14th May 2021
In an early story, Franz Kafka wrote about two men crossing the Charles Bridge in the early hours of a Bohemian winter night. The acquaintance stops the narrator in front of the statue of Saint Ludmila, to point out the limitless tenderness with which the artist had endowed the hands of a small angel to the Saint’s left. This acquaintance knew hands, for, that very evening, he had taken the hands of a pretty housemaid and kissed them . . . once, maybe twice, maybe more.
Kafka himself had ‘long, ethereal fingers’ which he employed when talking, giving shape to his words. And when tuberculous of the larynx made anything but hoarse whispers impossible, it was the hands, again, that were his means of communications, writing notes to his friends and to his last and perhaps only true love, Dora Diamant.
And the first thing he said to her was, ‘Such gentle hands and such bloody work.’
It was Friday 13th July 1923, in the kitchen of a children’s holiday camp in Müritz, North Germany.
Dora had already noticed the tall man on the beach and had followed him into town, unable to fight the mysterious attraction he held for her.
When he finally noticed her, she was hard at work, scaling fish in the kitchen where she was a volunteer helper. Yet his comments, as well as his acute sense of the suffering of others, and of his ability to offer comfort, put her at ease. Yes, her hands were bloody, but he noticed how gentle they were.
He returned every evening for the next three weeks and they spoke about their past lives and, more importantly, their future.
Dora lived in Berlin and despite his travels, Kafka had never managed to break away from the claws of his native Prague. Dora provided the strength he needed to do it.
She found them an apartment in the Steglitz area, more countryside than European metropolis, and they planned to attend college then emigrate to Palestine, ‘next year in Jerusalem,’ to work the land. Or Dora could cook and Kafka work as waiter in their own restaurant. All the optimist, hope-filled talk of love.
But winter was coming.
The German economy was in an appalling state, massive inflation raising prices weekly. Kafka desperately writing home and waiting for his pension money. His health had made early retirement necessary. The landlady objected to his burning lights at night as he wrote. Dora merely went out and bought an oil lamp. Still the landlady objected, objected, he felt, to his very existence.
Dora found a new place, not so far away and took care of the moving.
To amuse themselves, they read, told stories, made plans and Kafka used his hands to make shadows on the wall.
They had little money, little food or heating, the streets of Berlin were becoming increasingly violent and uncertain, and his illness was getting worse and worse.
It was the happiest time of his life.
Historical note: Dr Kafka is now referred to a Czech writer, but at the time of his birth, the Czech lands were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the state religion was Catholicism, the official language was German. The Czechs saw their language suppressed, as was their Protestant religion. Dr Kafka was a German-speaking Jew, and this sense of alienation is easy to detect in his writing.