07 June 2024

Franz Kafka, his Jewish
background in Prague
and his Jewish influences,
100 years after his death

Franza Kafka died 100 years ago … centenary exhibitions in Oxford and Prague offer new opportunities to reassess his Jewish self-understanding (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

Today is the 1st of Sivan in the Hebrew calendar, which makes today the 100th anniversary in the Jewish calendar of the death of Franz Kafka, the author of The Metamorphosis, The Trial, The Castle and Amerika. Two major exhibitions have opened in the past week to mark the centenary of the death of Franz Kafka, who died 100 years ago on 3 June 1924, just a month short of his 41st birthday.

Franz Kafka is one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, and the University of Oxford is celebrating his life and work, with a series of academic and public events that explores his global appeal. The #OxfordKafka24 programme includes a new exhibition at the Bodleian’s Weston Library, ‘Kafka: Making of Icon’. The exhibition opened last week (30 May), and continues until 27 October 2024.

‘The vision of Kafka’s shadow’ is a new exhibition in the Jerusalem Synagogue in Prague. It reflects on his work through the work of 11 selected Czech photographers and artists, and offers new perspectives on the complex world of the writer. The exhibition opened on Monday (3 June), and continues until the end of the year (31 December).

The exhibition in Oxford shows Kafka’s original notebooks, drawings, diaries, letters, postcards, glossaries and photographs. The highlights are the manuscripts of two of his unfinished novels, Das Schloss (The Castle) and Der Verschollene (Amerika), as well as a number of short stories.

To encourage students and the public to engage with his work, a new limited-edition imprint of The Metamorphosis from Oxford University Press is being given to every Oxford student and is being distributed to schools and libraries.

Four Oxford professors have created a lecture and events programme exploring Kafka’s legacy from the perspectives of their different disciplines. It is curious that, at this stage, the programmes do not appear to address Kafka’s Jewish background, influences and legacy.

So, to what degree did Kafka’s Jewish background influence his life story, his writing and his thinking?

‘The vision of Kafka’s shadow’ is a new exhibition in the Jerusalem Synagogue in Prague

Franz Kafka was born on 3 July 1883 in Prague, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, into a middle-class Ashkenazi Jewish family. His father Hermann Kafka (1852-1931) was a businessman; his mother, Julie (1856-1934), was a daughter of Jakob Löwy, a brewer in Poděbrady.

Prague was then a cultural crossroads but was also steeped in Jewish learning and writing. The first Jews in Prague are recorded in the tenth century, and among the myths and legends that developed in the centuries that followed, the myth of Rabbi Loew and the Golem is probably the best known.

The Golem was said to live in the attic of the Old-New Synagogue, sometimes said to be the place where Franz Kafka had his bar mitzvah (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

By Kafka’s time, Central European Jewry had become almost wholly assimilated, and the Kafka family clung to Jewish traditions in a merely superficial way. Even Kafka’s mother, who came from a more orthodox background than his father, made no great effort to cherish Jewish ways.

The Kafka family were mainly what were known as ‘four-day Jews’ who went to the synagogue only four times a year: on the major Jewish holidays and on the Emperor Franz Joseph’s birthday. They were not familiar with Hebrew liturgical texts, and wished to conform in every way to their non-Jewish surroundings in Prague, where their complex identity matrix was further complicated by tensions between Czech and German identities.

Franz Kafka was born in U Radnice 5 at the north-east corner of the Old Town Square in Prague. The house, which later burnt down, was on the edge of Josefov, the Jewish quarter in Prague.

Kafka spent much time in the Old Town Square and the neighbouring streets. When he was a ten-year-old age, he took lessons in a German grammar school at the Kinsky Palace, and he also once lived in a house beside the Astronomical Clock.

An old photograph of the Zigeuner Synagogue was where Franz Kafka had his bar mitzvah in 1896 … it was demolished in 1906

Franz Kafka hated the small amounts of Jewish culture he was exposed to at a young age, including his own bar mitzvah. He had his bar mitzvah at the Zigeuner-Synagoge in Prague in June 1896, although many tour guides say it took place in the Old-New Synagogue, or ‘Altneuschul’, which dates from 1270 and is the oldest landmark in the Jewish town in Prague – it is also the supposed haunt of the Golem.

