14 April 2023

‘Who knows Dora, knows what love means’:
finding a story of Kafka and love in Prague

The statue of Franz Kafka Street beside the Spanish Synagogue in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

This is our last day in Prague during a very short mid-week visit to Prague. Charlotte and I have been visiting Prague Castle, the Charles Bridge, the Old Town and its old churches, the Jewish Quarter or Josefov and some of its many synagogues, and searching for sites associated with Franz Kafka. Although the synagogues in Prague were closed yesterday on the last day of Passover, we managed to visit many of them today before Shabbat began this evening.

Franz Kafka (1883-1924) is, perhaps, the best-known literary figure of the 20th century associated with the Czech capital. He was born in Prague, and when he died near Vienna he was buried in Prague. One of his best-known novels is The Metamorphosis (1915), which I discussed yesterday (13 April 2023). But many of his other acclaimed books were not published until after he died, including The Trial (1925), The Castle (1926) and America (1927).

In Prague, we saw Kafka’s statue in Dusni Street beside the ‘Spanish Synagogue’ and the streets named after him. There is a collection of items associated with Kafka in the Spanish Synagogue, close to where he was born.

We were also reminded of the story, ‘Kafka and the Travelling Doll,’ written by the Catalan children’s writer Jordi Sierra i Fabra. This story is a story of unconditional love, based on a real-life event in the life of Kafka, based on the memoirs of Dora Diamant. She had lived with Kafka in Berlin, and he died in her arms.

There is a wonderful adaptation of the story for RTÉ by Caitríona Ní Mhurchú from a few years ago:

One year before his death, Franz Kafka is in one of Berlin’s parks, Steglitz City Park, where he sees a girl who is crying because she has lost her doll.

The writer calms her down by telling her that her doll had gone on a trip and that he, a doll postman, would take her a letter the next day.

Over 13 days, he brought a letter to the park every day in which the doll tells of her adventures, which he himself had written the night before.

‘Your doll has gone off on a trip,’ he said. ‘How do you know that?’ the girl asks.

‘Because she’s written me a letter,’ Kafka says.

The girl seems suspicious. ‘Do you have it on you?’ she asks.

‘No, I’m sorry,’ he says. ‘I left it at home by mistake, but I’ll bring it with me tomorrow.’

He’s so convincing, the girl doesn’t know what to think anymore. Can it be possible that this mysterious man is telling the truth?

The next day, Kafka rushes back to the park with the letter. The little girl is waiting for him, and since she hasn’t learned how to read yet, he reads the letter out loud to her.

The doll is very sorry, but she’s grown tired of living with the same people all the time. She needs to get out and see the world, to make new friends. It’s not that she doesn’t love the little girl, but she longs for a change of scenery, and therefore they must separate for a while. The doll then promises to write to the girl every day and keep her abreast of her activities.

‘Please do not mourn me, I have gone on a trip to see the world. I will write you of my adventures.

After a few days, the girl had forgotten about the real toy that she’d lost, and she was only thinking about the fiction that she’d been offered as a replacement.

Kafka wrote every sentence of this story in such detail, and with such humorous precision, that it made the doll’s situation completely understandable: the doll had grown up, gone to school, met other people.

She always reassured the child of her love, but made reference to the complications of her life, her other obligations and interests that prevented her from returning to their shared life right now. She asked the little girl to think about this, and in doing so she prepared her for the inevitable, for doing without her.

By that point, of course, the girl no longer misses the doll. Kafka has given her something else instead, and by the time those two weeks are up, the letters have cured her of her unhappiness. She has the story, and when a person is lucky enough to live inside a story, to live inside an imaginary world, the pains of this world disappear.

For as long as the story goes on, reality no longer exists.

One day the girl got her doll back. It was a different doll of course, bought by Kafka as a last gift for her.

An attached letter explained, ‘My travels have changed me.’

Many years later, long after Kafka’s death, the now grown girl found a letter stuffed into an unnoticed crevice in the cherished replacement doll.

In summary it said:

‘Everything that you love, you will eventually lose, but in the end, love will return in a different form.’

In the end, love will return.

The story of Dora Diamant and her tragic life is as intriguing and captivating as any story that Kafka has written (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The story 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 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.

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 Kafka, who years before had commended this work to his first fiancée Felice Bauer.

Dora told Kafka 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.’

Dora Diamant first met Kafka’s parents at his funeral in the New Jewish Cemetery in Prague. As at his coffin was lowered into the grave, she let out an unearthly wail, and lay lifeless on the ground. Kafka’s father turned his back on her, disdainfully. No one dared to move and help her up.

The Old Jewish cemetery in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

After Kafka’s death, Dora was blamed for burning Kafka’s papers under his gaze and at his request during the last months of his 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 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 the 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)

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 from 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.

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 24 years ago in August 1999.

Her headstone reads ‘Who knows Dora, knows what love means.’

May her memory be a blessing.

Shabbat Shalom

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

No comments: