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23 Spinoza street

This is an earlier draft version of part of my article, “Kafka’s Last Trial,” which ran in the New York Times Magazine on September 26, 2010.

Shmulik Cassouto is the fourth executor of the Ester Hoffe estate. The previous three quit after they were unable to either enter the Spinoza Street apartment or look in the safe-deposit boxes. “I’ve been administering estates for decades and I’ve never had anything like this,” one executor told Ha’aretz, adding that Hoffe had threatened suicide if she was forced to open the safe-deposit boxes.

Avi Steinberg and I met Cassouto in his offices near the Tel Aviv courthouse. Cassouto vehemently denied any partiality to Eva Hoffe, saying that he merely “cooperated” with her in order to get access to the estate.

“What, I wanted to get into her apartment, what do you want me to say—I should bring the police there with the one hundred cats? No. It’s only easy to do it when she agrees. So because I was a little bit cooperative with them, they say, ‘Oh, he’s a crook, he’s not neutral, he’s cooperating with them.’”

Can you go there with the police? Do you have the authority to do that?” Steinberg asked.

“I do. But they’re old ladies, nobody wants this. Listen, when the case started, I thought the Hoffes were the bad guys. But all they’re doing is defending their right to privacy.”

Cassouto eventually got Hoffe’s permission to catalogue the materials in the apartment. Because he is allergic to cats, he sent a representative on his behalf. When asked how the representative described the premises, Cassouto replied in one word: “Stinky.”

“Are there really one hundred cats in there?” I asked.

“There are a lot of cats. There’s garbage everywhere. She’s a garbage collector. There’s a library there, with books—nobody can get in there, because there is a lot of garbage until the library.” When asked why Hoffe was allowed to keep anything in the house, Cassouto replied, “We believe that the important stuff is in the safe-deposit boxes.”

“You believe?”

“We believe. Let me put it this way. We believe that what is in the house, in those conditions—even if there was something there that was significant—it’s not anymore.”

None of this was very encouraging, although Cassouto was extremely genial and a good talker, who kept up a constant stream of jokes and non sequiturs. At one point he asked whether I am Jewish. On learning that I wasn’t, he announced that I must be a WASP.

“A WASP?” I repeated.

“A white Anglo-Saxon Protestant,” he clarified.

When I mentioned that my parents had immigrated to the United States from Turkey, Cassouto became very expansive on the topics of Turkish hotels. “Nowhere in the world do you have the quality of service as in the hotels in the south of Turkey,” he declared, adding that, because his vacation usually coincided with Atatürk Commemoration Day, he knew all the words to the Turkish national anthem. He proceeded to discuss the survival of some elements of Ottoman property law in the Israeli civil code, going so far as to suggest that Brod’s 1952 gift letter might have been written under Ottoman gift law, since the Israeli gift law hadn’t come into effect until the 1960s. Bewildered by this stream of information, I asked Cassouto whether he has read Kafka. He had read “The Metamorphosis” in school, but didn’t seem interested in discussing it.

“Look, it’s a case,” he said. “For me this is a case.”

Cassouto characterized the moral objection to the placement of the papers in Germany as a “stretch.” “Look, Kafka didn’t die because he was Jewish,” he said.  “He wasn’t fried by the Germans.  OK, the Nazis would have fried him.  But they didn’t.  He died of tuberculosis.”

“Would it have been different if Kafka had died in Auschwitz?” I asked.

Cassuoto paused.  “Maybe,” he said finally.  “It could have been different.  But it’s not the story we have.”  After another silence, he resumed, more confidently: “I’ll give you a legal reason why it might have been different.  In Israeli law, when you kill somebody, when you deliberately cause someone’s death—you can’t inherit from them.”

After our meeting with Cassouto, Steinberg and I headed to Spinoza 23 on the off-chance that Eva Hoffe was home and felt like talking to the press. It was a tree-lined residential street with three- and four-story apartment buildings and small yards with flagstones and unhealthy-looking grass. Scattered in the street were some pages that appeared to have been torn from a 1990s German porn magazine. [I actually photographed them, but don't click if you aren't over 18.]

Number 23 had a dingy off-pink stucco façade, partially obscured by a tree with enormous glossy leaves that were apparently being eaten away by something. Parked under one tree were a broken shopping cart and an old bicycle. Two cats staggered out of a rhododendron bush, looking drunk. The breeze turned, wafting towards us a terrible stench. The smell grew stronger when we went through the main entrance and stood outside the door of Eva’s ground-floor apartment. Steinberg said the door had been changed since his last visit, presumably for security reasons.

