Kafka - Czech, German or Jew ?

© Copyright Peter Crawford 2014
© Copyright Peter Crawford 2014
Czech, German or Jew ?

Franz Kafka (3 July 1883 – 3 June 1924) was a writer of novels and short stories, regarded by critics as one of the most influential authors of the 20th century.
Kafka strongly influenced genres such as existentialism.
It has been suggested that many of his works, such as 'Die Verwandlung' (The Metamorphosis), 'Der Prozess' (The Trial), and 'Das Schloss' (The Castle), are filled with the themes and archetypes of alienation, physical and psychological brutality, parent–child conflict (?), characters on a terrifying quest, labyrinths of bureaucracy, and mystical transformations.
Stadtwappen Prague
© Copyright Peter Crawford 2014
Kafka was born into a middle-class, German-Jewish family in Prague, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Prague - 1890
In his lifetime, most of the population of Prague were Czech, and the division between Czech- and German-speaking people was a tangible reality, as both groups were strengthening their national identity.
Unlike most German-Jews, Kafka himself was fluent in both languages, but consided German to be his mother tongue.
Kafka trained as a lawyer and, after completing his legal education, obtained employment with an influential insurance company in Prague.
He began to write short stories in his spare time.
For the rest of his life, he complained about the little time he had to devote to his writing.
He regretted having to devote so much attention to his Brotberuf ("day job", literally "bread job").
Kafka preferred to communicate by letter; he wrote hundreds of letters to family and close female friends, including his father, his fiancée Felice Bauer, and his youngest sister Ottla.
His relationship with his father was very similar to that of many middle-class sons at the time, in that his father was often somewhat strict and overbearing.
Although Kafka, as a child, was brought up a Jew, he rarely practised his religion, feeling that it had little to do with him, and Jewish themes and characters rarely have any influence on, or appear in his writings.

Early Life

 Altstädter Ring in Prag - 1900
Kafka was born near the Altstädter Ring in Prag, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
His family were middle-class.

Herrenstrasse - Osseg - Bohemia
His father, Hermann Kafka (1852–1931), was the fourth child of Jakob Kafka, a 'shochet' (ritual slaughterer) in Osseg, a Bohemian village with a large German-Jewish population located near Strakonice in southern Bohemia.
Hermann brought the Kafka family to Prague.
After working as a travelling sales representative, he eventually became a fancy goods and clothing retailer who employed up to 15 people, and used the image of a jackdaw (kavka in Czech) as his business logo.
Kafka's mother, Julie (1856–1934), was the daughter of Jakob Löwy, a prosperous retail merchant in Poděbrady, and was better educated than her husband.
Hermann and Julie had six children, of whom Franz was the eldest.
Franz's two brothers, Georg and Heinrich, died in infancy before Franz was seven; his three sisters were Gabriele ("Ellie"), Valerie ("Valli") and Ottilie ("Ottla").

Hermann Kafka
Hermann is described by Franz Kafka as "a true Kafka in strength, health, appetite, loudness of voice, eloquence, self-satisfaction, worldly dominance, endurance, presence of mind, [and] knowledge of human nature".
On business days, both parents were absent from the home, with Julie Kafka working as many as 12 hours each day helping to manage the family business.
Consequently, Kafka's childhood was somewhat lonely, and the children were reared largely by a series of governesses and servants.
Kafka's troubled relationship with his father is evident in his somewhat ingenuous and not strictly factual, 'Brief an den Vater' (Letter to His Father), of more than 100 pages, in which he complains of being profoundly affected by his father's authoritarian and demanding character; his mother, in contrast, was quiet and shy.
The Kafka family initially lived in a small apartment.
In November 1913 the family moved into a large and quite luxurious apartment, although Ellie and Valli had married and moved out of the first apartment.
In early August 1914, just after World War I began, the sisters did not know where their husbands were in the military, and moved back in with the family in this larger apartment.
Both Ellie and Valli also had children.
Franz at age 31 moved into Valli's former apartment, quiet by contrast, and lived by himself for the first time.

Kafka's Education

From 1889 to 1893, Kafka attended the Deutsche Knabenschule German boys' elementary school at the Fleischmarkt (meat market).
His Jewish education ended with his Bar Mitzvah celebration at the age of 13.
Kafka never enjoyed attending the synagogue and went with his father only on four high holidays a year.

