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Buffalo News: The passion, heartbreak of 'Kafka's Last Love'

News Book Reviewer

Two months before his death of tuberculosis in 1924, Franz Kafka decided to marry the woman with whom he had been living during the last months of his life: Dora Diamant.

Of the women he had been involved with during his 40 years, Dora had become his great love. Kafka wrote to Dora's father, the Chassidic rabbi from whom she had been estranged since running away from home at the age of 20, asking for permission to marry his daughter.

As Kathi Diamant tells the story in her book, "Kafka's Last Love: The Mystery of Dora Diamant": "When Dora's father received the letter from Dr. Franz Kafka, currently living in a sanatarium near Vienna, where Dora was apparently living too, with a request for his wayward daughter's hand in marriage, Herschel the Pavianizer knew what must be done. He sent one of his sons . . . to Ger. Only the Gerer Rebbe could answer this impossible question. When the beloved Mordechai Alter read the letter from Kafka, the miracle-working rabbi uttered only one word: "No.' "

Kafka was devastated. As Dora's biographer, Kathi Diamant (no known relation) puts it, he and Dora could have wed without permission: They were modern people living in a modern world, but to Kafka it was another defeat, "another failure to find acceptance from a father."
Kafka died on June 2, 1924. Dora had just come back from buying flowers and rushed into the room declaring, "Franz, look at the beautiful flowers, just smell." Kafka, who had seemed unconscious, rose up, sniffed the flowers, and then died in Dora's arms. For the rest of her life, Dora told people that she was Kafka's wife, and, after all, why not?
This is only one gripping story of many in a book written by a woman who is not otherwise a scholar or a reader of literature, but who has devoted the last 30 years of her life to researching Dora Diamant, after a college professor in 1971 interrupted his German literature class to ask her if she was related to Kafka's last mistress. She promised to find out and let him know. This is the report some 30 plus years later, and it is a story that goes far beyond Kafka and into the heartbreak house of 20th-century Europe.

Dora Diamant was the daughter of a Chassidic rabbi from the Polish town of Bedzin. It was one of those Polish-Jewish communities in which Jews judged one another "not by their tastes, literary preferences, or style of dress, but by the character of their observance." Kathi Diamant describes Dora's father as "the very model of the pious Chassidic scholar, with a great beard and earlocks, black caftan, and his fur shtreimel covering his head on the holidays."

To have remained at home would have saddled Dora to a strictly organized life, an arranged marriage and a life of motherhood and housework, a fate she rejected. She became a Zionist, studied Hebrew, joined theater groups and ran away to Berlin to become a modern woman. Eventually she would join the German Communist Party, performing agitprop (agitational propaganda) theater.

Kafka and Dora met in the Baltic sea resort town of Muritz, where he had gone to visit his sister and she was working in the kitchen of a summer holiday camp. Kathi Diamant depicts her hacking the heads off fish, and within days of their first meeting, the artist and the hacker of fish were in love. By fall, they would be living together, something that Kafka, who had lived most of his life in his parents' home, had failed to do with any other woman.

Dora Diamant may well have been the love of Kafka's life, but her devotion had a destructive side. The story is well known that Kafka asked those closest to him, Dora and his literary executor Max Brod, to destroy all his papers after his death, and that Brod heroically refused to do so, informing Kafka that he could not carry out his wish. As a result we have the three novels, "The Trial," "The Castle" and "Amerika," which Brod had in his possession and saw into print.

Dora had possession of Kafka's last notebooks and kept her promise, sort of. She destroyed some, but lied to Brod, claiming to have destroyed all. When her apartment was raided by the Gestapo in 1933 - her second husband, Lutz Lask, was active in the German Communist Party - what remained of Kafka's journals were confiscated. In 1936, now living in Russia, Dora gave her library of first editions of Kafka's writing to an Italian writer whom she scarcely knew. He was arrested by the NKVD and never seen again.

Some of the raggedness and desperation of Dora Diamant's life is that of European history itself: barely escaping Germany for Russia in winter 1936, then narrowly escaping Russia for England in 1939 and - what a saga that is - winding up in a DP camp on the Isle of Man with her daughter Marianne, until rescued by a woman who recognized her as Kafka's wife.

Catastrophe became the norm, with Europe being ground to dust by Hitler and Stalin. That Dora survived at all until 1952 was a miracle. Kafka might have written the story - "The Trial" again and again and again - but for the fact that he couldn't imagine escape. His stories are unrelenting parables of entrapment.

History judges Dora Diamant harshly, as it should. When not seen in the light of her love for Kafka or the tragedy of Europe, she comes across as confused, flighty and erratic. True to her vow to Kafka, she betrays him all the same and lives in contradiction. Brod arranged that royalties from Kafka's publications go to Dora, and sometimes, in the desperate years following Kafka's death, those royalties kept her in rent and food.

Dora knew well that her checks were from the writings that she would have destroyed - the books we now know as "The Trial," "The Castle" and "Amerika" - and which Brod, loyal to the greatness of Kafka's art, published instead. Yet Dora was less clear-headed in these matters, claiming to have destroyed papers and journals and lying to Brod and others about them, until the Gestapo and NKVD settled the matter in their own way, as they usually did.

Kathi Diamant is a self-trained scholar and biographer. Indeed, she did earlier stints at acting in B-grade movies and had been host of San Diego's Channel 8 Sun-Up program.

For all that, she has done a tireless and professional job of researching Dora Diamant, scouring archives and conducting interviews in England, Germany and Israel, and has written a suspenseful book about Kafka and Dora that gives us a cross-section of European history and a harrowing account of lives lost and lives found. By following her own muse and fascination, she has produced a powerful and heartbreaking book.

Mark Shechner is an English professor at the University at Buffalo.