After describing Franz Kafka’s “sharp and skeletal face” as it appears in a photograph from 1924, Philip Roth observes that “chiseled skulls like this one were shoveled by the thousands from the ovens” and that had he lived, Kafka’s “would have been among them.” He then adds, “Of course it is no more horrifying to think of Franz Kafka in Auschwitz than to think of anyone at Auschwitz — it is just horrifying in its own way.” In fact, Kafka died the year the photograph was taken, “too soon for the holocaust.” Had such a monumental literary figure actually perished in Nazi ovens it would become a horror of the horror, a legend, an historic abomination.
“Content That I Can Breathe”
According to Kafka: The Early Years (Princeton Univ. Press $35), the third and final volume of Reiner Stach’s landmark biography, Franz Kafka was “newly confronted with the problems of Jewish identity” four years before he died.
In one of the first entries in Diaries 1914-1923, January 8, 1914, however, Kafka is already asking, “What have I in common with Jews? I have hardly anything in common with myself and should stand very quietly in a corner, content that I can breathe.” Content to live, a stranger in the strange land of the self, Kafka, a Jew, asks what he has in common with Jews. Ten years later, upon asking his doctor for a lethal dose of morphine, he says, “Kill me or else you are a murderer.” more