Teenage Kafka
After leaving elementary school in 1893, Kafka was admitted to the rigorous classics-oriented state gymnasium, Altstädter Deutsches Gymnasium, an academic secondary school at Old Town Square, within the Kinsky Palace.
German, by law, was the language of instruction, but Kafka also spoke and wrote in Czech; he studied the latter at the gymnasium for eight years, achieving good grades.
Although Kafka received compliments for his Czech, he never considered himself fluent in Czech, and normally spoke High German

Hochdeutsche (High German) comprise the varieties of German spoken south of the Benrath and Uerdingen isoglosses in central and southern Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, and Luxembourg as well as in neighbouring portions of Belgium (Eupen-Malmedy) and the Netherlands (Southeast Limburg), France (Alsace and northern Lorraine), Italy (South Tyrol), and Poland (Upper Silesia). They are also spoken in diaspora in Romania, Russia, the United States, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Namibia. The High German languages are marked by the High German consonant shift, separating them from Low German and Low Franconian (Dutch) within the continental West Germanic dialect continuum.

Kafka completed his Matura exams in 1901.
Admitted to the Deutsche Karl-Ferdinands-Universität of Prague in 1901, Kafka began studying chemistry, but switched to law after two weeks.
Although this field did not excite him, it offered a range of career possibilities which pleased his father.
In addition, law required a longer course of study, giving Kafka time to take classes in German studies and art history.
He also joined a student club, Lese-und Redehalle der Deutschen Studenten (Reading and Lecture Hall of the German students), which organized literary events, readings and other activities.
Among Kafka's friends were the journalist Felix Weltsch, who studied philosophy, the actor Yitzchak Lowy who came from an orthodox Hasidic Warsaw family, and the writers Oskar Baum and Franz Werfel.

Max Brod
At the end of his first year of studies, Kafka met Max Brod, a fellow law student who became a close friend for life.

Max Brod (May 27, 1884 – December 20, 1968) was a German-Jew, - author, composer, and journalist. Although he was a prolific writer in his own right, he is most famous as the friend and biographer and literary executor of Franz Kafka. Brod was born in Prague. He went to the Piarist school together with his lifelong friend Felix Weltsch, later attended the Stephans Gymnasium, then studied law at the German Charles-Ferdinand University, and graduated in 1907 to work in the civil service. From 1924, already an established writer, he worked as a critic for the 'Prager Tagblatt'. Brod died on December 20, 1968 in Tel Aviv.

Brod soon noticed that, although Kafka was shy and seldom spoke, what he said was usually profound.
Kafka was an avid reader throughout his life; together he and Brod read Plato's 'Protagoras' in the original Greek, on Brod's initiative, and Flaubert's 'L'éducation sentimentale' (Sentimental Education) and 'La Tentation de St. Antoine' (The Temptation of Saint Anthony) in French, at his own suggestion.
Kafka considered Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Franz Grillparzer, and Heinrich von Kleist to be his "true blood brothers".
Besides these he was also very fond of the works of Goethe.
Kafka obtained the degree of Doctor of Law on 18 July 1906, and performed an obligatory year of unpaid service as law clerk for the civil and criminal courts.


On 1 November 1907, Kafka was hired at the 'Assicurazioni Generali', an Italian insurance company, where he worked for nearly a year.
His correspondence during that period indicates that he was unhappy with a working time schedule - from 08:00 until 18:00 - making it extremely difficult to concentrate on writing, which was assuming increasing importance to him.
On 15 July 1908, he resigned.
Two weeks later he found employment more amenable to writing when he joined the 'Worker's Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia'.
The job involved investigating and assessing compensation for personal injury to industrial workers; accidents such as lost fingers or limbs were commonplace at this time.
The management professor Peter Drucker credits Kafka with developing the first civilian hard hat while employed at the Worker's Accident Insurance Institute, but this is not supported by any document from his employer.
His father often referred to his son's job as an insurance officer as a Brotberuf, literally "bread job", a job done only to pay the bills; - Kafka often claimed to despise it, despite the fact that he was exceptionally well paid.
Kafka was rapidly promoted, and his duties included processing and investigating compensation claims, writing reports, and handling appeals from businessmen who thought their firms had been placed in too high a risk category, which cost them more in insurance premiums.
He would compile and compose the annual report on the insurance institute for the several years he worked there.
The reports were received well by his superiors.
Kafka usually got off work at 2 p.m., so that he had time to spend on his literary work, to which he was committed.
Kafka's father also expected him to help out at and take over the family fancy goods store.
In his later years, Kafka's illness often prevented him from working at the insurance bureau and at his writing.
Years later, Brod coined the term 'Der enge Prager Kreis' ("The Close Prague Circle") to describe the group of writers, which included Kafka, Felix Weltsch and him.
In late 1911, Elli's husband Karl Hermann and Kafka became partners in the first asbestos factory in Prague, known as 'Prager Asbestwerke Hermann & Co'., having used dowry money from Hermann Kafka.
Kafka showed a positive attitude at first, dedicating much of his free time to the business, but he later resented the encroachment of this work on his writing time.
It was at about this time that Kafka became a vegetarian.
Around 1915 Kafka received his draft notice for military service in World War I, but his employers at the insurance institute arranged for a deferment, because his work was considered essential government service.
Later he attempted to join the military but was prevented from doing so by medical problems associated with tuberculosis, with which he was diagnosed in 1917.
Kafka supported the Austrian declaration of war on Serbia (which was one of the main causes of the Große Krieg - First World War), and admired the response of Austria's ally, the German Reich - and eventually settled in the German capital - Berlin.
In 1918 the Worker's Accident Insurance Institute put Kafka on a generous pension due to his illness, for which there was no cure at the time, and he spent most of the rest of his life in the best sanatoriums.

