The Roots of Kafka

Frantz Kafka

The name of Frantz Kafka, a genius who in our view still remains unappreciated, does not say much to the majority of simple-minded readers. His name brings in an overwhelming majority of people who read or merely heard of him, an attack of melancholy, associations with something gloomy, incomprehensible, illogical or, at best, it reminds of some mysterious depths of subconscious. Nevertheless the name of this writer is certainly fashionable and not a single, even a tiny bit self-respecting reader can admit not reading Kafka even if, having stumbled on the first story, he shut the book of this marvelous author forever.

Along with that, or more correctly, in spite of all contradictions in the attitude of the reading public to this writer, we may with no doubt declare that Frantz Kafka is not only a genius, but also, certainly, one of unique Jewish prophets of the so-called "new era". As a writer, he brought about a complete revolution in thinking and in literature, having laid bare the bottom of consciousness, while as a tragic prophet (were there among Jews prophets-optimists?) he screamed out to all of us about that horror of the European new time, with which, as one of its most impressive achievements, the modern European civilization takes pride till today. The Jewish Holocaust set to us by Europeans (more correctly by Germans at a silent agreement and participation of other European peoples) was but a nightmare and logical continuation of that horror Kafka screamed about.

So, where do geniuses come from and where did Frantz Kafka come from? In this short study we will attempt to build on sayings and works of his biographers, in particular, such prominent ones as Claude David, Max Brod and Elias Canetti, his friends, relatives, acquaintances and women who loved him.

Herman Kafka and Julie Löwy

Frantz himself distinguished in him two family lines too well. The first is certainly the Kafka branch that was marked in his view by "strength, health, good appetite, strong voice, eloquence, complacency, sense of superiority over everybody, persistence, wit, knowledge of people and certain nobleness". Let us note in passing how strongly positive, even superior, qualities are assigned to this family by Frantz himself – while it is with these relatives and, first of all, with his father Hermann Kafka, that his relationships were complicated, if not to say horrible. These relatives could never understand him, while he – them. Another line – is the mother line of Löwy family that he endows with somewhat different qualities, besides the same "persistence", just direct opposites – "sensitivity, sense of justice, anxiety". Along with that, in his famous "Letter to father" that, as a biographer writes "the latter however never read", he openly declares himself, even insisting on that, - Löwy, at most, "with some Kafka base".

Who are these Kafkas? And what is the meaning of the name? The answers to both these questions are rather prosy. Let us start with the last one. As researchers insist – "family name Kafka by its sound is clearly Czech: Kafka is a jackdaw, and a jackdaw will serve later as an emblem of their trading house". Most probably the name was assigned to the family at the time of Joseph II, that is by his famous decree of 1787, according to which "until 1 January 1788 all Jews of Austro-Hungarian Empire should adopt family names", thus obtaining a citizen status. The surname came, apparently, from the nickname of the family founder. Why that or another nickname appeared – we don't know.

Possibly it came from – "black as a jackdaw". Frantz could not stand his family name, and especially its two "k". So, who are these people, once called by such a not so euphonic nickname as "Jackdaw". Here is what we know from the David research on these strong, healthy, with excellent appetite and strong voice people. "Kafka's clan was distinguished by gigantic height. They tell that grandfather Jacob Kafka, a butcher in Wossek, could lift a sack of flour with teeth. In the family everyone was big, even Frantz sisters. But he himself was ashamed of his height because of which he felt not strong but sickly, clumsy and ridiculous. In their genealogy Kafkas do not rise above grandfather Jacob, the one who had to wait for 1848 revolution to be allowed to get married and lived in a small place Wossek.

Jacob Kafka with wife

Wossek is a village at the south of Czechia. It is inhabited by Czechs and Jews. Life in Wossek is extremely wretched. The native house of Hermann Kafka was found – a hut covered with straw. All slept in the same room – Jacob Kafka, four of his sons and two daughters. The father of the writer often recalled the hard years of his childhood: the famine, when there was not enough potatoes, the cold, bringing unhealing open wounds on anklebones; at the age of seven Hermann Kafka was forced to wander from village to village pushing a manual carriage; his sister Julie was sent to one family as a cook". As Frantz recalled his father's tales – "she had to go to make different tasks in the harshest cold in her small skirt that got wet, the skin on her feet broke, the small skirt got frozen, getting dry only in the evening in bed". Hermann Kafka however rebuked his children that they did not know such sufferings: "Who knows about that today! What can children know about this! Nobody suffered like this! How a modern child can understand this?" At the same time, the same biographer expresses some doubt in the absolute truth of these tales that became a family legend among Kafkas. "To say the truth, the preserved pictures, where Jacob Kafka and his wife are dressed as true bourgeois and look quite succeeding people, make one think that this extreme poverty was not always there, or that the memory got faded little by little and somewhat mystified the past".

