As It Happens

The 'last treasure trove' of Kafka's works to be released from Swiss bank vaults

A stash of unpublished works by Franz Kafka may soon see the light of day following a decade-long court battle that can best be described as "Kafkaesque."

Court ruling ends decade-long battle over Czech author's unpublished manuscripts

A long-hidden trove of unpublished works by Franz Kafka could soon be revealed.

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A stash of unpublished works by Franz Kafka may soon see the light of day following a decade-long court battle that can best be described as "Kafkaesque."

A district court in Zurich upheld Israeli verdicts in the case last week, ruling that several safe deposit boxes in a Swiss bank could be opened and their contents shipped to Israel's National Library.

The ruling marks the end of a years-long legal squabble between the library and an Israeli family over who rightfully owns the documents. 

"I think that Kafka would've been very amused by the ways that 95 years after his death, he would be so possessively claimed," Benjamin Balint, who chronicled the legal drama in his book Kafka's Last Trial, told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

Kafka wanted his life's work burned

It all started when Kafka died from tuberculosis in 1924.

The Czech author was relatively unknown at the time, and before he died, he left all his writings to his longtime friend and publisher Max Brod.

He ordered the author to burn his life's work — but Brod couldn't bring himself to do it.

"He precisely and very cleverly entrusted that last wish with the man least likely to fulfil it," Balint said. "I think that, in a sense, Kafka knew that Max Brod would not be able to carry out his instructions."

Czech-born Austrian writer Max Brod, the friend, biographer and editor of Franz Kafka, was responsible for ensuring that Kafka's work was published after his early death. (Three Lions/Getty Images)

Instead, Brod made it his life's mission to bring Kafka's work to the world.

He published most of the writings in his possession — including the novels The TrialThe Castle and Amerika. He even smuggled some of the manuscripts to Tel Aviv when he fled the Nazis in 1938.

"Max Brod took the last train out of Prague and carried with him a single suitcase," Balint said. "And in that suitcase he had stuffed the manuscripts and drafts of Franz Kafka."

The secretary's secret stash 

When he died in 1968, Brod left the remaining Kafka documents to his secretary Esther Hoffe, along with instructions to donate them to libraries and universities. 

But like Brod before her, Hoffe ignored her boss's last wishes and kept the papers.

She stashed some of them in various locations and sold the rest. In 1988, she auctioned off the original manuscript of The Trial at Sotheby's in London for $1.8 million US.

In this photo taken on Oct. 5, 2014, a library official shows Kafka's Hebrew vocabulary notebook at Israel's National Library in Jerusalem. (Sebastian Scheiner/Associated Press)

After Hoffe died, the collection was passed down to her daughters and then her granddaughters, all of whom have fought to keep it in the family.

The case wound its way through the courts until 2016, when Israel's Supreme Court sided with the library, stripping the Hoffe family of the documents that were hidden in Israeli bank vaults and in a squalid, cat-filled Tel Aviv apartment.

"I interviewed two members of the team who, in mid-September of last year, finally got access to that apartment and they described just appalling conditions. Cockroaches, spider webs, untended cats," Balint said.

"Some of the manuscripts were ... stored in an unplugged refrigerator. These were the conditions of Franz Kafka's manuscripts."

'The last treasure trove'

The Swiss ruling completes the National Library's acquisition of nearly all Kafka's known works.

"The Zurich piece is the last treasure trove, you might say," Balint said.

The library has welcomed the ruling, saying Kafka's papers are "cultural assets" that belong to the Jewish people, while Jeshayah Etgar, a lawyer for Hoffe's granddaughters, called it "first degree robbery" that tramples on individual property rights.

Though the exact content of the vaults remains unknown, experts have speculated the cache could include endings to some of Kafka's major works, many of which were unfinished when they were published after his death.

But Balint says he suspects it's mostly personal fare — Kafka's Paris diaries, a letter to his father and his correspondence with Brod. 

"I think it's going to be fascinating to see how it sheds light on both of these characters," he said. 

"That very first act of both betraying Kafka's last will, but in the very same moment of betrayal, it's also an act of love. And I think that motivates the story ever since."

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Interview with Benjamin Balint produced by Jeanne Armstrong.