Private Life

Kafka had an active sex life.
According to Brod, Kafka was "tortured" by sexual desire and that his life was full of "incessant womanising".
He regularly visited high class brothels for most of his adult life, and kept a private library of  expensive, high class pornography in a locked bookcase in his parent's home
In addition, he had close relationships with several women during his life.
On 13 August 1912, Kafka met Felice Bauer, a relative of Brod, who worked in Berlin as a representative of a Dictaphone company.
Shortly after this, Kafka wrote the story "Das Urteil" (The Judgment) in only one night, and worked in a productive period on 'Der Verschollene' (The Man Who Disappeared) and 'Die Verwandlung' (The Metamorphosis).
Kafka and Felice Bauer communicated mostly through letters over the next five years, met occasionally, and were engaged twice.
Kafka's extant letters to her were published as 'Briefe an Felice' (Letters to Felice); her letters do not survive.
Around 1920 Kafka was engaged a third time, to Julie Wohryzek, a poor and uneducated hotel chambermaid.
Although the two rented a flat, and set a wedding date, the marriage never took place.
During this time Kafka began a draft of the 'Letter to His Father', who, interestingly, objected to Julie because of her Zionist beliefs.
Before the date of the intended marriage, he took up with yet another woman.
While he needed women and sex in his life, he had low self-confidence, felt sex was dirty - although this was not an uncommon attitude among middle-class intellectuals at the turn of the century.
Brod stated that during the time that Kafka knew Felice Bauer, he had an affair with a friend of hers, Margarethe "Grete" Bloch, a German-Jew from Berlin.
Kafka was diagnosed with tuberculosis (TB) in August 1917 and moved for a few months to the Bohemian village of Zürau, where his sister Ottla worked on the farm of her brother-in-law Hermann.
He felt comfortable there, and later described this time as perhaps the best time in his life, probably because he had no responsibilities.
He kept diaries and 'Oktavhefte' (octavo).
From the notes in these books, Kafka extracted 109 numbered pieces of text on Zettel, single pieces of paper in no given order.
They were later published as 'Die Zürauer Aphorismen oder Betrachtungen über Sünde, Hoffnung, Leid und den wahren Weg' (The Zürau Aphorisms or Reflections on Sin, Hope, Suffering, and the True Way).
In 1920 Kafka began an intense relationship with Milena Jesenská, a Czech journalist and writer.
His letters to her were later published as 'Briefe an Milena'.
During a vacation in July 1923 to Graal-Müritz on the Baltic Sea, Kafka met Dora Diamant, a 25-year-old kindergarten teacher.
Kafka, hoping to escape the influence of his family to concentrate on his writing, moved briefly to Berlin and lived with Diamant, while he worked on four stories, which he prepared to be published as 'Ein Hungerkünstler' (A Hunger Artist).


At times, Kafka feared that people would find him mentally and physically repulsive, however, those who met him perceived him to possess a quiet and cool demeanour, obvious intelligence, and a dry sense of humour; they also found him boyishly handsome, although of austere appearance.
Brod compared Kafka to Heinrich von Kleist, noting that both writers had the ability to realistically describe a situation with precise details.
Brod thought Kafka was one of the most entertaining people he had met; Kafka enjoyed sharing humour with his friends, but also helped them in difficult situations with good advice.
According to Brod, he was a passionate reciter, who was able to phrase his speaking as if it were music.
Brod felt that two of Kafka's most distinguishing traits were "absolute truthfulness" (absolute Wahrhaftigkeit) and "precise conscientiousness" (präzise Gewissenhaftigkeit).
He explored the detail, the inconspicuous, profoundly with such love and precision that things surfaced that had been unforeseen, that seemed strange, but were nothing but true (nichts als wahr).
Franz Kafka at the Beach
Although Kafka showed little interest in exercise as a child, he later showed interest in games and physical activity, as a good rider, swimmer, and rower, and was taller than average with a well muscled physique.
His good physique was the result of his following a regular, daily exercise regime originated by Jørgen Peter Müller.