Here is a short biography of the father of Frantz. A poor Jew Hermann Kafka, having served three years in the emperor's army, in 1881 moves to Prague and in a year gets married to Julie Löwy, "a girl from the family of rich provincial dry-goods merchants that at the same time were owners of a brewery". Let us listen to a biographer: "Julie Löwy, undoubtedly, brought quite a significant dowry and it is hard to imagine that they would accept into this prosperous family some small businessman with no means". Strange indeed. A question arises – was Hermann really as poor as he liked to tell about himself? In fact in the same year of 1882 he opens a fashion shop on Celetná-Strasse (Celetná Ulice) and this enterprise starts to prosper. Hermann gets rich and soon he turns his small shop into a large wholesale company that is now located "on the first floor of a magnificent palace Kinski on the Big square of the Old City". Hermann “got rich”, “succeeded”, “achieved the target” and at any rate he got ahead of all his brothers and sisters. More correctly, nothing is known about the sisters, Anna and Julie, they as if sunk into uncertainty, while the brothers… Their fate is traced quite in detail. Ludwig first worked in Hermann's shop, later he became a small insurance agent and apparently he hasn't done much more in his life. Henrich died young, while his daughter, having weak health and unhappy husband, worked for long time in the same shop for her uncle Hermann. Frantz Kafka recalled that even at her funeral the father did not find a good word for her. The only thing that Hermann squeezed out of himself was: "Poor Irma bequeathed me a good deal of problems". The last of Hermann's brothers, Philip, had a small business in one of the provincial Czech towns. One of Philip's sons dies very young in 1901. Three of his other sons and two sons of Henrich emigrate. Four of them to the US and one to Paraguay. According to the measures of the family of Kafka, a "success" is only one cousin of Frantz – Robert, the fifth son of Phillip. He becomes a rather popular lawyer and makes Frantz to admire - "My cousin is a wonderful person. When this Robert, at the age of forty, came in the evening to Sophia's pool – he could not come earlier, he was a lawyer, a very busy man, busy rather with work than with pleasures, - when he came home in the evening after five, he undressed with a few quick movements, rushed to water, and swam with the power of a beautiful wild animal, with water streaming all over him, with sparkling eyes, and immediately he swam away to the dam, he was magnificent". Frantz admires in "brilliant" Robert all these qualities that he does not have. However, recalling Robert, he adds: "And six months later he died, meaninglessly tortured by the doctors".

By the way, another, even more successful than Robert, person came out of the Kafka clan. As Claude David writes "this is Bruno Kafka, whose name however is never mentioned neither in the "Diaries" of the writer nor in his correspondence, who was a son of one of the brothers of grandfather Jacob. He was practically of the same age as the writer, but his career was absolutely different. A son of a lawyer, he converted to Christianity, because professor of law, then a faculty dean, and then a rector in a university. After the war Bruno Kafka is a Parliament deputy, main editor of "Bohemia", one of the bigger newspapers of Prague and, if not an early death, he apparently would play a major role in the history of Czechia. Max Brod, who hated him, tells that he had some physical similarity with his cousin Frantz: "Black hair, sparkling eyes, the same courage in the features – even movements indicate nobleness of an extraordinary personality. But Frantz has all that more appropriate and more soft, while in Bruno this is close to a caricature, with a tendency to ingenious swindle, violence and even to sadism". That is at least the way he appeared to Max Brod who often did not get along with Bruno. Such were Kafkas, whose energy was envied by Frantz, but to whom he did not want to belong".


The Löwy family to which the writer's mother belonged, from the viewpoint of business was even more succeeding than Kafkas. The clans were similar in something. Both families consisted of assimilated Jews, both "were from the cut of provincial shopkeepers". But nevertheless Löwy differed from diligent Kafkas. In the atmosphere of Löwy family still there was some air, freedom, some albeit not large but gap in a rigid practicalness of shopkeepers, some "impression of instability", something not subject to programming. For instance, they had a lot of bachelors which is highly atypical for such families. Actually out of all five brothers or brothers-in-law of the writer's mother Julie (her father got married soon after the death of his young wife), only two created a family. One of the brothers, Alfred, who went to Spain and became a railway administrator in Madrid, was, as a biographer points out, a "family celebrity". "Apparently it was him who in "Trial" became the prototype of a "provincial uncle", pompous, imperious, whose enterprises however mainly fail. Kafka did not dislike him, he was finding a common language with him much simpler than with his parents. And the main thing – Alfred Löwy was for him a symbol of a bachelor."

