A page from the new graphic novel "The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt"
A page from the new graphic novel "The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt"

Tale of Kafka’s writings and a graphic novel on Arendt’s life show intellectual world destroyed by Nazis

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It is difficult to overstate the modern world’s debt to the Jewish minds of early 20th-century Central Europe who helped transform science, psychology, literature, philosophy and other fields. Two new books renew our understanding of this rich world of intellectual ferment which was destroyed by Nazism.

In “The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth,” Ken Krimstein uses the graphic novel format to introduce the life of the German Jewish philosopher and political theorist.

Krimstein, whose cartoons occasionally appear in the New Yorker, does a fine job portraying Arendt’s extraordinary life (I found the name-dropping excessive, but, as Arendt interacted with everyone from Peter Lorre to Albert Einstein, it rightly conveys the incredible array of intellects and artists at work in interwar Europe).

Not surprisingly, the format feels less suited to presenting Arendt’s ideas. It’s unfair to expect a graphic biography to explain complex thoughts, and I hope that the book functions as a teaser to stimulate interest in reading Arendt’s works.

And indeed, Arendt’s thought feels particularly relevant today. For example, Krimstein emphasizes her assertion that totalitarian regimes strategically substitute lies for factual truth. In this age of “alternative facts,” it can be considered an educated warning.

Also relevant is Arendt’s experience as a refugee. Krimstein portrays how the development of Arendt’s thought occurred against a backdrop of danger and dislocation. After being arrested and released by the Gestapo in Berlin in 1933, Arendt fled to Paris. Sent years later to a French internment camp, she managed to escape and obtain false papers, finally sailing to New York via Lisbon in 1941. Her close friend and fellow philosopher Walter Benjamin had no such luck, and committed suicide as his attempt to cross from Vichy France into Spain was foiled.

As the world currently faces its largest refugee crisis since World War II, it is instructive to recall that some of the century’s greatest thinkers were also refugees.

Franz Kafka was among the century’s most influential writers, and Benjamin Balint’s “​Kafka’s Last Trial: The Case of a Literary Legacy” teaches us much about his impact through a protracted legal tug-of-war in Israel over the fate of Kafka’s papers.

The book moves back and forth in time, but the moment that set its tale into motion occurred in 1924, when Kafka succumbed to tuberculosis at 40. At that point, Kafka, a Jew born in Prague, issued instructions to his best friend, Max Brod, a Jewish Czech, asking him to burn all of his unpublished writings.

Disobeying his friend’s wishes, Brod became the guardian and promoter of Kafka’s works, editing and publishing novels, stories, diaries and letters. And he brought the papers with him, stuffed in a suitcase, as he narrowly escaped the Nazis in 1939 and settled in Tel Aviv.

Brod, who died in 1968, entrusted his literary estate (he was himself a prolific author) to his secretary Esther Hoffe, stipulating that it should be turned over to a public institution. There is ambiguity as to whether Kafka’s writings were included in this directive.

Whatever the intent, Hoffe was not quick to part with Kafka’s papers, and they remained in her possession for decades, off limits to most researchers. When they were bequeathed to her daughters upon her death in 2007, the National Library of Israel challenged this inheritance, claiming its right to house the papers. And the German Literary Archive in Marbach, Germany, which had purchased the manuscript of “The Trial” from Hoffe in 1988, joined the fray, claiming itself a more appropriate home for the materials. In 2016, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of the National Library, but collecting Brod’s papers, still locked up in bank vaults in Israel and abroad, is proving to be a continuing effort for the library.

Balint does an excellent job of describing the legal proceedings, and I particularly enjoyed the exploration of who “owns” Kafka. Part of Israel’s claim stemmed from the nation’s self-conception as a repository for Jewish culture, particularly in the aftermath of the Holocaust. However, this self-image coexists with a historical ambivalence toward the diaspora. Balint notes that Kafka has never been embraced wholeheartedly in Israel, and that, despite having been released in many other languages, Kafka’s collected works have yet to be released in Hebrew.

And there is the question of what it means to be a Jewish writer. Particularly as the word “Jew” appears nowhere in Kafka’s fiction, the Jewishness of his work has long been in the eye of the interpreter. Yet Kafka’s diaries and letters include references to his Jewishness; for example, he heard lectures by Martin Buber, attended the 11th Zionist Congress in Vienna and took an interest in Yiddish in his later years.

The Marbach archive’s embrace of Kafka as a German writer is also complicated. Kafka lived his entire life as a Prague Jew, but most of the 30,000 Jews who lived in the Czech capital spoke German and mainly identified with German-speaking culture, and, indeed, Kafka wrote exclusively in German. But Germany’s position in the legal contest was undermined by its morally uncomfortable position, given the nation’s ugly history (all of Kafka’s and Brod’s siblings were murdered by the Nazis).

Fascinatingly, Balint digs out a piece of Kafka’s correspondence from 1916 that indicates that this question of whether he was a Jewish or a German writer already dogged him early in his career. The occasionally absurd dimensions of this conflict help remind us that literature is an inheritance that belongs to all of us.

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.