By Max Gross
Kathi Diamant didn't really like Franz Kafka when she first read
Even today - more than 30 years after she first read "The
Metamorphosis" - she doesn't express the kind of veneration
one would expect from the director of the Kafka Project at San
Diego State University. "I prefer Kafka's personal writing
to his literature," Diamant told the Forward during a phone
interview. "His letters are works of art. I think you read
much more about Kafka [the man] reading his personal work."
For Kathi Diamant, Kafka is secondary to the historical figure
she is most obsessed with: Dora Diamant, Kafka's last mistress.
Kathi is not related to Dora - at least not as far as she can
prove. (She has not given up trying; she knows Dora's relatives
in Israel quite well. "We haven't taken the DNA test yet,"
she said.) But since the mid-1980s, Dora has been the dominant
subject of her professional life. The blond-haired, 50-year-old
former television producer, now an adjunct professor at San Diego
State, has written a play, a novel and an unproduced screenplay
about Kafka's mistress. An opera based on Kathi's writings is
being composed by Michael Nyman, who scored the film "The
Piano." Her most recent work, "Kafka's Last Love"
(Basic Books), is the first historical book completely dedicated
Kathi first heard about Dora in a German literature class at
the University of Georgia when she was 19. "We were translating
Kafka's 'Metamorphosis,' and the teacher asked me, 'Are you related
to Dora Diamant?'" Kathi said. "I wasn't doing too well
in the class, so I said, 'Sure! Who is she?'"
After her professor explained who Dora was, Kathi went to the
library where she saw a photo. Dora, as Kathi writes in her book,
"wasn't beautiful.... She was short, about 5 feet, 2 inches,
and tended to put on weight.... Her face was too round, lips too
full and mouth too wide for classic beauty." But the photo
planted the first seeds of Kathi's subsequent obsession. "I
couldn't sleep that night," Kathi said. She called her parents
and asked if they knew of any family connections to Dora. They
Kathi did not return to Dora until 1984, when she saw a museum
exhibit of Jewish artifacts from Czechoslovakia. In a photograph
from the Pinkas synagogue in Prague, Kathi spotted the name Diamant
among the names of the congregation's members, and she wondered
about the life Dora led after Kafka died. A quest for information
began that would take Kathi to Prague, Berlin, London and Tel
A great deal of scholarship has been devoted to Kafka's other
mistresses. His letters to Milena Jesenka and Felice Bauer have
been published, and the nervous relations and broken engagements
Kafka had with them have been well-documented. But Dora has largely
been brushed aside by Kafka scholars. "For many, many years
she was discounted - they said he could not have had a real relationship
with her because she was so much younger," Kathi said. Most
scholars believed - falsely - that Dora was 19 when she first
met the 40-year-old Kafka; Kathi discovered that she was actually
Unlike other heroines of the real-life literary world - such
as James Joyce's wife, Nora Barnacle, who inspired the Molly Bloom
character in "Ulysses" - Dora met Kafka long after he
had written his masterworks. (Kafka wrote only three major short
stories after meeting Dora.) In many ways, "Kafka's Last
Love" is far different from books like Brenda Maddox's "Nora:
The Real Life of Molly Bloom" (Houghton Mifflin, 1988) or
Stacy Schiff's great biography "Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov)"
(Random House, 1999). While those books keep the famous authors
in central focus, Kafka's casket is lowered into the ground about
a third of the way into "Kafka's Last Love."
The rest of the book concerns Dora, the woman. She was born in
1898 into a chasidic family in Pabianice, Poland. She met Kafka
in Germany, shortly after she had abandoned her family's religious
orthodoxy for the world of secular Zionism. She and Kafka relocated
to Berlin together after they met and stayed there until he was
moved to a sanitarium in Austria, where he died. Dora returned
to Germany, where she met and married a young socialist named
Ludwig Lask. She left for the Soviet Union in 1936, only to move
on again two years later. She arrived in 1940 in England, where
she spent most of the remainder of her life.
Kathi was never trained as a literary scholar. The daughter of
two actors, she studied drama in school and, after graduating
from college, traveled the world until she got a job in television.
She eventually rose to become co-host of the morning show "Sun
Up San Diego." It was only after her show was canceled that
Kathi plunged into the world of Dora Diamant full time.
Although she has no graduate degrees, Kathi has done a remarkable
amount of original research. She discovered Dora's unmarked grave
in London and raised money for a new headstone for her. With her
sister acting as translator, Kathi combed German archives looking
for Kafka's last manuscripts - which Dora falsely claimed she
had burned - and Dora's letters that were seized by the Gestapo.
Kathi uncovered countless letters and a diary Dora wrote during
the last year of her life. She tracked down Kafka's niece, Marianne
Steiner, and Dora's friend Johanna "Hanny" Lichtenstern
in London and interviewed them. Moreover, she found Dora's relatives
in Israel - separated from each other since the Holocaust - and
What Kathi found might strike the Kafka reader as startling.
Kathi claims that there was true romance and happiness between
Kafka and Dora. "She influenced his life, absolutely,"
Kathi said, adding that Dora wrote "the final, happy chapter
of his life." Kafka may have been known as a dark nihilist,
but Kathi claims he saved his darkness for his art.