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We get an update on the latest in the search for a lost literary treasure

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March 27, 2012 12:05 p.m.


Kathi Diamant, Director of the Kafka Project

Related Story: Kafka: Update On The Search For A Lost Literary Treasure


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

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CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Teachers never really know when one of their casual comments, where that might lead. In the case of San Diego journalist Kathi Diamant, a casual comment by a college professor has led her on a journey for a lost literary treasure: The last writings are Franz Kafka. KPBS listeners have followed this story for years now from the publication of her book, Kafka's last love, to her quest for those lost Kafka papers. Now she's back from a residence at the Woodrow Wilson international center for scholars to rule the search in eastern Europe. Welcome to the show. It's good to see you.

DIAMANT: Thank you, Maureen. It's a delight to be back.

CAVANAUGH: As I said, many people have followed this quest of yours, but if you could briefly remind us how it all began! I feel like a movie, go back in time. What knot you interested in the the story of Kafka's last love, Dora Diamant?

DIAMANT: It was 1971, I was a student in college, and we were translating metamorphosis, when the teacher interrupted the case and asked if I was related to Dora Diamant. And he wrote her name, and it was spelled the same way my name is spelled. And I said I don't know. Who is she? And he said Dora Diamant was Franz Kafka's last mistress. They were very much in love. He died in her arm, and she burnt his work. A kid behind me said not enough of it! But I went running into the library after class, and that's where my adventure began. I found out how important Kafka was, and what an extraordinary woman Dora was, but how little was known about her. Her story ended when Kafka died in 1924 at the age of 40.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you tell Dora's story in the book, and her love affair with Kafka which was really pretty brief, wasn't it?

DIAMANT: Yes, it was only one year, but what a year! Kafka once said that a man is only fully aware of himself when he is in love or dying. And during that year, they were together, he was both. I've made amazing discoveries in my search for what happened to Dora after Kafka's death. But one of the reasons my biography was published was because it revealed new truths about Kafka. He wasn't dreary, lonely, and alienated as most people think. His literature may reflect that view, but he himself was usually cheerful, a born playmate, always ready for a joke. And many people refer to him as a saint.

CAVANAUGH: Dora, after Kafka's death, this intense, brief time they spend together, which is the central portion of your book, but you also have followed her and -- where she went after Kafka died, and her adventures, which were all across Europe.


CAVANAUGH: She went to Russia and England and -- it's just amazing.

DIAMANT: Oh, that's another reason the biography of Dora was published because she led such an extraordinary life. She was at the point in history of the major conflagration of the 20th century. She was there. After Kafka's funeral in Prague in 1924, she returned to Berlin where she worked for a traveling theatre company as a professional. She was there working against the thatsedies when they came to power in 1933. She escaped and went to the Soviet Union back in the days when people thought it was a worker's paradise. Although it already was not. One of the great mysteries about Dora's life was how she managed to escape from the Soviet Union. In 1936 at the height of the Stalin purges. And after a year's journey arrived to safety in England where she died about a dozen years later. Her story really is a story of hope and optimism. And as time goes by, has an increasingly happy ending.

CAVANAUGH: Now, I want to focus in on the papers, the lost Kafka papers themselves. But first, it's interesting in your writings, you call Franz Kafka, the most famous author you've never read.

CAVANAUGH: How influential are his cryings?

DIAMANT: Everything ever wrote would fill maybe a small book shelf, but it's been published into every major language on the planet. His name today pops up about 75 times or his advantage on the worldwide web. According to his 1000 page bibliography Eric new book has been written about Kafka every ten days for the last 14 years somewhere in the world. This is no other writer besides Shakespeare who produces more PhD.s, more T-shirts or coffee mugs.

CAVANAUGH: Or gotten into our language.

DIAMANT: Kafkaesque, exactly, a word that sort of means this bureaucratic nightmare that you can't escape from based on his literary work. It's not who he was as a person, but his stories often reflect that Kafkaesque atmosphere.

CAVANAUGH: So to the literary treasure that you're searching for now, tell us what Dora Diament had and how she lost it.

DIAMANT: Okay. Remember that my teacher said that Dora burned his work? Well, she didn't. She said she had to protect Kafka from publication, and no doubt to keep whatever little left she had of him. That little left consisted of 35 letters that he had written to her over a 3-week period, love letters, and up to 20 notebooks that he kept in the last year of his life. He kept writings, journals, notes, sketches for other stories. We don't know what's in those 35 letters or in those notebooks.

CAVANAUGH: But -- where did they go?

DIAMANT: What happened was Dora was living in Berlin in 1933, Nazis came to power, she was targeted. Her apartment was ransacked, and every scrap of paper confess indicated, including the Kafka material. That's when she confessed her lie.

CAVANAUGH: Ever since that point, 1933, nobody has known where these papers are.

