Franz Kafka as a child, Prague, ca. 1890s. (Leo Baeck Institute, New York)

Find more information about

at the Center for Jewish History:

NOTE: you will be redirected
to the Web site for the

Kafka, Franz

(1883–1924), writer. A Jewish writer who was born and lived most of his life in Prague, Franz Kafka was one of the most important contributors to European modernist prose. All of his surviving fiction was composed in German, which must be considered his mother tongue, although he was raised in a multicultural environment and had a good command of Czech.

Kafka took an interest in and learned Jewish languages later in life, and his diaries and personal correspondence reveal a sustained reflection on his identity as a Jew and on East European Jewish life. Yet he saw his literary contribution as a continuation of the great German cultural tradition, and in all of his creative work (mostly short fiction and fragments, novels, and aphorisms) there is virtually no direct reference to Jews or Judaism as such, nor to the specific locales of Prague, Bohemia, or Eastern Europe. The style of much of this work seems deliberately stripped of local flavor or accent, and it is this very nakedness and precision of Kafka’s prose that has assured its place in the modernist canon. Scholars have struggled with the apparent contradiction of strong Jewish and East European interest in life and lack of explicit reference to these interests in the author’s literary work, and it is a difficult problem to address.

Franz Kafka was the only son among four children of a successful middle-class merchant in Prague. Like many Prague Jews of his class, he was educated in German and that was the language chiefly spoken at home, although his father Hermann had been raised in rural Bohemia as a Czech-speaker who also spoke and understood Yiddish. Acculturation to the German minority of Prague was identified by Jews of Kafka’s father’s generation with upward mobility, although Hermann had many Czech clients and was not himself identified as a German Jew.

From 1901 to 1906, after a German university-oriented secondary education, Kafka studied in the German division of the nationally divided Charles University of Prague. He began studying German literature but was disillusioned after one semester and completed a degree in law. During this time he participated in the student organization Lese- und Redehalle der deutschen Studenten in Prag, a lecture and reading group that was oriented toward German culture and that attracted assimilated German Jewish students, including Max Brod, Felix Weltsch, and Oskar Baum. Kafka obtained a bureaucratic position with a private insurance company associated with the state, where he served from 1908 until his illness. The bulk of his literary productivity was in this period, when writing or creative life and work and everyday life were seen as antagonistic forces for him.

In 1917, Kafka was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and he battled the disease for the rest of his life. During his lifetime, he published some short pieces and several collections, including fragments of his novels-in-progress, and he enjoyed modest attention as one of many promising writers of his generation, but his work and its significance became widely known and discussed only after his death. His friend Max Brod, another Prague Jewish writer, was entrusted with many of Kafka’s unpublished works, which the author asked him to destroy after his death. Brod did not respect this request and saved the manuscripts twice over, arranging for their posthumous publication, and introducing them to a broader public with his own biography and critical interpretations of the works.

Kafka’s first published pieces included contributions to the Jewish national weekly Selbstwehr, Prague’s German national cultural organ Bohemia, Franz Blei’s modernist literary journal Hyperion, and early anthologies of the Prague Circle of German-speaking Jewish writers. His earliest work is aphoristic and more florid in style than the later work. The turning points in Kafka’s writing seem to coincide with his changing thinking about Jewish and East European identity issues. While his reflections on Jewishness and its meaning for himself as a writer vary widely, a most characteristic, if also cryptic utterance is a diary comment of 1914: “What have I in common with Jews? I have hardly anything in common with myself and should sit quietly in a corner, content that I can breathe.”

Whereas many of his German-acculturated Prague cohorts were profoundly affected by the influential lectures of Martin Buber in Prague from 1909 to 1911, Kafka himself claimed to have been unimpressed. More important for him was his encounter with a Yiddish theater troupe from Poland and a friendship with its leader, Yitskhok Löwy (also known as Jacques Levi; 1887–1942). Much evidence attests to the importance of this encounter for him; Kafka began to read histories of Yiddish literature and of the Jews, and attempted to learn Yiddish. In 1912, he arranged for a presentation of Yiddish dramatic readings by Löwy in Prague and himself delivered an introductory talk about the Yiddish language that reveals the complexity of his thinking about Jewishness at the time.

While Kafka would not embrace Zionism in the way that his friend Brod did—the two were briefly estranged around 1913 on this account—the idea of Jews settled in Palestine did fascinate Kafka by 1916, when he met the Berlin Jewish woman Felice Bauer, to whom he would be twice engaged but never married. His relationship with Bauer, largely conducted through a long-distance correspondence, made frequent reference to Zionist projects in Palestine and in Europe. He encouraged her to volunteer for a Zionist aid organization for East European Jewish refugees in Berlin, while later asserting that this work would distance her from him, since he was, in his own view, the “most Western-Jewish of all West European Jews.” A “breakthrough” in Kafka’s writing is identified with this period. In 1919 he composed a long letter to his father that has a decisively literary character; while the letter was never delivered, Kafka kept a copy that has been preserved. This work has substantial reflection on Judaism as it was practiced by assimilated “Western Jews,” a Judaism that was for them an “insufficient scrap . . . a mere nothing, a joke—not even a joke.” The end of Kafka’s life was spent with an East European Jew from an Orthodox background, Dora Dymant, with whom he studied Hebrew and made plans to immigrate to Palestine, although by that time he must have known his plans could never be realized.

There is no direct reference to Judaism in Kafka’s work (whereas there are direct Christian religious references, for instance), but many pieces clearly draw from Kafka’s thinking about Jewish matters. The two short stories published in Martin Buber’s journal Der Jude are cases in point: “Ein Bericht für eine Akademie” (An Address to an Academy), a monologue of an ape that has adapted to life among “civilized” humanity, and “Schakale und Araber” (Jackals and Arabs), a tale of persecution and messianic redemption, seem to many readers and seemed at the time to be Jewish allegories. A short piece, unpublished in Kafka’s lifetime, titled “In unserer Synagoge” (In Our Synagogue) refers directly to a Jewish house of prayer, but only describes a bizarre and unidentifiable animal that lives in it. A long story from 1924, near the end of Kafka’s life, “Josefine, die Sängerin oder das Volk der Mäuse” (Josephine the Singer, or, the Mouse People), is often read as an allegory of the Jewish people. The form of much of Kafka’s work, which reads at times like parable, evokes Jewish sources to many readers, although Kafka explicitly rejected the label “parable” for his stories. Much ink has been spilled reflecting on oblique references in Kafka’s fiction to Jewish knowledge, especially Talmud and Kabbalah. Above all, many readers see in the powerful mood of alienation in his fiction the reflection of the life of a man living within two minorities, Jewish and German, in Central Europe; yet, this specificity belies the way in which the work has come to be emblematic of the modern Western human experience.

Suggested Reading

Evelyn Torton Beck, Kafka and the Yiddish Theater: Its Impact on His Work (Madison, Wisc., 1971); Max Brod, Franz Kafka: A Biography, trans. G. Humphreys Roberts and Richard Winston, 2nd enl. ed. (New York, 1960); Sander Gilman, Franz Kafka: The Jewish Patient (New York, 1995); Julian Preece, The Cambridge Companion to Kafka (New York, 2002); Ritchie Robertson, Kafka: Judaism, Politics, Literature (Oxford and New York, 1985).