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2017/10/18 - 20:39

Kafka's doomed love

By Yehuda Koren

The final chapter of a tragic romance ends next week in a London cemetery.

He was one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, the author of classics such as The Trial, The Castle and Metamorphosis, which reflected his own tormented private life. She was a young, Polish-born seamstress and student of Hebrew. The chance meeting of Franz Kafka and Dora Dymant in 1923 at a Baltic seaside resort kindled a love that brought him the happiness which had eluded him all his life. But in a cruel twist of fate, his new serenity proved shortlived: he died of tuberculosis a year later, at the age of 40. Shattered by the loss of her great love, Dymant attempted to rebuild her life but eventually died in east London and was buried in an unmarked grave.
Next Sunday the final chapter in this tragic story will be brought to a close when Kafka scholars, and Dymant's surviving Israeli relatives, unveil a tombstone in East Ham 47 years after her death. "Who knows Dora, knows what love means", reads the inscription.
Kafka's earlier thwarted love affairs have been widely recorded. But Dymant, described by Kafka's friend and biographer Max Brod as "his life's companion" was shunned by his family and all but forgotten.
Until he met Dymant, sex and intimacy had always been associated with guilt for Kafka, exacerbated by the possessiveness of his domineering father. Twice - in 1913 and in 1917 - he was engaged to Felice Bauer, a secretary. Unsure of his emotions, he broke off the engagement each time.
In 1919, after he was first diagnosed with TB, Kafka became engaged to Julie Whoryzek, the daughter of a shoemaker and a convalescent at the same sanatorium. But, faced with his father's objections, he broke off that engagement, too. That year, he received a letter from Milena Jesenska Pollak, a young, married writer, asking permission to translate his stories into Czech. They fell in love and Kafka asked to marry her, but she refused to leave her husband.
By the time he met Dymant, Kafka, a law graduate, had just resigned as senior secretary of the Workers' Accident Insurance Institute in Prague. His writing career was shaky and his health precarious. "Had he got to know Dora sooner, his will to live would have become stronger_" says Brod.
Kafka, and all his biographers, thought Dymant was only 19 when they met, but in a recent interview, her only surviving sister, Sarah Baumer from Tel Aviv, showed me an old photo Dora gave her, with the date of her birth inscribed on the back: March 4, 1898. This new evidence, that she was 25 when they met, suggests that Dymant may have lied about her age to avoid awkward questions about the fact that she was still unmarried in her mid-20s.
Dora Diamant (later changed to Dymant) was born in Bendjin, Poland. Her father, an Orthodox Jew, was a textile manufacturer.
When her mother died, leaving five children, her father married a young widow with a child. Dymant, always independent, ran off to Ger many. "Father traced her, and brought her home, but she escaped again, and this time he let her go," says Baumer. "He never ostracised her, never treated her as if she were dead, like other Jewish fathers at the time with disobedient daughters. She wrote home, visited from time to time, always respecting the tradition."
Dymant supported herself by working as a governess for the leader of the Berlin Orthodox Jewish community, and later as cook and seamstress, in a Jewish orphanage where she also lived. She also studied in the Berlin Academy for Jewish Studies.
"I had run away from the East because I believed the light was in the West," Dymant told JP Hodin, in a rare interview in 1948. "I came from the East, a dark being, full of dreams and premonitions, who might have sprung from a book by Dostoyevsky."
But after a couple of years, she became disenchanted: "Europe was not what I had expected it to be, its people had no rest in their innermost being," she said.
Kafka was also disillusioned with the West, and "the rich treasures of Polish Jewish religious tradition that Dora was mistress of, was a constant source of delight to Franz," wrote Max Brod.
Kafka was yearning to break the strained, complex relationship with his parents. Dymant's nurturing personality helped him to make the move at last. He was terrified of his parents' objections and took hardly any luggage with him, to give the impression that he was only going away for a few days. He compared his move to Berlin with Dora to "Napoleon's march to Russia".
Unlike Kafka's pampered, bourgeois former loves, hardworking Dymant was not put off by his depressions. She also experienced loneliness and despair, and understood his anxieties. He introduced her to western culture, she taught him Hebrew and the two of them read from the Bible. They toyed with the idea of emigrating to Palestine, and opening a restaurant in Tel Aviv. Dymant was to be the cook, and Kafka the waiter.
Their life together was blissful. "It was a time of the Great Inflation, radical political forces were clashing nightly in the streets. While these storms were brewing outside his window, it's ironic that Kafka's last months were so peaceful," says Kathi Diamant, adjunct professor at San Diego State University, who is completing the first biography of her near-namesake, Kafka's Last Mistress.
They were penniless: Kafka couldn't afford to buy a newspaper, and Dymant had to use candle stubs to heat the meal on New Year's Eve, 1924. They hardly went out, and "very often amused ourselves, making shadows on the wall with our hands", Dymant told Hodin. "He was extremely clever at it. Kafka was always cheerful. He liked to play. He was the born playmate, always ready for some mischief. I don't think that depressions were a dominant characteristic of his."
The couple would read stories by Kleist and Goethe to each other for hours, and often Grimm's and Andersen's fairy-tales. Kafka favoured a story about the miner's sweetheart, who accompanied her lover to the pit, and never saw him alive again. "Her life passed away, she grew grey and old. Then one day his body was found quite unharmed . . . preserved by the gasses. She came and embraced her lover. She had waited for him all these years and now it was a wedding and a funeral in one," recalled Dymant. This was, in some ways, to be her life story, too.
Kafka had warned his fiancée Felice Bauer that in order to write he needed total isolation, locked behind five doors in a cellar, and would venture out only to eat the food she left him. With Dymant it was different. He asked her to stay in the room while he was writing, and read her his daily yield.
