It’s excellent news that a judge in the Tel Aviv family court has ruled that a detailed list of all the items in safe deposit boxes in Tel Aviv and Zurich containing the papers of Franz Kafka must be published. Two elderly sisters living in Israel who inherited the papers in 2008 from their mother, Esther Hoffe, the secretary of Kafka’s close friend Max Brod, had tried to prevent details of the material being made public on the grounds that it would compromise their “property, assets, rights, privacy and human dignity“.
Even if the boxes contained nothing new, Kafka scholars would almost certainly have made good use of papers in Kafka’s own handwriting to enrich understanding of the literary giant’s work. But the first box opened yesterday appears to contain a handwritten story by Kafka that has never been seen before, making the granting of public access even more significant than scholars must have expected.
If the undignified squabbling over these papers, which has gone on since Hoffe died two years ago, is about to come to an end, and the path to eventual publication of all relevant material has been opened, progress of sorts will have been made. Perhaps we will now hear no more of the absurd arguments made last year by the 75-year-old Eva Hoffe that Israel is incapable of looking after the manuscripts. “We have other things to do. We have terror and the fight for survival,” she said.
Hoffe wants to sell the papers, or some of them at least, to the German literary archive in the city of Marbach. “Sorry, but culture is not first on the list,” claimed Eva. “In Israel there is no place to keep the papers so well as in Germany.” Marbach would no doubt do the papers proud, but to suggest that a country that has played a very significant role in the preservation of pre-Holocaust eastern and central European Jewish heritage couldn’t manage Kafka’s papers successfully sounds like a self-serving argument driven by Hoffe’s desire to maximise her earnings.
But the decision of the court is only progress of sorts, because it leaves hanging in the air a much bigger question than who has the right to determine whether these papers can be made public. (The claim made by the Hoffe sisters that they can legally sell them – indeed, they already sold some papers to Marbach at auction for £1.1m – was not considered by the court, but will certainly be challenged.) The Israel National Library has taken a leading role in the affair and appealed against the attempt to prevent publication (the Israeli daily Haaretz did, too, separately). And at the heart of its campaign, the library uses the argument that Kafka’s papers are “cultural assets belonging to the Jewish people”; a national treasure that belongs to the state because Brod took them with him when he emigrated to Palestine in 1939.
The ownership of heirless pre-Holocaust European Jewish cultural assets – not to mention whether Kafka’s papers can first and foremost be placed in such a category – is a hugely controversial issue. In recent years, following the collapse of the Communist regimes in Europe, Israel has increasingly laid claim to be the heir of various kinds of so-called heirless communal and private property, using the precedent of the 1952 reparations agreement with the German Federal Republic, which paid billions of deutschmarks in restitution and compensation for what Nazi Germany did to European Jews during the second world war.
Many European Jewish communities, however, have strongly objected to this policy, which is grounded in the notion that since such a large proportion of European Jewry was murdered in the Holocaust and so many survivors emigrated to Palestine, the “remnants” left in communities today cannot possibly be regarded as the rightful heirs of either the movable or the built Jewish heritage.
Today’s Jewish communities do not say that every Jewish cultural artefact belongs to them, but they fundamentally reject the notion that they are not autonomous entities capable of discharging the responsibility for maintaining and developing European Jewry’s cultural heritage. And there is no doubt that the movement to preserve Jewish heritage and culture in Europe, and make them part of living and breathing communities, has grown substantially in recent years and is immensely important both for Jews themselves and for their place in European society.
A particularly egregious example of how some Israeli institutions, encouraged by the government, have ridden roughshod over European Jewish communities was the clandestine removal by the Yad Vashem museum in Jerusalem of the Holocaust murals painted by the Jewish artist and writer Bruno Schulz in 2001, from a house in the former Polish village of Drohobycz. An international furore broke out once the actions of Yad Vashem became public. Jewish heritage experts regarded the act as a form of piracy. The pieces went on display in the museum last year.
What’s not at issue is the crucial role played by such Israeli institutions as the Central Archives of the History of the Jewish People in Jerusalem and the Centre for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University in preserving and documenting the legacy of pre-Holocaust European Jewish life. But if the national library claims the legacy of Kafka for the Jewish state, it, and institutions like it in Israel, can lay claim to practically any pre-Holocaust synagogue, artwork, manuscript or valuable ritual object extant in Europe. But neither Israel as a state, nor any state or public institution, has such a right. (And while it’s true that Kafka is a key figure of the Jewish cultural past, as one of the world’s most significant authors whose themes find echoes in many countries and cultures, Israel’s proprietary attitude is surely misplaced.)
The implied subservience of European Jewish communities to Israel is out of kilter with forward thinking about what is still described by the outmoded phrase “Israel-Diaspora relations”. If it’s ultimately agreed that the Kafka material remains and is made publicly available in Israel for good practical and legal reasons, then all well and good. However, the mistaken notion that all the cultural assets of the Jewish people belong to Israel must play no part in such a decision.
• This article was amended at 17:00 on 22 July 2010. The original stated that to the author’s knowledge, the Bruno Schulz Holocaust murals had not yet been displayed by the Yad Vashem museum. The restored murals have in fact been on display there since February 2009. The reference has now been updated accordingly
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