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San Diego Union-Tribune: For one woman, a literary quest and connection to the past

By Glenda Winders

Most people recognize the name of Franz Kafka, even if they haven't actually read his books. He's the German novelist who wrote the story about a man who turned into a cockroach in "The Metamorphosis," and with "The Trial" he gave the world the adjective "Kafkaesque" to mean anything mired in mindless red tape and bureaucracy.

But few know the name of Dora Diamant, and neither did San Diego writer Kathi Diamant until 1971, when a college professor issued what she now refers to as "a call to adventure" by interrupting his German literature class to ask her if she was related to Kafka's last mistress.

"I had never heard of her," Diamant said, but he explained Kafka had died in her arms, and she had fulfilled his wishes by burning his work.

Dora and Kafka met in 1923 and fell in love just a year before he died of tuberculosis. She was nurse, lover and muse to him. When he asked her to marry him in the hospital, however, she refused, holding out the hope of marriage when his health improved and he left the sanatorium. That was never to happen.

"My teacher described her as a passionate, intelligent, recklessly honest Jewish woman who gave Kafka the happiest year of his life, so of course I wanted to be related to her," Diamant said. "I told him I'd look into it and get back to him."

Now, 31 years later, after a literary odyssey that has taken her all over the world, Diamant has at least part of an answer, as well as a biography, "Kafka's Last Love: The Mystery of Dora Diamant" (Basic Books).

"After college, Dora refused to be forgotten," Diamant said. "She crept into my personal pantheon of heroes, and I found myself making decisions based on her: When I married, I would keep my name Diamant because that's what Dora did. Should I have a daughter, I would name her Dora. When I was faced with a difficult dilemma, I would ask myself what Dora would do."

Searching for evidence

In 1984, when she was host of the local morning TV show, "Sun-up San Diego," Diamant covered an exhibit at the San Diego Museum of Art that contained Judaic art and personal belongings – family menorahs, Passover plates, wedding rings, Torah pointers – that Adolf Hitler had confiscated and planned to include in a museum to an extinct race. One exhibit was a photograph of a synagogue wall where the names of 77,000 Jews were handwritten. The name Diamant was among them, but the list of Diamants broke off at the photograph's frame. When Kathi asked the curator how she could learn more about the wall, the answer was that she would have to go to Prague.

That same year, Ernst Pawel published a new biography of Kafka, "The Nightmare of Reason," which contained additional information about what had happened to Dora after Kafka's death: She moved to Berlin, escaped the Gestapo (although they confiscated her letters from Kafka), married a member of the East German communist party, had a child, went to Russia and later escaped from the Soviet Union.
"Pawel's description of this amazing human being became part of my motivation for finding out what became of her," Diamant said. "It would have taken a miracle for a Polish-born Jewish wife of a convicted Trotskyite saboteur to leave the Soviet Union in 1938 with a child who was ill, but she did it. It took Dora."

Diamant's initial travels took her to Prague, where Kafka lived and is buried and to Vienna to see the room where he died and attend a performance of "La Traviata," where she decided to write a book.
"It was a great love story," she said, "but no greater than Dora and Kafka's, and theirs was true. I realized the story had to be told."

Missing letters

But telling it proved to be a long and frustrating process. Before it became a biography, the book went through incarnations as a one-woman show, a play that was selected for the Streisand Festival of New Jewish Plays, and a screenplay that was a finalist at the Sundance Screenwriters' Lab. And when she had half of a book written, she suffered a setback when she learned from Kafka scholar Hans-Gerd Koch that 70 of Dora's letters written between the time of Kafka's death and hers were missing.

To get the needed credentials to search for the missing documents, she established the Kafka Project at San Diego State University. Her position there came with the title "adjunct professor," which gave her the needed access to archives around the world. She also had to secure the permission of the Kafka estate to do the investigation on its behalf.

Travels followed to the Czech Republic, Israel, Poland, the Isle of Man and England, where it took her six weeks in 1990 to locate Dora's unmarked grave. When she finally did, she vowed she would someday return and put a headstone on it. In 1998, doing research in Berlin, she realized Dora had a cousin, Zvi Diamant, living in Israel. She located him, and he flew to Berlin two weeks later to meet relatives he didn't know he had.

"I still don't know if I'm related to any of these people," Diamant said, "but I've been able to connect them to each other, and that has been a great joy for me."

Zvi Diamant offered to pay for the headstone, and the following year, he, Diamant and their families attended a ceremony when the stone was placed. It is inscribed with words chosen by Kathi Diamant that had been spoken by Kafka's friend Robert Klopstock just after the writer's death: "Who knows Dora knows what love means."

A story in London's Guardian newspaper the day of the event prompted a letter from a reader who provided additional information about Dora. It also led to a fax from composer Michael Nyman ("The Piano," "The End of the Affair"), who is currently composing an opera about Dora that will be performed in 2005.

Since this book was finished, Diamant has unearthed more information about Dora. She is currently applying for more research funding, and when money becomes available, she'll travel to Silesia, where Kafka's papers and Dora's possessions that were taken by German police may be in a deposit box. If they're found, the papers will be valuable. A collection containing seven letters from Kafka to Klopstock recently went to auction at $1.2 million. His 35 letters to Dora would be priceless. More important to Diamant, they would provide material for a second book.

Meanwhile, she says her personal life has been completely changed by her interest in Dora. For one thing, she's had to simplify her lifestyle so she can afford to pursue her passion. But the result has been worth it.

"I wanted a life of magic, adventure and meaning," she said. "And that's what I got. With Dora as inspiration, I've learned to stretch my limits and do things I didn't think I could do – like taking surfing lessons, playing basketball and learning to tap dance."

And whether or not she is a blood relative of Dora, she has been "adopted" by Dora's family. She and her husband, Byron LaDue, will travel to Israel later this year for the wedding of Dora's great-niece, Hadas Diamant.

Copyright 2003 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.