26 December 2019
‘Who knows Dora, knows what love means’
In my sermons in Askeaton and Rathkeale on Christmas Day [25 December 2019], I retold the story about Franz Kafka’s letters to the little girl who had lost her doll in a park in Berlin.
The story, Kafka and the Travelling Doll, was written by the Catalan children’s writer, Jordi Sierra i Fabra, and draws on a real-life event in Kafka’s life. It is based on the memoirs of Dora Diamant, who lived with Kafka in Berlin. Kafka died in her arms in Vienna in 1924 and was buried in Prague, where he had been born in 1883.
Dora Diamant (1898-1952) is best remembered as Kafka’s lover of the writer Franz Kafka and the woman who kept some of his last writings until they were confiscated by the Gestapo in 1933. She kept his papers against the wishes of Kafka, who had asked shortly before his death that they be destroyed.
The story of Dora Diamant and her tragic life is as intriguing and captivating as any story that Kafka could have written.
She was born Dwojra Diament in Pabianice, Poland on 4 March 1898. Her father, Herschel Dymant, was a successful small businessman and a devout follower of the Ger Hasidic dynasty from Góra Kalwaria, once the largest and most influential Hasidic group in Poland.
When Dora’s mother died in 1912, her father moved with the family to Będzin, near the German border.
At the end of World War I, after helping to raise her 10 siblings, Dora refused to marry and was sent to Kraków to study to be a kindergarten teacher. But she ran away to Berlin, where she worked in the Jewish community as a teacher and as a seamstress in an orphanage. There she changed the spelling of her name to Diamant.
She was working as a kitchen volunteer in a children’s summer camp run by the Berlin Jewish Peoples’ Homes at the seaside resort Graal-Müritz on the Baltic Sea in July 1923. There she met Franz Kafka, who years before had commended this work to his first fiancée Felice Bauer.
Dora told him she was 19, but she was 25; he was 40 and suffering from tuberculosis. It was love at first sight and they spent every day of the next three weeks together, making plans to live together in Berlin.
He had just resigned from his post at the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute in Prague, his writing career was shaky and his health was precarious. After returning briefly to Prague that September, Kafka moved to Berlin, where he and Dora shared three different flats, living through alarming inflation and material hardship.
Their means were minimal: they had no money for newspapers, at the worst of times they used kerosene lamps for lighting, as they could not afford electricity, and the food they ate was often sent by his family in Prague. They used candle stubs to heat their meal on New Year’s Eve, 1924. But still they had dreams: they thought of emigrating to Palestine, and opening a restaurant in Tel Aviv; she was to be the cook and he the waiter.
They continued to live together until tuberculosis of the larynx meant he had to receive hospital care. Dora stayed with him, and she moved in with him at the sanatorium in Kierling near Klosterneuburg, outside Vienna.
At the point of death, Kafka asked Dora’s father for permission to marry her. However, on the advice of the local rabbi, her father refused. Dora remained with Kafka to the end, making sure he had everything he needed. Franz died in Dora’s arms on 3 June 1924.
In a letter to Kafka’s parents, describing their son’s last hours, Dr Robert Klopstock wrote, ‘Who knows Dora, only he can know what love means.’
The funeral at the Jewish cemetery in Prague was Diamant’s first meeting with Kafka’s parents. When the coffin was lowered into the grave, Dora let out an unearthly wail. She lay lifeless on the ground; Kafka’s father turned his back on her, disdainfully. No one dared to move and help her up.
After Kafka’s death, Dora was blamed for burning Kafka’s papers under his gaze and at his request during his last months of life. But she also kept some of his journals and 36 of his letters to her.
Despite Max Brod’s request that she turn over to him all the Kafka papers she held, Dora kept the letters Franz had written to her.
Max Brod too and many others who held letters and writings by Kafka also chose not to comply with his dying wishes that all his writings should be destroyed. Dora also secretly held on to many of Kafka’s notebooks, keeping them until they were stolen from her apartment, along with her other papers, in a Gestapo raid in 1933.
Max Brod and German Kafka scholar Klaus Wagenbach searched widely for these papers in the 1950s, and since the 1990s they have been sought by the Kafka Project at San Diego State University in California.
Spanish Synagogue in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)
After Kafka’s death, Dora studied theatre at the Dumont Drama Academy in Düsseldorf in the late1920s and then worked as a professional actress. She joined the Communist Party of Germany in the 1930s as an agitprop actress. She married the Jewish writer Ludwig ‘Lutz’ Lask (1903-1973), editor of Die Rote Fahne, the Communist party newspaper. She gave birth to a daughter on 1 March 1934, and named her Franziska Marianne after Franz Kafka, who remained the love of her life.
Dora escaped Germany with her daughter in 1936, joining her husband in Soviet Russia. But Lutz Lask was arrested and sent to the Far East during Stalin’s purges in 1937. Dora then left the Soviet Union, travelling across Europe to safety in England just a week before the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939.
However, Dora and her daughter were first jailed in Holloway and then interned as enemy aliens at the Women’s Detention Camp in Port Erin on the Isle of Man. When she was released in 1941, she returned to London and helped to found the Friends of Yiddish, working to keep the Yiddish language and culture alive. She realised a dream she once shared with Kafka when she visited Israel in 1950. In Tel Aviv, she visited her brother David and sister Sarah, the only survivors of the 11 Dymant siblings. The others, like Kafka’s three sisters, were murdered during the Holocaust.
Dora lived in impoverished circumstances in the Whitechapel district of London, devoting herself to the dissemination and preservation of Hasidic culture and the Yiddish language. She organised discussions, theatrical performances and recitals, in which she acted, recited and sang. Sadly, she never spoke about Kafka except on one occasion, nor did she publish anything about him, although she left numerous notes behind.
Dora died at Plaistow Hospital in east London on 15 August 1952. She was 53 and she was buried in an unmarked grave in the United Synagogue Cemetery on Marlowe Road in East Ham.
Her daughter Marianne was later diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. Police, alerted by concerned neighbours, broke into her Muswell Hill bedsit in 1982 and found her dead. She had starved herself to death. She was 48.
Dora had been shunned by Kafka’s family and was all but forgotten until her living relatives from Israel and Germany – including her only living nephew Zvi Diamant, who was born in 1947 in the release camp at Dachau – gathered at her grave in East Ham for a stone-setting 20 years ago in August 1999.
Her headstone reads ‘Who knows Dora, knows what love means.’
May her memory be a blessing.