Jørgen Peter Müller
His book 'Mit System' (My System), published in 1904, was a best-seller, and has been translated to English and many other languages. My System explains Müller's philosophy of health and provides guidelines for the 18 exercises that comprise the system. Much of what was stated in his system has since been accepted by the medical community, with many of his basic movements being used in modern-day physical therapy and rehabilitation. The emphasis on body-weight exercise, and the use of dynamic stretching is useful for many people, and has been found appropriate in a wide range of patients. Müller also espoused nude sun-bathing and air-baths. Müller was appointed Knight of the Dannebrog in 1919.

On weekends he and his friends embarked on long hikes, often planned by Kafka himself.
His other interests included alternative medicine, and technical novelties such as air-planes and film.
He was very sensitive to noise and preferred quiet when writing.
It has been suggested that Kafka may have possessed a schizoid personality disorder.
His style, not only in 'Die Verwandlung' (The Metamorphosis), but in various other writings, appears to show low to medium-level schizoid characteristics, which explain much of his surprising work.

Schizoid personality disorder (SPD) is a personality disorder characterized by a lack of interest in social relationships, a tendency towards a solitary lifestyle, secretiveness, emotional coldness, and apathy. Affected individuals may simultaneously demonstrate a rich, elaborate and exclusively internal fantasy world. SPD is not the same as schizophrenia, although they share such similar characteristics as detachment and blunted affect. People with SPD are often aloof, cold and indifferent, which causes interpersonal difficulty. Most individuals diagnosed with SPD have trouble establishing personal relationships or expressing their feelings in a meaningful way. They may remain passive in the face of unfavourable situations. Their communication with other people may be indifferent and concise at times. Many fundamentally schizoid individuals present with an engaging, interactive personality style that contradicts the observable characteristic emphasized by the definitions of the schizoid personality. These individuals may be described as "secret schizoids", who present themselves as socially available, interested, engaged and involved in interacting yet remain emotionally withdrawn and sequestered within the safety of their internal world.

His anguish can be seen in this diary entry from 21 June 1913:

'The tremendous world I have in my head. But how to free myself and free them without ripping apart. And a thousand times rather tear in me they hold back or buried. For this I'm here, that's quite clear to me.'

Though Kafka never married, he held marriage and children in high esteem.
He had several girlfriends, but some academics have speculated about his sexuality.
Others have suggested he may have suffered from an eating disorder pointing to "evidence for the hypothesis that the writer Franz Kafka had suffered from an atypical anorexia nervosa", and that Kafka was not just lonely and depressed but also "occasionally suicidal".
Kafka considered committing suicide at least once, in late 1912.

Political Views

Prior to World War I, Kafka attended several meetings of the 'Klub Mladých', a Czech anarchist, anti-militarist, and anti-clerical organization.
Hugo Bergmann, who attended the same elementary and high schools as Kafka, fell out with Kafka during their last academic year (1900–1901) because
'Kafka's socialism and my Zionism were much too strident. Franz became a socialist, I became a Zionist in 1898. The synthesis of Zionism and socialism did not yet exist'.
Bergmann claims that Kafka wore a red carnation to school to show his support for socialism.
In one diary entry, Kafka made reference to the influential anarchist philosopher Prince Peter Kropotkin: 'Don't forget Kropotkinb !'.
Kafka's espousal of Socialism in his youth was odd, to say the least, considering his family's middle class position, considerable affluence and high social standing.
Kafka's relationship to Judaism has been much debated.
He was at most times alienated from Judaism and Jewish life:
'What have I in common with Jews ? I have hardly anything in common with myself, and should stand very quietly in a corner, content that I can breathe'.
In his adolescent years, in addition to being a Socialist, Kafka had declared himself an atheist.
It has been suggested that Kafka, though in some ways quite aware of his own Jewishness, did not incorporate it into his work, which lacks Jewish characters, scenes or themes, and that it may be deduced that Kafka was uneasy with his Jewish heritage.

Translating Kafka into English

Kafka often made extensive use of a characteristic particular to the German language allowing for long sentences that sometimes can span an entire page.
Kafka's sentences then deliver an unexpected impact just before the full stop - that being the finalizing meaning and focus.
This is due to the construction of subordinate clauses in German which require that the verb be positioned at the end of the sentence.
Such constructions are difficult to duplicate in English, so it is up to the translator to provide the reader with the same (or at least equivalent) effect found in the original text.
German's more flexible word order, and syntactical differences, provide for multiple ways the same German writing can be translated into English.

to be continued