Franz Kafka's papers and the Bodleian Libraries

2024 marks the centenary of Franz Kafka's death. It may come as a surprise to learn that the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford holds the majority of Franz Kafka's papers, given the author had no connection with the city before his death.

This timeline charts a story of survival, near miss and chance over sixty years that led to the papers being deposited in Oxford.


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Kafka instructs Brod to burn his papers

In 1922, Franz Kafka left instructions for his friend Max Brod to burn all his papers and manuscripts after his death.

Kafka had already written a note in late 1921 expressing similar wishes.

A cartoon of two men - one hands the other a will

© Rebecca Hendin


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Brod ignores Kafka's wishes

Franz Kafka dies in June 1924.

Max Brod decides to ignore Kafka’s wishes to burn the papers. 

There has been much debate on the morality of this decision. Brod himself publishes a long justification of his actions.

Some argue it was a betrayal, others that Kafka’s wishes were not as clear-cut.

A cartoon of a man in glasses standing looking a papers, a suitcase on the desk is filling up with them

© Rebecca Hendin


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Brod edits Kafka’s work for publication

Max Brod believes Kafka's unpublished works contain great treasures. He energetically starts editing these papers for publication.

During this period, Brod posthumously publishes 5 major works and collections including The Castle, The Trial and Amerika.

This huge effort cements Kafka’s reputation and legacy.

A cartoon of a man sitting at a desk with a pen writing over a manuscript

© Rebecca Hendin

19 March 1939

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Brod flees the Nazi occupation of Prague

With the threat from Nazi Germany, Max Brod recognises the danger to any Jew remaining in Prague. 

Brod escapes on one of the last trains to leave the city before the army arrives. He carries Franz Kafka's papers with him in a suitcase.

A man with a suitcase runs towards a steam train, behind him a Nazi flag appears on a building

© Rebecca Hendin


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Brod finds refuge in Tel Aviv

Max Brod escapes to safety. He crosses the Polish border before it is closed and carries on to the port of Constanza on the Black Sea.

From there, Brod – with the papers still in a suitcase – takes a liner.

After sailing across the Eastern Mediterranean, he reaches his destination in Tel Aviv.

A cartoon of a man with a suitcase walking next to a liner, the suitcase has the label 'To Tel Aviv'

© Rebecca Hendin


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The papers are transferred to Zurich

By 1956, Max Brod had deposited Kafka’s papers in publisher Salman Schocken’s library in Jerusalem.

Under the threat of the Suez Crisis in 1956, Schocken sends the papers to a bank vault in Zurich for safe keeping.

A cartoon of a suitcase on a trolley in front of a airplane. There is a label on the suitcase that says 'To Zurich'

© Rebecca Hendin


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Malcolm Pasley brings Kafka’s papers to Oxford

​Kafka’s heirs, the children of his three sisters, discuss the future of the archive with Malcolm Pasley, a Kafka scholar in Oxford.

They agree to move the papers to the Bodleian Library.

Pasley receives the news whilst skiing in the Alps. He hurries to collect the papers from the bank in Zurich and drive them back to Oxford in his little Fiat.

A cartoon of a man with a box of papers next to a white Fiat

© Rebecca Hendin


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The global influence of Kafka

​Now editors and translators bring Kafka's work to global audiences while his texts inspire creative transformations into art forms from architecture and film, to music and dance.

The survival of his papers – and the posthumous publishing of his works – has cemented Kafka’s legacy as a global icon.

A cartoon of a suitcase with three representations of art forms appearing out of it: film, architecture and dance

© Rebecca Hendin

Credit: all images © Rebecca Hendin