Berlin (AFP) - German police on Tuesday handed over to Israel thousands of stolen papers and manuscripts belonging to Max Brod, the friend and literary executor of Czech writer Franz Kafka.
Brod, who died in Tel Aviv in 1968, played a crucial role in Kafka's success as one of the 20th century's key literary figures, having published many of his works after the writer's death in 1924.
Prague-born Brod had fled Adolf Hitler's Nazi regime for Tel Aviv in 1939, carrying Kafka's estate in his suitcase, even though the German-speaking Jewish writer of "The Trial" and "The Metamorphosis" had insisted his works be destroyed after his death.
"It is possible that Kafka's works would have remained hidden from the world without his efforts," said Israeli Ambassador Jeremy Issacharoff during the handover ceremony at his Berlin residence.
German police handed three suitcases with thousands of Brod's personal papers over to the National Library of Israel in what Issacharoff described as "an act of historical justice".
It ended a decade-long struggle to retrieve the missing Brod papers which the Library says were stolen 10 years ago in Tel Aviv.
The documents, letters and memoirs re-emerged in 2013, when two Israelis approached the German Literary Archives in Marbach, and private collectors, with a huge collection of unpublished documents belonging to Brod.
During an investigation, officers found the "yellowed documents stored in old suitcases between all sorts of junk," said Peter Henzler of Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office.
The significance of the papers, including a postcard from Kafka sent to Brod in 1910, quickly emerged and they were confiscated.
"The authorities were notified and it became clear that the some 5,000 pages of documents were part of Brod's private archive and had been stolen," said the Israeli embassy in a statement.
- 'Cultural who's who' -
Last January, a court in Wiesbaden ruled that the papers should be handed back to Israel's National Library.
"The correspondence found in the archive is extensive and impressive," said Stefan Litt, the library's archivist and curator of its humanities collection.
"It can be characterised as a type of 'who's who' of the European cultural world in the first four decades of the 20th century."
The manuscripts, including unpublished passages from Brod's diary and early correspondence with his wife, could provide further insight into the life of Kafka, whose best known works also include "The Castle".
When Brod died in 1968, he left his personal papers and Kafka's manuscripts to his secretary Esther Hoffe.
After her death in 2007, aged 101, the papers went to her daughter Eva, from whom part of the collection was stolen.
Over time, the collection was split into three locations: an Israeli bank vault, a Swiss bank in Zurich and Eva Hoffe's flat in Tel Aviv.
According to reports, she lived with nearly a dozen cats with the priceless collection of papers partly stored in a switched off refrigerator.
Some 35 boxes of the Kafka/Bord archive were removed from her flat when she died in 2018.
The return of the papers on Tuesday was the latest milestone in the Max Brod Archive saga, while some of Kafka's papers could also soon be heading to Israel.
In a separate case, rare manuscripts and drawings by Kafka are to be released from a Swiss bank following a ruling last April.
"The court in Zurich has acknowledged that the contents of these private safes must be handed over to our institution," Litt added in Berlin.
"It may still take some time. It is a complicated matter."