October 5, 2022

Before the Holocaust: Sharing a Quiet Corner with Franz Kafka

By Stuart Mitchner

…our enemies are way too numerous, all of the dangers are beyond our powers of calculation…
—Franz Kafka (1883-1924)

…imagining the inferno that would descend on his social and even his most personal mileu just a decade and a half after his death was not in his power ….
—Reiner Stach, from Kafka: The Years of Insight

Stach is referencing the fact that “in the early years of Kafka’s worldwide renown, his work, his achievement as a writer, was insistently categorized as ‘prophecy,’” and that this was “the primary reason for his overwhelming resonance.”

Kafka’s reference to “dangers beyond our powers of calculation” is from “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk,” written three months before his death. I read it after watching the Ken Burns PBS series, The U.S. and the Holocaust. I had never read it before, and at the time I didn’t know it was the last story he ever wrote. When Stach speaks of the inferno’s descent on his “social” and “most personal milieu,” he means the deaths in the gas chambers of all three of Kafka’s sisters, as well as friends, lovers, and other family members.


Describing Kafka’s “sharp and skeletal face” as it appears in a photograph from 1924, Philip Roth says that skulls “like this one were shoveled by the thousands from the ovens” and that had he lived, Kafka’s “would have been among them.” Rather than assume the worst, why not imagine at least the possibility that had he lived, he might have emigrated to Palestine and opened a little coffee house in Tel Aviv with his last love, Dora Diamant (a playful fantasy they shared), or why not go all the way and imagine a powerful secret admirer among the Nazis who would have made sure that he was spared? Nonsense, of course, but then Kafka is an infinitely interpretable figure.

“A Great Clarity”

How did I feel after watching The U.S. and the Holocaust, which opens with Anne Frank, whose private thoughts made the Final Solution real to millions who were unable to fathom it? What can be said about the unspeakable or thought about the unthinkable? My devastated bedside paperback copy of Kafka: Diaries 1914-1923 (Schocken 1965) falls open on the third page, January 8, 1914: “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.”

That I can identify with the quiet corner, the existential breath of life, is one of the countless times I’ve found comfort in Kafka’s company, even though I can only read him in translation. On January 8: “Uncertainty, aridity, peace — all things will resolve themselves into these and pass away.” Other entries on the same page refer to “inexplicable emotions,” his sister Ottilie’s love affairs, and then this: “Clear night on the way home; distinctly aware of what in me is mere dull apathy, so far removed from a great clarity expanding without hindrance.”

He was 30, with 10 years to live. Edited and saved for the world by his close friend Max Brod, the Diaries were translated by Martin Greenberg, “with the co-operation of Hannah Arendt,” author of Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. These notebooks, along with the manuscripts of The Trial and The Castle, were among the works in the archive Brod took with him when he escaped to Palestine from Nazi Germany in 1939.

“All This”

While Kafka might not have had the power to imagine the approach of the Holocaust, he seems to have divined the shadow of the horror. In November 1915, the month that saw the publication of The Metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung), he writes of “days passed in futility,” “a more than ordinary sleepless night” and a walk through Prague “laboriously stretched out to two hours,” and then he wonders, “Who on high could behold all this with open eyes from beginning to end?”

All this? Meaning everything and nothing? Or maybe the infernal opposite of “a great clarity expanding without hindrance,” or the shadowy implications of Kafka’s aphorism in which “the crows claim that a single crow could destroy heaven,” which is “incontestable, but offers no proof at all against heaven, because heaven does signify the impossibility of crows.” Referring to Kafka’s most famous work, wherein a salesman wakes up “from unsettling dreams” to find himself “changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin,” George Steiner notes that vermin is among the Nazi synonyms of choice for “Jew” and suggests that “vermin” will be “actualized” in Kafka’s “seeming fantastications,” a “concrete fulfillment of augury, of detailed clairvoyance,” manifested when his three sisters are murdered in the camps.

His “Ultimate Confidante”

You don’t have to read far in Kafka’s diaries and correspondence to connect with his sisters, whether in his letters to Valerie (“Valli”), or the ones to the middle sister Gabriele (“Elli”). The youngest sister Ottilie (“Ottla”) became his “ultimate confidante, the human being with whom he had the deepest lifelong bond,” according to Reiner Stach, a “turn of events” that toward the end of his life “struck him as an unfathomable and undeserved miracle.”

It’s thanks to Ottla that Kafka had a comfortable place to work when he was working on The Castle. In Letters to Friends, Family and Editors (Schocken 1977, translated by Richard and Clara Winston), Max Brod’s enthusiasm for the work in progress inspires Kafka to write, in late July 1922: “Your comments on the novel shame and gladden me, much as I gladden and shame Vera [Ottla’s little girl], when she, as happens often now that she toddles around, abruptly plumps down on her little backside and I say … ‘Isn’t Vera a clever girl!’ She perfectly well knows, because she feels it in her backside, that she has sat down clumsily, but my exclamation has such power over her that she begins to laugh happily and is convinced that she has just carried out the difficult task of properly sitting down.”

Cleverly Falling

Kafka must be smiling as he connects words of praise with a child falling on her backside. In March 1924, writing his last story, he makes “Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk” a kind of playground of contradictory possibilities for readers to romp or stumble or flail giddily around in. Never mind that he’s told Max Brod to throw all his unpublished work into the fire, this story of a mighty but embattled songstress has to find life in print, as it will that same spring.

“Josephine” is deconstruction in action, as “when her concerts were unexpectedly disrupted by an assault from our enemies and, indeed, there would be any number of casualties on our side, that many of us had to lay down our lives for the defense…. Our life is so terribly beset by strife, every day brings its share of rude surprises, fears, hopes and shocking outrages.” In the end, Josephine has “removed herself from practicing her art, she herself has destroyed the power that enabled her to take charge over our inner being … she’s hidden herself away and won’t sing.”

And while Josephine’s readers tumble and stumble about in the playground, falling on their backsides, Kafka leans smiling from a window in the sky and tells them how clever they are. Among the clever ones is Carl R. Woodring, who says, in Franz Kafka Today, “Reading ‘Josephine’ alertly is like putting back together the leaves of a disassembled cabbage through which a supernaturally hungry worm and snail have bored separate holes. In the restored cabbage, each hole of continuous meaning leads from suggestion on one area of the surface inward through tightly curled leaves to a firm pith and out again through leaves of connotation to the outermost and largest leaf.”

In Berlin

Reiner Stach ends the penultimate chapter of Kafka: The Years of Insight with a story from Kafka’s time in Berlin, from a 1923 letter to his sister Elli: “Recently I had an amorous escapade. I was sitting in the sun in the Botanical Garden … when the children from a girls’ school walked by. One of the girls was a lovely, long-legged blonde, boyish, who gave me a coquettish smile, turning up the corners of her little mouth and calling out something to me. Naturally I smiled back at her in an overly friendly manner, and continued to do so when she and her girlfriends kept turning back in my direction. Until I began to realize what she had actually said to me. ‘Jew’ is what she had said.”

Ottla’s daughter Vera escaped the “inferno,” dying at 94, on August 4, 2015, in Prague. The translation of “Josephine” is by Phillip Lundberg. Published by Princeton University Press, Reiner Stach’s three-volume Kafka, “one of the great literary biographies” according to John Banville, is available at the Princeton Public Library. It was translated by Princeton resident Shelley Frisch, who is acknowledged by Stach as “an extraordinary translator, who was undeterred by the length and complexity of the task. Our work together has been an informative pleasure.” She also translated Stach’s edition of The Aphorisms of Franz Kafka, published by Princeton earlier this year.