DIAMANT: No. There was a search conducted in 1933 by Kafka's literary executor who was in Prague. And he contacted the Czech cultural attache in Berlin, who went to the gest and point to, but they were informed that the mountainous stacks of papers made it impossible to locate any one particular document. So after the war, Max Brode, Kafka's literary executor, he tried again living with a Kafka psychologicalor who is now in his '80s. Their search ended when the cold war began because they discovered that the papers of Kafka's were probably taken by trained transport to the eastern territories for safekeeping during the war. So the Germans took them out of the country for safekeeping, but when the war ended they were left in Poland. So up until recently, we thought they might be in Poland.

CAVANAUGH: As this story has developed, learning to search archives has been one of your missions. And that leads us to your recent residence. What did you learn there in Washington DC?

DIAMANT: How prestigious the international center for scholars is. It's a fabulous organization. It's the only living memorial to a US president. And it's a nonpartisan, academic, international think tank, research facility. And it has access to the highest levels of government, international government and U.S. government. While I was there asking my questions, instead of slogging through archives, which is normally what I have to do, I was able to call the archivist of the United States who had lunch with me because she thought this was so interesting, who then contacted the director of the federal archives in Germany on my behalf. It was a quantum leap in my ability to do research.

CAVANAUGH: And when you are allowed access to archives temperature isn't as if you can go in there and just spend all the time you want to. These are appointments that you have to make, and you have to know what you're looking for and whereabouts it would be, right?

DIAMANT: Right, right you go in, you have to reserve a place, you have to tell the archivist what it is you're looking for. Once you have that idea, guin, it still takes hours and hours and hours. One of the things I was not able to do in Washington was actually do a lot of that going through the microform and microfilm and archives because I was interviewing the experts, the Russian and Czech and Polish specialists at the library of Congress, for example. Most of what I was doing was doing the work that precedes doing the work in the archives. So the archival work still needs to be done in Washington DC. But we got a whole new direction. My first research in 1998 was in Berlin. I spent four months in the gest and point to and Nazi archives there. What we learned about the papers in Poland brought me to Poland ten years later in 2008, and that was the last time I was on the air talking about it.

CAVANAUGH: Sure, sure.

DIAMANT: This time, we realized that the papers are probably not in Poland, but rather in Russia. Everyone says we need to look to Russia.

CAVANAUGH: Now, how much are these notebooks worth? And I mean if you can put a price tag on them. But also how much are they worth to scholars?

DIAMANT: Well -- to scholars, they're invaluable. They're without price. But of course everything has a price. The Kafka's manuscript for the trial sold at auction about a dozen years ago for almost $2 million. I have found original Kafka letter, and they generally sell for about $15,000. If they go to an academic institution, they'll get more at auction. But what wee talking about unpublished letters, unpublished notebooks. It's a literary treasure.

CAVANAUGH: Right. And it's impossible to put a price on it, either for educators or if you wanted to auction them off.


CAVANAUGH: You haven't found as we say, the notebooks yet. But you have uncovered other lost items. You just mentioned some letters.

DIAMANT: Right. Well, the letters, the funny thing about the letters, I've seen three tises of Kafka letter, and they were all not in Paris or Russia or Berlin, they were in Tierra Santa. On San Carlos. It was bizarre. But those three letters did sell at auction, unfortunately, instead of going to an institution. But I found Kafkay hair brush. I found Dora's diaries in Paris, and her letter, writings, files from secret archives from Berlin and Moscow. I found her unmarked grave in London. And I found her long lost family members who have now been reunited. Most importantly.

CAVANAUGH: When you started this, you were not necessarily received warmly by a lot of karma scholars. That's changing though now, isn't it?

DIAMANT: Yes. I'm very happy to say it is. Kafka's last love has been translated into Spanish, French, Russian, and Chinese, and thanks to scholars in Germany, it's finally coming out in a German translation. And this spring, I've been asked to teach a class on Kafka at UCSD. So that starts on Monday. I'm very excited about that.

CAVANAUGH: That is exciting. What is the next step in this journey for you?

DIAMANT: Well, the next step is the magical mystery literary history tour this I'm leading to eastern Europe this summer to raise funds for the Kafka project so I can continue the research. Just as I followed in Kafka and Dora's footsteps through Prague and crack of and Berlin, I'm now leading a small band of adventurers on a similar journey. We call it the magical mystery literary history tour. And then I will turn my sights on the great, dark archival mystery that is Russia.

CAVANAUGH: And do you have actual plans of going into Russia at this point? Or is that simply -- you know that that's going to happen?

DIAMANT: That's a new direction in which to look. And now thanks to the Wilson center, I have resources and I have access to people at the highest level that can help me get in.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for updating. This is just very, very interesting. If you want to hear more about this, Kathi Diamant will be speaking at the Coronado library on April 4th and April 14th at a coffee house in the eastern village.

DIAMANT: Thank you so much, Maureen.