26 December 2019

‘Who knows Dora, knows what love means’

Franz Kafka Street in the heart of the Old Town in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

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 the 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 has written (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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.

Dora Diamant … when she met Franz Kafka, it was love at first sight

She was working as a kitchen volunteer in a children’s summer camp run by the Berlin Jewish Peoples’ Homes at the seaside resort of 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 Kafka 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.

The Jewish cemetery in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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.

Franz Kafka on the cover of a book in an exhibition in the Spanish Synagogue in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

After Kafka’s death, Dora studied theatre at the Dumont Drama Academy in Düsseldorf in the late 1920s 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 Whitechapel in the East End 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.

‘Who knows Dora, knows what love means’ … Dora Diamant was forgotten until 20 years ago (Photograph: Geoffrey Gillon / Find a Grave, 2009)

On the feast of Stephen
or on the feast of
Good King Wenceslas?

The Stephansdom, or Saint Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna … what name do you give to 26 December? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Many decades ago, after leaving school, I began training as a chartered surveyor with a large property company based in London and Dublin, and studying estate management at the College of Estate Management at Reading University.

That company assembled and managed property portfolios for investment funds, developers, life insurance companies, shopping centres and a number of very large landowners – in terms of their portfolios rather than their girth.

As a trainee surveyor, I was being trained in valuation, property and estate management and surveying. I visited sites, learned to draw plans, compile reports and deal with a very interesting range of clients. Some of my daily tasks could seem mundane and boring; but others opened me to a world that I could never have imagined; and they were often tinged with amusement.

The BSc in Estate Management would lead to recognition from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) and qualification as a chartered surveyor. But looking back on those years in my late teens, I know my heart was not really in a career such as this. And like every late teen starting out in the workplace, I also fell victim to the usual office pranks.

One morning, I searched furtively but fruitlessly for a file before visiting one particular site that was being assembled in Dublin by a developer. You could say I was looking in vain for the portfolio of the portfolio.

I was anxious to prove myself, but eventually I had to admit defeat: we were due soon on the site, but the file was missing.

‘Look under G. I filed it away under G,’ I heard another trainee and colleague in background.

The file should have been under ‘S’ for ‘Saint Stephen’s Green. But he had filled it under ‘G’ for ‘Green.’

He joked later his alternative place was ‘T’ for ‘The Green.’

But it his sense of humour, and he was never the sort of person to have called in ‘Stevenses Green.’ He is now dead, and his late father, who was a leading Chartered Surveyor, had twice been chair of the St Stephen’s Green Club in Dublin.

There are three sorts of people in Ireland: one group call today ‘Saint Stephen’s Day’ or even ‘Stephen’s Day’; the second group call today ‘Stevenses Day’ … they also refer to ‘Stevenses Green’ and ‘Dr Stevenses Hospital’; and both groups unite to condemn the third group who dare to call today ‘Boxing Day.’

It became a major point of discussion on the Ryan Tubridy Show on RTÉ earlier this month, and seems to be one of the defining parts of Irish vocabulary in the English language.

Stephen is a family name: my grandfather, father, eldest brother and a nephew were baptised Stephen. But my reasons for insisting on retaining the name of Saint Stephen’s Day is theologically important to remind ourselves on the day after Christmas Day of the important link between the Incarnation and bearing witness to the Resurrection faith.

Saint Stephen the Deacon is the Protomartyr of Christianity. The Greek word name Στέφανος means ‘crown’ or ‘wreath’ and the Acts of the Apostles tell us Saint Stephen earned his crown at his martyrdom when he was stoned to death around the year AD 34 or 35 by an angry mob encouraged by Saul of Tarsus, the future Apostle Paul.

The ‘Feast of Stephen’ is inextricably linked with Christmas through the English carol ‘Good King Wenceslas.’

King Wenceslas has become a symbol of resurgent Czech nationalism and his statue dominates the main square in the centre of Prague.

When I was visiting Prague earlier this year, I was told how it is said in Prague that if the Czech Republic is in danger his statue in Wenceslas Square will come to life, Good King Wenceslas will raise a sleeping army and he will reveal a legendary sword to bring peace to the land.

I prefer John Mason Neale’s ending to this carol:

Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing

Saint Stephen’s witness to the faith and King Wenceslas’s care for the poor are reminders that the Christmas Spirit should not be confined or limited to Christmas Day.

‘Good King Wenceslas’ … an image on a ceiling in the Old Town Hall in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Good King Wenceslas

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even;
Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel,
When a poor man came in sight,
Gath’ring winter fuel.

‘Hither, page, and stand by me,
If thou know’st it, telling
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?’
‘Sire, he lives a good league hence,
Underneath the mountain,
Right against the forest fence,
By Saint Agnes’ fountain’.

‘Bring me flesh and bring me wine,
Bring me pine logs hither,
Thou and I will see him dine When we bear them thither.’
Page and monarch forth they went,
Forth they went together,
Through the rude wind’s wild lament
And the bitter weather.

‘Sire, the night is darker now
And the wind blows stronger;
Fails my heart, I know not how,
I can go no longer.’
‘Mark my footsteps, good my page,
Tread thou in them boldly:
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.’

In his master’s steps he trod,
Where the snow lay dinted;
Heat was in the very sod
Which the saint had printed.
Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.

King Wenceslas depicted on a façade in the Old Town Square in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)