The lost chapters of a life in love and letters

August 15, 2003

Kathi Diamant's curiosity about a shared surname led to 20 years' study of the mysterious life of Kafka's last love that revealed new insights into a literary icon and a remarkable woman of strength and courage

Today, August 15, is the 51st anniversary of the death of Dora Diamant, Franz Kafka's last love. This remarkable woman has been largely overlooked by scholars, despite being rightly credited for giving the dying Czech writer the happiest year of his life. For nearly half a century, Dora lay in an unmarked grave while her intimate perspective on one of the most influential - and misunderstood - literary figures of the 20th century suffered a similar fate, lost and forgotten.

Our image of Kafka, a man who, as W. H. Auden said, "bears the same relation to our age as Dante, Shakespeare and Goethe bore to theirs", has been grossly distorted. His powerful literary themes, which have earned their own adjective - Kafkaesque - for anything nightmarish, bureaucratic, confusingly complex or paradoxical, have overshadowed his unique personality. This has been compounded by the scholars and academics who have formulated countless theories about Kafka's literary intentions and meaning, building their cases on everything from his supposed schizophrenia to homosexuality. As a result, the man's image has been reduced to a caricature, a composite of his autobiographical but fictional protagonists.

Dora's story offers us a remarkable view of the man and his world. I was 19 when I first heard her name. It was spring 1971 and we were translating Kafka's The Metamorphosis in a German language literature class at the University of Georgia. The instructor interrupted the class. "Are you related to Dora Diamant?" he asked me. I had never heard of her. "She was Kafka's last mistress," my teacher said. "They were very much in love. He died in her arms and she burned his work." I promised to find out and let him know.

So began my quest to find Dora, whose indestructible spirit has changed the way I see the world. Her life after Kafka - as an agitprop actress in Berlin and émigré in Moscow in the 1930s, her wartime escape to Britain and visit to the new nation of Israel - provides a unique perspective on key events of the 20th century.

Dora, a passionate young runaway from a respected Hassidic family in Poland, was a 25-year-old volunteer at a Zionist camp for refugee children in northern Germany when she met and fell in love with Kafka. The writer, 15 years her senior and suffering from tuberculosis, moved with her to Berlin where they shared a bohemian idyll until his death 11 months later, in June 1924. Dora's life-affirming stories of her personal experience of Kafka describe a man far removed from the grim, lonely and alienated genius.

But her importance to Kafka was ignored by those who probed every other area of his life and psyche. The often-tortured letters he wrote to two failed loves, Felice and Milena, have been printed in every major language.

Volumes have been written analysing his unhappy relationships, enshrining the theory of his inherent inability to love any woman successfully. But none of these "searching psychoanalysts", as Dora called them, has examined his last relationship. Even those who had the opportunity to interview her while she was still alive failed to grasp the opportunity. In effect, those scholars turned their backs on Dora, just as Kafka's father had done at Franz's funeral in Prague in 1924.

To be fair, one reason for the lack of interest in Dora is that little in Kafka's own words has been found to show that he loved her. She must share some of the blame for the fact that the 35 letters that he wrote to her and 20 notebooks he filled in the last years of his life were lost. Dora told Max Brod, Kafka's literary executor, that she had burned everything. She believed she was protecting the writer from the publication he loathed. But it led to a literary tragedy. In 1933, after the Nazi takeover in Berlin, Dora's flat was raided by the Gestapo. The officers, searching for Communist propaganda, confiscated every scrap of paper in the house. This included Kafka's papers.

One London literary commentator has noted that "part of Kafka's legacy, and therefore that of world literature, remains untold in the absence of the documents". But they may yet be recovered. The Kafka Project, founded six years ago at San Diego State University, has filed a petition to the German government, on behalf of the writer's estate, for the return of "Holocaust-era assets" stolen from Dora. If found, the papers would open a new chapter of research.

