Kafka's final absurdist tale plays out in Tel Aviv

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Franz Kafka, who died in 1924, studied Hebrew in Germany during the last two years of his life. This is one of eight notebooks of his Hebrew studies that are part of the Israeli National Library's collection. Israel and an elderly Israeli woman are wrangling over Kafka documents that may include unpublished manuscripts.

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Eva Hoffe, shown here in a garden near her home in Tel Aviv, has Kafka's papers, but has not allowed outsiders to see them.

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Franz Kafka (shown here circa 1905) is considered one of the 20th century's most influential writers. Before his death in 1924, he had published only short stories and a single novella, The Metamorphosis.

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The author Max Brod was Kafka's friend, literary agent and biographer. Kafka wanted him to burn his papers upon his death. But Brod published some of the work and bequeathed the remainder to his secretary, Esther Hoffe (shown here).


Franz Kafka published just a few short stories and a novella during his lifetime, yet he 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, seems like a story only Kafka himself could have written.

The state of Israel and Hoffe, who's in her late 70s, are locked in a battle over those papers, and Hoffe has not been willing to allow outsiders to see them.

For the past 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the women of the Hoffe family have held an assortment of Kafka's primary drafts, letters, drawings and, possibly, unpublished manuscripts.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 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 to Esther Hoffe. She, in turn, left them 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, one of Hoffe's lawyers, 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 Hoffes to pressure them into handing over papers to which Israel 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 and for all. He expects that there will be numerous appeals, and that 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."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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