish community yet somehow outside the Jewish people.
In any case, there is no question that his Judaism played a fundamental role in his life and work and that much of his writing is a symbolic analysis of the condition of the Jew in the modern world. While there are innumerable references to Jews and Judaism in his letters and diaries, his stories are conspicuous by the absence of a single Jew (except – arguably – his discussion in The Judgment of the Russian pogroms). In the final analysis, a point which many of his biographers miss: Kafka was more a Jew who happened to write in German that a German writer who happened to be Jewish.
Original Kafka signatures are very rare, in part because of demand and in part because he died so young. Shown below (left) is an August 9, 1916 envelope signed and addressed in Kafka’s hand, which he mailed from Prague to his fiancée, Felice Bauer, in Westland. Kafka, who first met Felice at the home of Max Brod’s parents, was twice engaged to her (in 1914 and 1917) and, though he dedicated his first mature work, The Verdict (1913), to her, their romance permanently dissolved in 1917 and the nuptials never took place.
The relationship between the couple evidenced the ongoing conflict in his life and was an important factor in his development as a writer. When a book of Kafka’s love letters to Felice appeared in 1967 (some four decades after his death), he was already considered one of history’s oddest writers, but no one was prepared for the compendium of torment and guilt that the young writer had sent to his paramour.
Interestingly, a year before his death, Kafka became enamored with the 19-year old daughter of chassidic Jews with whom he attended Talmud classes and made plans to move to Tel Aviv; as Brod described it, Kafka was smitten by her “rich treasure of Jewish religious tradition.” However, when he asked her father for permission to wed, the family rebbe vetoed the match because Kafka was a “Western Jew.”
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Despite his own many accomplishments as a novelist, poet, composer, and musician, Max Brod (1884-1968) is perhaps best known as Kafka’s friend, supporter, and patron. Brod was the first to recognize and publicize the greatness of Kafka, about whom he wrote his novel Das Zauberreich der Liebe (The Kingdom of Love, 1928) and a biography (1937). Brod also arranged the publication of Kafka’s works in the 1930s, a decade after he had delivered the eulogy at his friend’s funeral. In particular, Brod rescued The Trial and The Castle – twice, once from Kafka himself and once from the Nazis.
Born in Prague, Brod studied law at the German university there and joined the Prager Tagblatt as theatrical and musical editor in 1924. He helped found the National Council of Jews in Czechoslovakia in 1918, and later represented the Jewish faction in the Czech parliament. Brod was an active, even militant, Zionist who later in his life discovered G-d in general and the Jewish G-d in particular. He settled in Tel Aviv in 1939, where he worked as a music critic and drama adviser to Habimah.
Brod’s prolific writings include poetry, fiction, plays, literary criticism, and essays on philosophy, politics, and Zionism. His best-known works include his 20 novels – some romantic, others historical, including Unambo (1949), an account of Israel’s war of independence – and many of his works were translated into Hebrew.
His musical compositions include Requiem Hebraicum, a piano quintet, and many songs, piano pieces, and Israeli dances. A fundamental concept in much of his writing is the problem of dualism, i.e., the difficulty of reconciling a belief in G-d with the evil that exists in the world. He believed that Judaism is the path to achieving man’s ultimate task: striving toward perfection.
In the July 26, 1951 note to one Mrs. Harrari shown above, Brod writes – in Hebrew (which was rather uncommon for him): “Thank you very much for your invitation. To my great regret, I am laying sick and, as such, I am deeply disturbed that I will not be able to come. With great respect.”
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Shown below is a magnificent original photograph of Kafka’s gravestone in Prague. The picture was found among Brod’s possessions after his death.
During his lifetime, Kafka burned approximately 90 percent of his own work and, after his death at age 41, a letter was discovered in his desk in Prague addressed to Brod asking him to burn all his remaining diaries, manuscripts, and letters. Brod, however, disregarded his request and prepared and published posthumous editions of some of Kafka’s most important works. In 1939, carrying a suitcase stuffed with Kafka’s papers, Brod set out for Eretz Yisrael on the last train to leave Prague – five minutes before the Nazis closed the Czech border.
The contents of Brod’s suitcase became the subject of more than 50 years of legal squabbling. The documents remained in Brod’s possession until his death in Israel in 1968, when it passed through his 1961 will to his secretary Esther Hoffe, whom Brod had also designated as executor of his estate. However, he had also provided that after Hoffe’s death, all of Kafka’s literary documents would pass to a public archive in Israel. Hoffe, though, had already sold and auctioned off some of the material, and her will left her estate to her two daughters.
When Hoffe died in 2008, her daughters began probate proceedings, but a dispute arose between the daughters and the State of Israel, which argued that Brod’s will should be enforced and that Kafka’s archives were a national treasure and an essential resource for understanding bygone pre-Holocaust Jewish life. Israel’s claim was based, in part, upon Brod’s plans, which he had publicly discussed, to deposit the Kafka papers in the library of the Hebrew University of Jerausalem, where his and Kafka’s mutual friend, Hugo Bergmann, was then librarian and rector.
After years of bitter wrangling, the Tel Aviv District Family Court held that Brod’s will must be upheld and that his estate, including works by Kafka, be given to the National Library. It also granted a limited right to Hoffe’s daughters to receive royalties.