Kathi Diamant | Dispatch from Berlin: You’ve Got To Be There

Kathia Diamant is visiting Anchorage Sept. 24 – 28, 2016 through an author exchange program sponsored by Adventures by the Book. In partnership with the Alaska Writers Guild, 49 Writers is featuring these visiting authors in workshops at the AWG conference on Saturday, Sept. 24 and also at a members-only salon event on Sunday, Sept. 25 (details here).  
Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, 20 September 2016  

As long as you keep climbing, there will be steps, they will magically appear under your climbing feet.“  Franz Kafka, The Blue Octavo Notebooks

I hoped to write this blog post from Berlin in advance my upcoming Alaska visit to announce the mystical, magical new developments in my search for a missing literary treasure. And something truly amazing did happen today. It’s the best possible news, outside of finding it.

For almost twenty years, I’ve led the search to recover the lost, last writings of literary giant Franz Kafka. My search actually began two decades earlier, in 1971, in a German language literature class, when my teacher interrupted our translation of “The Metamorphosis” to ask if I were related to Dora Diamant. He told me that Dora and Kafka were very much in love, that Kafka died in her arms, and that she burned his work. A fellow student behind me echoed what I’d been thinking. He whispered: “Not enough of it.”

Throughout my lifelong search to solve the mysteries surrounding the remarkable young Polish Jewish woman who gave Kafka the happiest year of his life, I have traveled in her footsteps, becoming her biographer and rewriting her into history. Along the way, I learned to love Kafka. Dora Diamant, with whom I share the coincidence of a last name, was a mysterious and dark figure when I took my first research trip to find her. She haunted me, and finally, I had to know what happened to her after Kafka’s death (of tuberculosis, at age 40 in 1924). On my first mission to find Dora in 1985, I went to Prague where Kafka lived and is buried, then to the small sanatorium outside Vienna where he died, and on to Israel to check out the Diamant genealogy at Hebrew University. Since then, I have travelled to these and many other places in the world, from Poland to Germany, to the Soviet Union, to Israel, France, and England, where she died in 1952, three weeks to the day after I was born.

In the three decades since then, I found the traces of Dora’s remarkable life through the people who knew her, and through the discoveries of her lost letters, diaries, photographs and Gestapo and Comintern files. I was able to find her lost family members and reunite them when we placed a stone on Dora’s unmarked grave. One of the most important discoveries about Dora was that she didn’t burn Kafka’s work, as my teacher said. Instead, Dora kept a secret collection of Kafka’s writings, 35 letters he had written to her and 20 notebooks he kept in the last year of his life. These papers were confiscated from Dora by the Gestapo in 1933. But scholars always hoped they would be found. And indeed, they might.

In 1996, I started the Kafka Project at San Diego State University to conduct and record the official international search to recover this missing literary treasure. In 1998, I spent four months in Berlin, scouring the Nazi and Gestapo archives until I found the proof of the confiscation and the office responsible for receiving it. Since then, incrementally, we’ve made progress, tracing the papers through Germany to Poland to Russia, and then back again to Germany. In 2013, we learned of an uncatalogued archive dating back to the Third Reich, which could contain this material. After a series of meetings with local scholars and experts, we made a plan. In 2014, nothing had moved forward, so I returned to Berlin to continue the search. Two years passed, and nothing happened, and no progress was made.

So I returned this month to Berlin. After two years of writing to him, without an answer, yesterday I received a telephone call from our “deep throat” archivist in the German Federal Archives, who agreed to meet with me and Dr. Hans Koch, the leading Kafka scholar in Germany on Kafka’s letters, with new information. We met today, renewed the approach to the archive, and are moving forward with the help of two German universities who have signed on to take over the research. Now two major academic institutions are taking over the work. They believe it is possible we will find this missing chapter to literary history. If I had stayed home, nothing would still be happening.

All writers are also researchers. Even if you aren’t looking to find the traces of someone who once lived, as a writer, if at all possible, you should go to the place you are writing about. Even if you think you know the place, if it’s burned into your memory, you still have to go back. If you have never been there, and you can physically make the trip, you must go. This is especially true if place is an important part of your story. It’s not just to fully describe it using all of your senses, but to allow magic and coincidences to take place. To let the story, true or fiction, unfold in the place it happened, or is happening, or will happen.

Of course this isn’t always possible. There are many excellent excuses. The place may not exist anymore. Or for myriad reasons travel is impossible. Many say they cannot afford it, which is the poorest excuse of all. But if you can’t go, I hope you’ll find other ways to replicate the experience. Read fully, watch films and videos, listen to the music, do what you can. But for those are able to travel, go. Now. Charge it, do what you must do. But go.

By being in the place where one’s story takes place, miraculous events occur, which wouldn’t happen, sitting comfortably at your desk. I’m living proof. I’m leaving Berlin tomorrow, and will be in Anchorage on Friday. I’ll be presenting on Saturday, Sept 24, at the Alaska Writers Guild Conference, and will be giving two additional talks, on Tuesday Sept 27 at Mountain View Library and on Monday, Sept 26 at the UAA Bookstore, about why you should read Kafka, and the story of my search for his last love. I hope to see you there!

Kathi Diamant is an award-winning author, broadcaster and adjunct professor at San Diego State University, where she teaches writing and critique. Since 1998, Kathi has led the SDSU Kafka Project, the official international search to recover the missing writings of Franz Kafka. Kathi’s literary detective work resulted in Kafka’s Last Love: The Mystery of Dora Diamant, which won the San Diego Book Awards’ “Best Biography” and the Geisel Award for “Best of the Best” in 2003. Much of her life now revolves around books, research travel, writing and teaching. She continues her on-air presence as a fundraising host and interview for PBS pledge programs.

4 thoughts on “Kathi Diamant | Dispatch from Berlin: You’ve Got To Be There”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Fascinating post and I'm sorry to miss your visit, Kathi Diamant! (From an Alaskan currently living out of state).

  2. I also am sorry to miss your talks (fascinating topics!), as I too will be out of state. I have visited Prague (Berlin as well) and will be there again in November-December. I love the city for itself but also because it is Kafka's (and Einstein's) and has a remarkable Jewish quarter whose bitterly ironic reason for surviving the war intact you must well know. I hope you find those papers, Kathi. They are your destiny.

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