I have now spent nearly 20 years delving into Dora's life. Throughout this time, I have been astonished to find that I was usually the first person ever to inquire about her. Her files in once top-secret German and Russian archives were unopened, and many other sources of information remained untapped.

In 1990, I telephoned Marianne Steiner, Kafka's niece and oldest surviving relative, to ask her about Dora. Steiner immediately invited me to her home in north London, where she lived until her death in November 2000. Serving me coffee and powdered Czech cookies, she was eager to tell me about the remarkable woman whom she had met in the late 1940s. She regaled me with the story of Dora's life, even her last words. Had I asked about Kafka, she told me, she would have hung up the phone. No one had ever asked her about Dora before.

Steiner was the first of several wonderful people who generously shared their memories with me. Others included Hanny Lichtenstern, who met Dora on the way to an internment camp on the Isle of Man; Dorothy Emmet, the philosophy professor who rescued Dora from that camp in 1941; Ottilie McCrea, Dora's neighbour when her home was damaged in the London blitz; Majer Bogdanski of the Friends of Yiddish, which still meets every Saturday afternoon at 3pm at Toynbee Hall in London's Whitechapel; and Luise Rainer, an actress and two-time Oscar winner who met Dora at drama academy.

Intimate descriptions of Dora's life with Kafka emerge from a diary that was found in Paris in 2000. It was a volume she had begun to write when she learned that she was dying. Her love and devotion to Kafka are documented in her emotional and deeply personal letters to his family and long-time friends.

The facts surrounding her miraculous survival and escape from Nazi Germany were found in the Gestapo and East German communist archives in Berlin. In Dusseldorf, I found her drama school records, newspaper clips, programmes and correspondence concerning her professional theatrical training and performances. Information on Dora's life in Soviet Russia during Stalin's purges - as well as her handwritten autobiography that detailed her work as an agitprop actress for the German Communist Party - were gleaned from the once-secret Comintern files in Moscow. A search of German newspaper archives uncovered a touching and poignant account of the last moment of Kafka's life that has inexplicably never been published in English, nor appeared in any of his biographies.

When I made my first trip to Prague, Vienna and Israel in 1985 to discover what had happened to Dora after Kafka's death, I was not an academic, professional writer or experienced researcher. At first, my interest was pure curiosity: I wanted to know if we were related. But that soon ceased to be my motivation. With each new discovery, each old fact exploded, each new truth better than fiction, I realised that Dora did have an important story to tell.

For years, I was denied access to archives and information by the formidable gatekeepers to Kafka's kingdom. They informed me that the search I was attempting was, one of them said, "best left in the hands of those academics and scholars trained in these matters". I could not have agreed more. The job, nevertheless, fell to me by default: nobody else was doing it. And with so many of the original sources growing older and passing away, Dora's story couldn't wait.

Well beyond her contributions to Kafka's portrait, Dora's life merits a biography. It is a testament to a resourceful, resilient and courageous woman's struggle for survival against the overwhelming historical forces that threatened to crush her. Despite the cataclysmic events that shaped her life in the first half of the 20th century, her story finishes in a triumph.

Dora survived the Holocaust and lived the last years of her life in London, working as a Yiddish remembrancer in a desperate effort to keep her culture and language alive. She published several articles that reveal her deep sadness at the death of Yiddish theatre as she had witnessed it in her youth. On August 15 1952, Dora died of chronic nephritis in Plaistow Hospital. She was buried in a pauper's grave at the United Synagogue cemetery on Marlow Road in East Ham.

Today's date is auspicious for another reason: it marks the completion of a circle in Dora's life and death, the happy ending to her story. It is the fourth anniversary of Dora's stone-setting in East Ham in 1999, when her reunified family gathered to honour her memory at her graveside. And, finally, the ides of August coincide with the publication of her first, long overdue biography.

Kathi Diamant is adjunct professor and director of the Kafka Project at San Diego State University. Her book Kafka's Last Love: The Mystery of Dora Diamant was published by Secker and Warburg this week (£16.99).

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