Franz Kafka published just a few short stories and a novella during his lifetime, yet was considered one of the 20th century’s most influential writers.
The rest of his work was largely kept secret, and literary scholars have long wondered what gems they might find among Kafka’s papers.
The answer may ultimately lie on Tel Aviv’s Spinoza Street, inside a small, squat apartment building covered with dirty, pinkish stucco that looks like it’s seen better days.
The story of how Kafka’s papers made their way into an apartment owned by a self-professed cat lady, Eva Hoffe, 76, seems like a story only Kafka himself could have written.
The state of Israel and Hoffe are locked in a battle over those papers, and Hoffe has not been willing to allow outsiders to see them.
For the last 40 years, the women of the Hoffe family have held an assortment of Kafka’s primary drafts, letters, drawings and, possibly, unpublished manuscripts.
Journalist Ofer Aderet, with the Haaretz newspaper, says the women have guarded them closely, and to this day no one is sure exactly what they contain.
“It’s a big secret. It’s the $1 million question,” he says.
Aderet has been following the three-year court case over the ownership of the papers. The legal wrangling has pitted the Hoffe family against Israel’s National Library. Aderet says that within the month, the courts are expected to issue their ruling.
Kafka Wanted His Papers Burned
Anat Perry is an academic and former researcher on the Kafka case for the National Library. The story, she says, begins with a brown suitcase packed by Max Brod, a writer best known as Kafka’s friend and biographer.
Kafka, who died in June 1924, wanted all his papers burned.
But Brod did not honor the request. He kept the papers, and from them published most of what are today known as Kafka’s works. In 1939, Brod fled Czechoslovakia for British-run Palestine [now Israel and the Palestinian territories] with all of the collected papers in his suitcase.
In Tel Aviv, Brod had a relationship with Esther Hoffe. He often referred to Hoffe as his secretary, though most, including Perry, believe they carried on romantically under the nose of Esther Hoffe’s husband and their two daughters.
“She did not raise them at home because she was all the days with Max Brod. I am not surprised if they blamed him for the kind of life that they had — which was not very happy,” Perry says.
When Brod died in 1968 he left the Kafka papers for Esther Hoffe. She, in turn, left him to her two daughters, Eva and Ruth.
Eva Hoffe’s Legacy
Today, only Eva Hoffe is still alive. Never married, she lives with her cats on Spinoza Street and is rarely seen in public.
Perry says Eva Hoffe seems depressed, especially after the death of her sister just last month.
“What is interesting about Eva Hoffe, she said once — and this shocked me — she said, ‘I never married, I have no kids, I have only this legacy,’” Perry says. “In a way, I pity her, but I don’t think she deserves to have this legacy, because it was not meant to become her legacy.”
Harel Ashwall is one of Hoffe’s lawyers. He rejects Perry’s claims that the Hoffe family interpreted Brod’s will to suit themselves. He says the state of Israel has ruthlessly and aggressively gone after the Hoffe family to pressure them into handing over papers to which it has no claim.
“The attempt to describe Kafka as some kind of Israeli writer or a writer with a connection to the state of Israel is nonsense,” Ashwall says. “Kafka’s papers won’t get the respect they deserve in Israel, nor the treatment other countries can offer.”
Ashwall, like many involved in the case, has little hope that the upcoming verdict will settle the dispute over Kafka’s papers once of for all. He expects there will be numerous appeals, and it could be years until the issue is resolved.
Aderet, the Haaretz journalist, says it’s oddly fitting that this should also be part of Kafka’s legacy.
“I think that Kafka now could not rest in peace when two old ladies from Tel Aviv, a city he had never visited in his life, are fighting with the state of Israel, which [did not exist] when Kafka passed away,” Aderet says. “Yes, of course it’s Kafkaesque. Kafka could not describe it better.”