The invitations to the bar mitzvah sent out by Hermann Kafka refer to his son’s ‘confirmation’. The Zigeuner Synagogue (Gypsy Synagogue) was built ca 1613 and named after its founder, Solomon Salkind-Cikán or Salkind Zigeuner. After a fire in 1689, it was rebuilt on a larger scale in 1701. It was destroyed by fire again in 1754, and was rebuilt once more in 1755. It was demolished in 1906, ten years after Kafka’s Bar Mitzvah, during the urban renewal of Prague’s Jewish Town, along with the Velkodvorska and New synagogues. The three older synagogues were replaced by the Jubilee Synagogue, built on Jerusalem Street in 1906.

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

In his formative and mature years, Franz Kafka developed a growing interest in his Jewish roots. His animosity towards his father and his family may explain the interest he developed in his Jewish heritage. His diaries give a full picture of his complex, contradictory relationship with Judaism.

For a writer known for his depictions of loneliness, alienation and inflexible bureaucracy, Kafka often saw in Judaism an opportunity to forge a shared community.

This interest in his own Jewishness introduced him to Martin Buber (1878-1965), then recognised as an authority on Hasidic legends and Jewish folklore. He felt drawn to Jews who had maintained their cultural identity, among them the leader of a Yiddish acting group from Poland.

Kafka was fascinated by the members of this group with their firm faith and their resistance to absorption or assimilation. The Jewish establishment in Prague despised travelling actors, and the largely assimilated German-speaking Jewish population in Prague tended to look down on poorer, Yiddish-speaking Eastern European Jews.

Kafka argued about this with his father, and in his diary, he records his father’s prejudices towards the company’s lead actor, Jizchak Löwy: ‘My father about him: He who lies down in bed with dogs gets up with bugs.’

He saw the travelling Yiddish theatre troupe perform almost two dozen times in 1911. He developed a close friendship with the company’s lead actor, Jizchak Löwy, and organised evenings of reading Yiddish literature and recitation events where Löwy performed stories of Jewish life in Warsaw.

Later, writing about a Yiddish play he found particularly moving, Kafka reflected on its depiction of ‘people who are Jews in an especially pure form, because they live only in the religion but live in it without effort, understanding or misery.’

Franz Kafka’s Hebrew workbooks among the exhibits in ‘Kafka: Making of Icon’, the current exhibition in the Bodleian’s Weston Library, Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

At that time, Kafka also began studying Hebrew. As late as 1921, however, he still complained about having no firm knowledge of Jewish history and religion. He felt an affinity with the Chassidic tradition, and he admired their ardent faith and the way they cherished their legacy, traditions and customs.

He took a particular interest in Zionism, the movement founded by Theodor Herzl, and supported the formation of a Jewish state, although , but sickness prevented him from pursuing his ideas about emigrating to Palestine and to live the life of a simple artisan there. He wrote for a Zionist magazine, planned several trips to Palestine, although they never materialised, and was most enthusiastic about the new kibbutzim.

Kafka’s friend Max Brod influenced his views on Zionism, but he was also influenced by his Hebrew teacher, the writer Friedrich Thieberger (1888-1958), a friend and student of Martin Buber. Thieberger emphasised Jewish responsibility for the whole world and believed that everybody is witness to everybody else.

A year before his death, he started attending the Berlin Academy of Jewish Studies. That year (1923), he met and fell in love with Dora Diamant, who taught him Hebrew. She was the daughter of an Orthodox rabbi and from a Chassidic background. Their relationship intensified his search for and his love of his Jewish roots.

The Jerusalem Synagogue in Prague is hosting a Kafka centenary exhibition that opened this week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Growing up, Kafka was ashamed of his own body – thin and too tall, large ears, an aquiline nose, and dark, protruding eyes – which reflected stereotypical images of central European Jews. In one letter, he shared the shame he felt every time he had to undress at the swimming pool and expose his scrawny and frail body.

According to Professor Michael Gluzman, ‘Kafka felt he was a stranger inside in his own body. He saw himself as a corpse floating in the river and felt mortally ill many years before he contracted tuberculosis.’

Kafka’s writings are filled with stories of the human body being transformed into other animals: a man who turns into a dog (Investigations of a Dog), a mouse (Josephine the Singer), a monkey (A Report to an Academy) or a large insect (The Metamorphosis).

The Metamorphosis tells of a man who is transformed into a bug and then is rejected harshly by his family. The opening sentence of The Metamorphosis is one of the most familiar in modern literature: ‘As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed into a gigantic insect.’

Like the Golem, this new creature is a frightful creation of the human imagination, embodying our fears about ourselves and about how others perceive us. But the transformation of Gregor Samsa is not an illusion, allegory or nightmare, but a realistic story, confronting real fears.