Another brother of the mother and the favorite uncle of Frantz – Siegfried Löwy, to whom he often goes for vacations to Třešť, did choose a strange profession for the family – a village doctor. He also stays bachelor and, living in the countryside, he contemplates nature and silence. Frantz writes in the diary that he has "not humanly subtle mind, mind of a bachelor, mind of a bird that apparently tries to get out of a too narrow neck. That is how he lives in the countryside, having developed deep roots, satisfied, as it happens when mild delirium, taken for the melody of life, makes a man satisfied."

Another uncle of Frantz, Joseph, behaves not less, but rather even more extravagantly – he leaves to the end of the world, to exotic Kongo, gets married there to a French woman and moves to Paris. About another mother's brother, Richard Löwy, biographers have nothing to say besides that he "was a small unknown seller".

The last of Julie Kafka's brothers, Rudolf, also stays bachelor all his life. Rudolf is considered in the family as a "loser", "an odd fellow", "a ridiculous person", or as Frantz writes – "a mystery, too kind, too modest, lonely and nevertheless talkative". He converts to Christianity that by itself is inexplicable, all his life he lives with his father and quarrels with him, and with all that, he "is just an accountant in a brewery". By the way, one of his and Frantz's ancestors, son of the writer's great grandfather Joseph, also renounced the faith of the fathers, through which he deserved the corresponding relation in the family. Rudolf, it can be said generally, was a subject to mention in the family. When little Frantz was doing something that his father considered an extraordinary stupidity, Hermann Kafka was exclaiming: "Just like Rudolf!". Apparently this comparison became so ordinary in the family that already Frantz himself believed in it partly. At least in 1922, already after Rudolf's death, he writes in his diary: "Similarity to uncle Rudolf is striking and more: both silent (me – less), both dependent on the parents (me – more), in enmity with the father, loved by the mother.., both shy, extremely modest (him – more), both are considered noble, good people which is absolutely wrong about me and, as far as I know, has little of truth with respect to him.., both are at first hypochondriacs and then really sick, both albeit idlers are sustained not badly by the world (he, as a less of an idler, is sustained worse, as much as one can compare), both are office workers (him – better), both have the most dull life, both not developing, young to the end – the word "inhibited" being more exact that "young", - both are close to insanity, he, distant from Jews, with unheard courage, unheard desperateness (by which one can judge how serious the threat of insanity is), got rescued in the church, to the end… It is not true that he was not kind, I never noticed in him even a trace of avarice, envy, hatred, greediness; to help others by himself he was too weak. He was infinitely more innocent than me, one can't even compare. In details he was a caricature of me, in the main things – I am a caricature of him". So Frantz, as Claude David writes, tried to recognize himself in Rudolf, in his fate, that as it seemed to the writer then, was also prepared for him by his Löwy heredity.

Knowing now all the fate of this genius, we may understand how wrong he was about himself. But Frantz was almost sure – it seemed to him that he has premonitions of his own insanity – he recalled brother of his maternal grandmother Esther, about whom he in reality did not know anything but that he was always called "crazy uncle Nathan". Frantz persistently suspect himself in insanity, while the world around him was insane already for a long time. It is not excluded that his sense of personal tragedy was so strong also because he was one of a few prophets aware of all the insanity of the environment and at the same time accusing himself of inability to correspond to this insanity. He was like a rope-walker dancing on a wire a strange unthinkable dance, a rope-walker not by choice – by compulsion. Beyond the limits of this rope, insanity celebrated – normal, usual, general madness.

Where in the family of almost one hundred per cent shopkeepers, businessmen and keepers of breweries did a prophet come from? In the genealogy of Frantz Kafka there one more family line, covered with almost sacral legends, in which as Clause David writes "traces of spirituality are felt". This is the Porias line. Porias is the family name of the writer's grandmother. Frantz himself knew very little about this family branch, mainly some family tales that because of the old aged seemed almost legends. In his diary he writes from somebody's words the tale of his great great grandfather Joseph Porias, who lived in 18th century – "it was a highly educated man, respected by Christians just like by Jews. During one fire thanks to his religiosity a miracle happened: the fire did not touch his house while all houses around were burnt down". As a biographer indicates "Kafka's mother did know Adam Porias, her grandfather, son of Joseph, because she was six when he died. He was a rabbi, that was also performing the circumcision ritual (i. e. mohel) and in addition to that, he was a dry-goods merchant. She spoke of him as a "very religious and very educated person with long white beard". She also recalled that she had, when he died, "hold the fingers of the dead man and ask forgiveness for all the sins that she could make toward him". She did not forget that this grandfather scrupulously practiced bathings prescribed by the religious tradition: "He bathed all days in the river, even in the winter. For that he had to make a window in the ice with an axe." What else did the writer know about Porias family? Not much. For example, that Sara, the wife of the grandfather Adam Porias, could not bear the death of her daughter, who died at twenty eight from typhus, and threw herself into Elba. That's essentially everything or almost everything, not counting for the atmosphere of legends that was known of the clan of Porias or Parias.

