Swiss court rules Franz Kafka’s papers must be brought out from hidden bank vault

A legal battle over a trove of Franz Kafka’s papers appears to be over after a struggle that has taken literary investigators from a cat-filled apartment in Tel Aviv to secret bank vaults in Switzerland. 

In a nightmarishly complex case that could have sprung from the Czech writer’s own pen, a Swiss court has ruled that thousands of Kafka documents hidden inside safe deposit boxes in Zurich must be sent to Israel’s national library.

Scholars hope the new papers will shed light on the writer’s life and how his surreal stories of struggles against a maddening bureaucracy came to be published after his death in 1924. 

Kafka published only a few works before he died at the age of 40 and in his will he instructed his friend Max Brod, a fellow Jewish writer, to burn all of his unfinished work. Among them were the manuscripts that would later become The Trial and Amerika

Brod refused to burn the work and instead edited the manuscripts and took them to publishers. The decision posthumously transformed Kafka from a little-known short story writer to one of the 20th century’s most important literary figures. 

“Brod was keen not to follow the wish of his best friend to destroy everything, on the contrary, he mercilessly published everything,” said Stefan Litt, humanities curator at the National Library of Israel.       

Franz Kafka In The Old Town Square In Prague, 1920-21Credit:
Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images

Brod handed some of Kafka’s papers to the Bodleian Library at Oxford but kept those which his friend had directly given to him. When Brod died in Israel in 1968, he transferred the papers to his secretary, Esther Hoffe, but instructed her to hand them to an academic institution. 

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Hoffe, however, kept the papers for herself and sold several of them. The original manuscript of The Trial was auctioned at Sotheby’s London in 1988 for nearly $2 million (£1.5 million). 

She stored some of the documents in bank vaults in Israel and Switzerland and kept some in her apartment in Tel Aviv.  

When Hoffe died in 2007, her two daughters claimed the Kafka papers as their personal inheritance. But the National Library of Israel filed a lawsuit on the grounds that Brod’s will said he wanted the archive to be transferred to the library. 

After a grinding legal battle, Israel’s Supreme Court sided with the library against Hoffe’s daughters. The Israeli bank vaults were opened and investigators were able to search Hoffe’s apartment for relevant papers. 

Unfortunately, the apartment was home to not just literary documents but a large collection of cats. 

“There was damage to the materials,” Dr Litt told The Telegraph. “Some had been scratched by cats, others had been made wet by cats.”

A Swiss court has now upheld the Israeli court’s decision and library authorities hope to soon recover the final portion of the Kafka archive, which was stored in several safe deposit boxes in a Zurich bank. 

The Swiss trove is not expected to include new writing by Kafka. But the library believes they will find around 400 letters between Kafka and Brod, as well as an early manuscript of Kafka’s story The Country Doctor.  

The documents are likely to shed new light on how Brod went about bringing his friend’s writing to the public. “We will get a much better idea of how the whole process of disseminating Kafka to the world happened,” said Dr Litt.

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