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Unraveling a Nazi Mystery: Are Franz Kafka’s Missing Love Letters in Berlin?

The Nazis confiscated Franz Kafka’s love letters to Dora Diamant, and one woman has made the search for them—and other missing documents—a full-time job, and passion.

02.04.17 5:00 AM ET

On June 3, 1924, Franz Kafka died of tuberculosis in a sanatorium in Austria. He was only 41 years old and was just getting started with his writing career.

But his death was made all the more tragic by love—Kafka’s last moments were spent in the arms of Dora Diamant, the love of his life whom he had only met 11 months earlier.

Dora would cherish the memory of Kafka for the rest of her life—so much so that she named her only daughter after her former lover ten years after his death. She kept a piece of him in the 35 letters he had written to her during the rare times they were apart, as well as 20 notebooks that were left in her possession.

That is, until the Gestapo raided her Berlin house and confiscated all the papers they could get their hands on, condemning her mementos to the notorious mountain of bureaucracy of the Third Reich.

The search to recover these letters and notebooks started almost immediately after they were taken. Kafka’s closest friend, Max Brod, was a confidant of Dora’s and he attempted to track down the missing documents. But he was stopped first by the Gestapo, who told him there was no way to find these few items among the trove of papers that were being confiscated during the war, and then again two decades later when the impenetrable Iron Curtain ground the quest to a halt.

As the trail went cold, so too did the memory of Dora. The history books reduced her life to the last pages of the countless Kafka biographies; she became forever the 19-year-old who was the great author’s last love. From there, she vanished.

In the late 1990s, that all changed. Kathi Diamant, director of the Kafka Project, had become obsessed with Dora in college after a German language literature professor, who she happened to have a crush on, asked if they were related.

Knowing nothing about the other Diamant but wanting to impress her teacher, Kathi started searching for information at the library and among her family members. She didn’t find anything definitive—to this day, she’s not sure if they are related and says she “like[s] the mystery”—but this question would change the path of her life. 

“At that point, I sort of got hooked on finding out what became of Dora… she kind of haunted me,” Diamant says.

In 1985, 13 years after her first Dora encounter, Kathi Diamant happened to attend a traveling Smithsonian exhibition on the Holocaust that had come to San Diego. A snapshot of a church in Prague that had the names of victims carved on its walls listed a Diamant, and it sparked her interest once again to find out what had happened to Kafka’s last love. After the show she was working for was cancelled in 1990, Kathi decided to turn her passion into her full time job.

Since then, she has written a book about Dora’s life—an eventful one that included the loss of her husband to a gulag, escape from Germany, and internment in London during WWII—but one of the missing pieces of the puzzle remains in the love letters that were lost so long ago.

It’s a miracle the letters exist at all. When Kafka died, he had only published several stories. Being the perfectionist that he was, he left strict instructions that all of his remaining papers and works were to be burned unread. He allegedly destroyed around 90 percent of his output himself before his death.

But Brod, who gained control of the majority of his paper estate, and Diamant both ignored these wishes. Brod went on to publish The Trial, The Castle, Amerika, and a variety of books that pulled from Kafka’s letters and diaries. These posthumous works led the writer to be considered one of the greatest literary talents of his day, and he is a subject that continues to fascinate literary scholars. (According to Kathi Diamant, a new book on Kafka has been published every 10 days for the past 14 years.)

“Kafka is really magic,” Diamant says. “He was really an extraordinary human being, who saw literature as a way to repair the world, as a form of art. Not that he thought his work would do that, but that was part of the goal of literature.”

But other works remained unseen. In addition to the Gestapo’s devastating seizure, a trove of Kafka documents was the subject of a lawsuit for over 50 years.

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The National Library of Israel and the descendants of Brod’s secretary (and probable paramour), Esther Hoffe, both claimed ownership of the Kafka papers that remained in Brod’s possession when he died in 1968. In August, the courts finally ruled in favor of the library, and the documents are slowly being archived and made available to the public.