We have undertaken our own study and here is the additional information on this family branch that became known. Parias – is a surname of a Spanish or Portugaise origin. From Spain (or Portugal) the migration of this family branch went through Italy to Bohemia and Czechia, that in the end entered the Austro-Hungarian empire. One of the researchers of the Porges clan made a phonetic-linguistic expertise of the writing and spelling in different countries of Europe of the family name Parias. In Italian this name is written as Parjas or Parges, that was pronounced as Par'as or Parias. When the family moved to German and Slavic countries, the writing of the name and its spelling started to differ. Those branches of the family which documents were rewritten from the old Italian ones – preserved the correct spelling but lost the original pronunciation and as a result became Pargeses and Porgeses. Those families the documents of which were based on oral information started to write their family name in accord with the local phonetic rules, that is Porias and Parias. Thus out of one clan of Parjas (Parges) two family names Parges and Parias arose, that are in essence one and the same clan name.

Dealing with the study of this clan we could, at last, answer our main question – where Frantz Kafka, this unique writer and prophet, came from. It turned out that the clan of Parias (Parges) gave to the world many famous rabbis, Talmud scholars and later, already in the 20th century, writers and cultural figures. Here are but some of them:

Moshe, son of Israel Naftali Girsch Porges was born in 1600 in Prague and died in 1670 in Jerusalem. He was a rabbi and a traveler. He lived in Prague and later he reached Jerusalem and became there an emissary of the ashkenazic community. There he received a nickname Praguer. The Jewish community of the Promised Land was supported in those years by generous donations by Polish Jews. During the years of the bloody massacre by Khmelnitsky in Ukraine and Poland the economic situation of the ashkenazic community in Eretz Israel strongly declined. It was decided to send Moshe to Europe to raise donations. During the performance of this mission in 1650 Moshe wrote a small illustrated work on the life of Jews in Israel – "The ways of Zion". This work was published but once, but it captured the hearts of European Jews that generously responded to the writer's talent – the mission was completed and the economical problems were resolved.

Aaron son of Benjamin Porges (Por'es) was born in Prague in 1650. Being a Prague rabbi he wrote the famous work "Memory of Aaron" about the old Jewish rituals concerning the death and the dead. Joseph son of Yehuda Leib Porges, a well-known author, who wrote in Hebrew in the beginning of 18th century. Moses Porges (1781-1870), as indicated by the Jewish encyclopedia of Brockhaus and Efron – was one of the first prominent industrialists of Austria. Later he became a vice-burgomeister of Prague-Smihov. But before that, he, with his brother Leopold Yehuda, joined the "Frankists", the movement of the followers of the false messiah Shabbetai Zvi, which was headed by Yakov Frank. Disappointed by the movement, the brothers returned to Prague and in a small dark workshop with a single spinning machine created a small manufacturing business. But soon the growing enterprise became one of the biggest in the whole Austria. For special merits in the economics developments the emperor Ferdinand in 1840 offered to Moses Porges a noble rank. But Moses asked instead to give Austrian Jews the same rights as the rest of the population. Naturally, his request was denied. Still, despite such impudence in a year Moses and his brother Yehuda were assigned a noble rank and their family started to be named as Porges von Portgeim. In the 19th century in Europe worked: a dramatist Karl Porges, an artist Ingatz Joseph Porges, a rabbi and bibliographer Nathan Porges, a composer Henrich Porges and his daughter – a famous dramatist Elsa Bernstein. In the 20th century the clan gave the world Frantz Kafka. The Porias clan like many other Jewish European families spread its branches over the Atlantic ocean. There in the USA Fridrich Porges stood at the origins of the Hollywood, brothers Arthur and Irving Porges were creators, the most famous dancer of his time Fred Aster, who is also a descendant of this famous clan, captured the hearts by his dance.

A.Z. This paper was published in an Israeli newspaper "News of the Week".

נושאי המאמר: Writers, Famous Jews

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