After decades of legal wrangling, the Tel Aviv District Court last Wednesday awarded custody of the estate of Max Brod, Franz Kafka’s friend and publisher, to the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem.
The Court’s decision ended a longstanding dispute between Eva and Ruti Hoffe – the daughters of Brod’s secretary Esther Hoffe, whom Brod had left in charge of his estate upon his death in 1968 – and Israel’s National Library, which was suing for possession of the documents.
The judges found that upon her death in 2007, Ester Hoffe had illegally bequeathed the collection to her daughters, after having, also illegally, sold several of its most important manuscripts to private archives around the world for impressive sums.
“Is the placing of Kafka’s personal writings – which he ordered to be destroyed – for public sale to the highest bidder by the secretary of his friend and by her daughters in keeping with justice? It appears that the answer to this is clear,” the judges wrote in their ruling.
At the heart of the debate lay the equivocal legal status of the Kafka estate. Brod – himself a major cultural figure known for his work as a novelist, journalist, Zionist activist and composer – had received the collection from Kafka; several decades later, he made a present of it to his secretary and associate Hoffe, whom he also named sole executor of his estate in his will.
He left the fate of the material to Hoffe’s discretion, providing a list of institutions – headed by the National Library – to which she should donate the estate upon her death, if not before.
The question was: had Esther Hoffe violated Brod’s will by ignoring his request to donate the estate, instead selling its contents? And had she not thereby forfeited her right to bequeath the estate to her daughters?
According the Hoffe sisters’ attorney, the answer to that question is a resounding ‘no.’
“It’s chutzpa!” the attorney, who asked to remain anonymous, exclaimed during an interview with Tazpit News Agency. “The Israel Inheritance Law of 1969 prohibits any public institution from laying claim to a private estate,” he explained, citing numerous examples of the sales of estates of Israeli cultural figures to overseas archives. “It’s a question of prestige,” he adds. “The library wanted to get hold of valuable stuff for free.”
“Esther Hoffe acted irresponsibly, violating the essence of the will, which required that she deposit the estate in a public archive, and abused its wording to suit her own ends,” counters Meir Heller, the lawyer who represented the National Library. “Consequently, she forfeited her right to pass the estate on to her daughters,” he told Tazpit.
The court’s decision confirmed that Brod’s ultimate request – that the collection be donated to a public institution – was the decisive factor in the story.
“Just as Max Brod saw it as his indisputable duty to publish Kafka’s works as overriding any consideration against their publication, so it is our duty and our privilege to realize this aim,” Justice Kobi Vardi wrote in the Court’s decision.
“And even if someone claims we were wrong, everyone will at least agree that this was a truly first-rate Kafkaesque story,” he added.