Included in this trove are around 70 letters written by Dora to Brod, presumably letters that detail their search for Dora’s confiscated property as well as their reminiscences of the man they both loved. Diamant hopes that they will be made available by the end of the year (“as soon as they are available to the public, I'm on a plane to Israel to read them,” she wrote in an email).

“Those [letters] are going to be so rich in details about Kafka,” Diamant says. “The few things that they have uncovered in [Dora’s] diaries, the texture, the detail, the dimension, on a personal level from a woman who loved him, I think will be unique in Kafka [scholarship].”

But also, these letters might shed some light on the others that were filed away by the Nazis in a bunker or vault or tunnel somewhere for so many years.

In 1998, Diamant launched the Kafka Project in collaboration with San Diego State University and with the blessing of the Kafka Estate. The project’s mission is to pick up the hunt where Max Brod and his allies left off and trace down these missing works.

For the past two decades, Diamant has searched the Nazi archives in Berlin and Prague, consulted with scholars and national archivists, and followed every lead.

In 2008, she traveled to Poland for six weeks, scouring the national archives and querying every possible scholar to follow a lead from Klaus Wagenbach, one of Brod’s assistant’s in his search. According to Wagenbach, the chief of police told them in the 1950s that the documents were last seen on a train transport heading out of Berlin to the Eastern territories to be safeguarded from Allied bombing.

But nothing turned up, which was a very, very bad sign. If the letters and diaries couldn’t be found in the very well-organized records of the Nazis and with the full cooperation of the current Berlin and Prague archivists, then that meant they had probably ended up in Moscow.

“At that point, in 2012, [the relationship with Russia] was already very difficult,” Diamant says. “I had [previously] done research in Moscow, and I had gotten quite a bit of information out of documents out of Moscow. But even then it was becoming increasingly impossible. It was terrible news.”

It was a devastating blow.

The following year, Diamant traveled back to Berlin for the release of her book in German. She threw a party and invited all of the archivists and scholars who had assisted in her research. It was there that one of her former colleagues dropped an interesting piece of news.

He said he had discovered the existence of an archive in Berlin that had been returned from Russia to the Stasi in the late 1960s. It fit the description of the type of archive Diamant knew she was looking for, but it was still uncatalogued and its location was unknown—basically, it had been kept a secret.

But everything Diamant heard about this secret archive has led her to hope that this may be the one she’s dedicated her life to finding.

Since that party in 2013, she has enlisted the help of Dr. Hans Koch, the German scholar behind the critical edition of Kafka’s letters who Diamant calls “the guy” on all things Kafka.

With two German universities behind them, they are working with the local government to get permission to access and catalogue the archive’s content. They now know where these documents are located and have the full cooperation of the authorities, but as grants are being secured and plans made, it’s unclear how long this process will take—probably years.

Not only Kafka acolytes interested in soaking up every word he has written, but also, Diamant explains, the documents would help shed light on the very important last chapter of Kafka’s life, a “part of the story that’s been missing.”

“Kafka has been defined by his inability to love. But the fact is, he loved a lot of women,” Diamant laughs. “He fell in love easily and often it just never worked out until Dora…all of this interpretation [of Kafka] is based on him not having a happy love life. So these letters are important because we’re going to see a different Kafka.”

Plus, the writer died leaving so much of his work in progress. He was constantly refining his writing and his way of thinking, and these letters are some of his last produced works. “Kafka said a man is only truly aware of himself when he is in love or dying. And in that last year of his life he was both.” We can only imagine the additional words of wisdom they will hold.

Diamant quotes Kafka’s aphorisms often, and one of her favorites to cite is “as long as you keep climbing, there will be stairs. They will magically appear under your climbing feet.” It seems a particularly apt maxim for her own life-long quest to unravel this mystery. The new leads may take years to materialize, but there will always be hope, always another lead, another stair that will appear.

“The interesting thing is that the love story between Dora and Kafka did not end with either of their deaths,” Diamant says. “It continues. It continues with me, through me.”