The writer Franz Kafka (1883–1924) is considered a key figure in the annals of modern world literature. Kafka was born to an assimilated Jewish family in Prague, then one of the most important cities in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He studied law at the German University in Prague, where he met the writer Max Brod, who would become his close friend.
During his academic studies, Kafka developed an intense interest in literature and philosophy, and begin writing his first works soon after. Kafka died of tuberculosis at the age of 41. Skeptical of its literary value, throughout his short life Kafka hesitated to publish his work, and as a result he received little recognition as a literary figure during his own lifetime. Thanks to Brod, who encouraged Kafka to complete and publish his works, Kafka’s writing has entered the canon of Western literature. The Schocken publishing house also contributed to Kafka’s worldwide recognition: in 1934, with Brod’s mediation, the publisher agreed to print a complete edition of Kafka’s writings. The first volumes were published in Germany and later in Czechoslovakia and the United States. Shocken also published Kafka’s works in Hebrew translation.
In 1921 and 1922, Kafka wrote two notes to Brod asking that all his manuscripts, paintings and letters be destroyed after his death. In defiance of this clear directive, from June 1924 Brod collected all of the materials from the various locations, examined them and began to publish what Kafka had stored away during his lifetime. The three unfinished novels The Trial, America and The Castle are among the most well-known of these works. Brod took all of Kafka’s writings with him when he left his native Czechoslovakia for Mandatory Palestine in March 1939, just hours before the Nazis invaded the country. In the early 1960s, he returned most of them to Kafka’s heirs.
These materials are preserved today in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, while hundreds of letters, a number of short manuscripts and even many of Kafka’s drawings remained in Brod’s possession, comprising a significant part of Kafka’s literary legacy. Between 2016 and 2019, Brod’s own extensive personal archive, along with Kafka’s items, was deposited in the National Library of Israel. A number of other original items of Kafka’s, including notebooks in which he practiced his Hebrew, are also preserved today at the National Library, and together these materials represent the third largest collection in the world of the great writer’s original material.