The transformed creature is often depicted as a cockroach, but the German word used by Kafka could be translated as insect or vermin. As antisemitism increased in German-speaking states and throughout central Europe in the decades that unfolded, the German words for vermin and cockroach were thrown around by Nazis to refer to Jews.

The creature that becomes the new reality of Gregor’s existence also represents Kafka’s own fears of the responses of his family and wider society as he takes on the mantle of the Jewish identity he is exploring and rediscovering. As Kafka explores his Jewishness, contemplates living within his Jewish body, he faces isolation from his own assimilated family, who go on with their ordinary lives, and rejection from wider society in German-speaking Prague, which he fears is going to see him as a cockroach or vermin.

The film Nosferatu was first screened in Germany a decade later. It is about an ugly vampire with a mouse-like face, crooked nose and dark eyes, dressed in long black outer clothes, who sucks the blood of fair-skinned Aryan girls.

Julius Streicher, later the chief editor of Der Stürmer, the Nazi propaganda newspaper, attended the premiere of the film. Captivated by the Jewish image of the vampire, Streicher went to the cinema every day. His impressions were translated into caricatures of vampires of Jewish origin in his newspaper. The transition to the image of an insect or a vermin did not take long.

Did Kafka see the rise of antisemitism in the central Europe … an image in ‘Kafka: Making of Icon’ in Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Was Kafka ahead of his time?

Was The Metamorphosis an inadvertent glimpse into the fate of the assimilated Western Jew – the Westjuden?

Did Jewish assimilation and integration into European life cause him to fall into a deep slumber that he woke up one morning perspiring, only to discover that he was regarded as an insect or vermin?

Franz Kafka’s grave in the new Jewish cemetery in Prague … an imagine in the Kafka exhibition in Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Like so many Jews in Prague, Kafka’s three sisters, Ottla, Elli and Valli, were deported by the Nazis and murdered during the Holocaust.

Ottilie ‘Ottla’ Kafka (1892-1943), his youngest and favourite sister, was probably the relative closest to him and supported him in difficult times. She was sent to the concentration camp at Terezin. From there, Ottla accompanied a group of children from the Bialystock ghetto as a voluntary assistant on 5 October 1943. When the transport reached Auschwitz two days later, all were murdered in the gas chambers.

His other sisters, Gabriele ‘Ellie’ Hermann or Hermannová (1889-1942) and Valerie ‘Valli’ Pollak (1890-1942), were sent with their families to the Łódź Ghetto. Valli was probably murdered in autumn 1942 in the Chełmno extermination camp; Elli was probably murdered in the Kulmhof extermination camp in autumn 1942.

His uncle, Dr Siegfried Löwy, his mother’s brother, lived in Třešt' for 25 years. Kafka visited him regularly, and he may have been the inspiration for Kafka’s short story The Country Doctor (1919). Löwy went to visit Kafka on his sick bed in Berlin in early 1924. In the summer of 1925, a year after Kafka’s death, the doctor retired, left Třešt' and moved to Prague. He died by suicide on 20 October 1942, just before he was to be deported to Terezín.

Other members of the Kafka family who were murdered by the Nazis include his cousin, Georg Kafka (1921-1944), a poet and playwright. He was born in 1921 in Teplitz-Schönau (now Teplice, ‎Czech Republic). In 1942, he was interned at Terezin, where he began writing poetry. There he wrote the ‎poem ‘Segen der Nacht’ (Blessing of the Night) in German in 1943.‎

Georg Kafka’s father died in Terezin in March 1944, and Georg’s mother was assigned to a transport on 15 May 1944. Not wanting her to be alone, Georg volunteered to join the transport. She was murdered when she arrived at Auschwitz, while Georg was later sent to the camp at Schwarzheide, where he was murdered at the end of 1944.

Jaroslav Rona’s statue of Franz Kafka Street beside the Spanish Synagogue in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

About five minutes away from Old Town Square, a sculpture outside the Spanish Synagogue in Prague is inspired by Kafka’s short story, ‘Description of a Struggle.’ Jaroslav Rona’s sculpture depicts a small man in a suit on the shoulders of a large empty suit. This image represents the narrator of the story riding on the back of the acquaintance.

Today, the Golem and Kafka are the two major tourism attractions in Prague. This year’s centenary promises to heighten the interest not only in Kafka and the Golem, but also of the story and contribution of the Jewish community in Prague.

May his memory be a blessing, זיכרונו לברכה

Shabbat Shalom, שבת שלום

Images from ‘Kafka: Making of Icon’, the current exhibition in the Bodleian’s Weston Library, Oxford (Patrick Comerford, 2024)

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