He avoided visits by his parents, but welcomed his sister and close friends, who all admired the idyll. In the winter of 1924, he was suffering from high fever, and Dymant struggled to nurse him. She was heartbroken when he gave in to his parents, and returned alone to Prague. He wrote to her at least twice daily.
On April 13, Kafka was diagnosed with tuberculosis of the larynx and was rushed to hospital in Vienna. "Only then, Dora was allowed to see him, never letting him out of her sight again. She alone accompanied him in the open car, standing in front of him the entire journey, shielding him with her body from the rain and wind," says Zvi Diamant, her nephew, who lives in Israel.
Bedridden, Kafka wrote to Dymant's father, asking for his daughter's hand in marriage, explaining that although he was not a practising Jew in her father's sense, he was nevertheless "a repentant one, seeking 'to return'".
"Our father took the letter and drove to the rabbi," says Baumer. "The rabbi said, 'He is not suitable for your daughter. She deserves a better match, someone with a better pedigree'. Dymant was furious. Had Kafka survived, she would have defied father and married him anyway."
Kafka's condition deteriorated. He was unable to swallow or speak. "Put your hand on my forehead for a moment, to give me courage", he wrote to Dymant. He asked his visitors to drink water and beer in front of him, so that he could share their pleasure.
According to the testimony of a nurse, known only as "Schwester Anna", Kafka had several secret pacts with his friend, Dr Klopstock. One was that, to ease the end, he would be given a fatal injection. In a weak moment, he also agreed that Dymant could die with him. The loyal doctor only fulfilled the third plan: that in the last moments, she would be sent away under a pretext, so see wouldn't see his death throes.
On June 3, 1924 Dymant was asked to post a letter. But in Kafka's last moments, he missed her, and a chambermaid was sent to fetch her back. Dymant returned breathlessly, carrying flowers which she had just bought. "The dying man raised himself up once more, though he had already seemed in the world beyond, and sniffed the flowers", witnessed the nurse.
In a letter to Kafka's parents, describing their son's last hours, Klopstock wrote, "Who knows Dora, only he can know what love means".
The funeral, at the Jewish cemetery in Prague, was Dymant's first meeting with Kafka's parents. "When the casket was lowered into the pit, Dora let out an unearthly wail," says Diamant. "She lay lifeless on the ground; Kafka's father turned his back on her, disdainfully. No one dared to move and help her up."
Two years later, when The Castle was published, one critic described Kafka as "the best writer since 1900". Dymant bought copies of the novel, and autographed them to friends "Dora Dymant-Kafka". In a letter to Kafka's editor she went further and signed "Dora Kafka".
"Dora told me that her great tragedy was that she never had a child by Kafka," Baumer says. "She said, 'If I had a child with Kafka, the whole world would have known of it, the whole world would have been filled with light'."
After totally dedicating herself to Kafka, Dymant now had to re-build her own life. Encouraged by Kafka's admiration of her dramatic talents, she studied acting in Dus seldorf, and joined a theatrical company. There she met Bertha Lask, a fervent communist writer, who became a mother-figure to her. Dymant also joined the Party, and in 1932 married Bertha's son, Ludwig Lask, five years her junior.
"She never brought him to our home, and they hardly lived together," her sister says. "When Dora became pregnant, she wanted nothing more to do with Lask."
She named the child after her lost love: Franziska Marianne.
Eventually she fled to Englandwith her six-year-old daughter, a week before Germany invaded Holland. They were deported to the Isle of Man as enemy aliens. A year later mother and daughter were released, and settled in Swiss Cottage.
"Dymant was working as a dressmaker," recalls her friend and neighbour, Ottilie MacCrae. Later she had a restaurant in the East End, which, according to Marianna Steiner, Kafka's niece and executrix of his estate, flourished so much that Dymant "had to get rid of it. It was too much money, and Dora couldn't bear it."
Dymant also became a successful Yiddish actress, and wrote for the Yiddish press. She did not use her married name, and although she was still Lask's wife, always kept a large photograph of Kafka on the mantelpiece.
In 1950, Dymant finally realised the dream she shared with Kafka, and visited Israel, financed by royalties from his estate. In Tel Aviv, she visited her brother David and sister Sarah, the only survivors of the 11 Dymant siblings. The others, like Kafka's three sisters, had died in the Holocaust.
Tova Perlemutter, Dymant's niece, was three years old when she shared her tiny room with her "British" aunt: "She brought with her a large framed photograph of Kafka and hung it over her bed. When she departed, a month later, she left it with us, saying, 'This is my most precious belonging'."
When Dymant died on August 15, 1952, Marianne, then 18 and impoverished, was shattered. There was no money to pay for a tombstone on her mother's grave.
"It was impossible to mention Kafka's name in her presence. She recoiled," says her Israeli cousin, Tova Perlemutter. "All her life Marianne was brought up in Kafka's shadow, suffering her mother's tragic love affair, and Dora's sorrow for the child they never had."
Marianne was subsequently diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. In 1982, alerted by concerned neighbours, police broke into her Muswell Hill bedsit and found her dead. She had starved herself to death. She was 48. In her will, she asked to be cremated, and requested that, with what was left from her money, a stone be erected to mark her mother's grave. But there were still insufficient funds and few knew its location.
Finally, Kathi Diamant managed to locate it, and in the simple ceremony next week Kafka's last - and greatest - love will finally be honoured. As well as the tribute to Dymant's devotion, the tombstone will be inscribed with her maiden name, and the name of her daughter, Franziska Marianne - the tragic love child Dora Dymant never had with Franz Kafka.

©Published by The Guardian, 1999.08.07


Revision: 2011/01/08 - 00:18 - © Mauro Nervi




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