As we later learned, Eva had just filed a deposition stating that her apartment had been broken into twice that week and that books, papers, and musical scores belonging to Brod had been taken. This report of theft struck many as strange, since the sisters had previously maintained that there was nothing of value in the apartment. Eva had also reported an attempted break-in last September, a few days after Ha’aretz published an unsympathetic article about the case. “A man wearing gloves” had appeared at her apartment at 3:30 AM. “All of the cats looked up,” she told the court. “I was startled. I was just having some coffee, I looked up and saw a figure of a man wearing gloves.” I keep returning to this image of Eva and her cats being startled over coffee at 3:30 in the morning. I feel like it would have made a lot of sense to Kafka. The porters come to arrest Josef K. over his coffee, too.

In a Kafka novel it wouldn’t be strange that a house like this was the site of a trial, of justice. It wouldn’t seem strange that someone had been living inside a literary archive for forty years, in conditions of squalor, with a hundred cats. At one point in The Trial, K returns to the courtroom where his first hearing was held, and discovers that it is now “a fully furnished living room,” inhabited by a washerwoman and her husband. “We live here rent free, but we have to move our furniture out on days when the court is in session,” the washerwoman explains.

We knocked on the door several times. Someone or something was moving inside, but nobody answered. Steinberg, who has a mild cat allergy, began sneezing. The sneezes echoed terrifyingly in the empty stairwell.

Back in the yard, we squinted in the hazy sunlight. It was extremely hot. I kept remembering a line from Kafka: “The wooden steps explained nothing, no matter how long one stared at them.” The apartment had a large protruding window facing the street, enclosed by a metal cage. Six or seven cats were lying in the window. When some commotion involving a blackbird took place in one of the trees, all the cats looked up in unison, elongating their necks.

Eva’s lawyers say that she is acting the way she is to defend her privacy—that, and the financial value of the safe’s contents, which might theoretically be damaged during a court-ordered inventory. But the prolongation of the case, I reflected, was doing nothing for Eva’s privacy or her finances. Punks like me and Steinberg were turning up at her place at all hours, while she was surely racking up a fortune in legal fees.

“So, now what?” Steinberg said, recalling me from my thoughts. “What’s your angle?”

“Well, I did bring cat toys,” I said. Fishing an artificial mouse out of my pocket, I waved it at an extremely personable gray kitten I had just noticed under the shopping cart. After much hesitation, the kitten ran out from under the shopping cart and pounced on the mouse, then began batting it around the flagstones with its little white paws.

“So you’re gonna work the cat angle? I think you could do something with that. A different take on the story. These poor cats are endangered by those piles of rotting manuscripts.”

Now the gray kitten was scooping up the mouse with its paws and bouncing it off of its chest. I looked from the kitten to Steinberg, who was fussing with his hair. He kept saying he was having a bad hair day. I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not.

What would Brod have made of it all—of Steinberg’s hair, the one hundred cats, and the rest of it? It all struck me as enormously sad. It was sad that Esther Hoffe got so terribly old and died, that Eva, the beautiful girl whom he had once taught to play the piano, was now making French headlines as “la cat woman septuagénaire,” guarding Kafka’s papers amid “feline miasmas and angora toxoplasmosis.” That the papers themselves—the last relics of a dear friend who had died before his time, and whom Brod had considered to be, if not a saint, then “on the road to becoming one”— had been the source of seventy years of acrimony, and were now the playthings of lawyers. On the plus side, Brod might have felt gratified by his friend’s extraordinary fame, which had long ago exceeded anything he could have imagined back in 1907, when it had been an act of boldness to mention Kafka in the same sentence as Gustav Meyrink. But, thanks to that very fame, which Brod had predicted and fulfilled, Kafka now didn’t belong to Brod anymore. Brod had always known that he couldn’t hold on to Kafka forever, but he never fully came to terms with it, and this was the result.

After lurking around Spinoza Street for nearly an hour, Steinberg and I headed to 16 Hayarden Street, to admire a plaque proclaiming that “The author, poet, musician and playwright, Max Brod, lived and worked in this house.” A middle-aged couple and a younger woman were sitting on the porch, under a sign for a photography studio, arguing about something in Russian. We rang the doorbell to Brod’s former apartment, having been told that the current resident, someone called Sharon, had bought the place from Brod’s Yemenite landlord, and might be able to “tell us something.” Sharon wasn’t home. Steinberg found a lost wallet on the street, and spent half an hour trying to track down its owner from his driver’s license. This, too, was unsuccessful. Finally we walked back the way we had come. It had been a long, pointless day—or, rather, a day that probably did have a point, but one unknown to us. As Kafka writes of the strange jacket, fitted with “pleats, pockets, buckles, buttons and a belt,” worn by the guard who comes to arrest Josef K.: it “appeared eminently practical, although its purpose remained obscure.”