|Jan/Feb 2020 Nonfiction|
Apart from vacations and business trips, and his final years of convalescing, Franz Kafka's life centered on Old Town Prague. Escape plans were mustered early and updated regularly, yet one wonders whether Kafka ever really wanted to leave his home city, even as he protested its grip. In a letter to classmate Oskar Pollak, written in 1902 when he was 19, he rails that "Prague doesn't let go... This old crone has claws... We would have to set fire to it on two sides... then it would be possible to get away." Pollak, for his part, did get away. After attaining a doctorate in art history at Prague's Charles University, he lectured at the University of Vienna, then worked as art historian at the Austrian Institute for Historical Research in Rome. When the War broke out, he volunteered and died on the Austro-Italian front.
Kafka escaped that fate. After attaining a law degree from Charles University in 1906, he took a position at the Prague branch of the Italian-owned Assicurazioni Generali insurance firm with "hopes of sitting in chairs in faraway countries"—as he wrote to a girl he met over the summer. To best friend Max Brod he wrote of finding a position through his "Madrid uncle," director of the Spanish railway, and of going to "South America, or the Azores, or Madeira." Daydreaming was natural for Franz, and both he and Max had a taste for travel. From 1910 to 1912, they vacationed together in Paris, Switzerland, Italy, and Germany. Kafka's destinations all hold appeal for me, and I'm slowly making my way along his routes, staying, where possible, in places he stayed—in pursuit and sympathy. As Franz himself stayed at Hotel Matschakerhof while in Vienna in 1913—in sympathy with one of his own dead literary mentors, Franz Grillparzer, who had routinely dined at the hotel.
But Kafka "hated Vienna," that "decaying mammoth village"—as he put it in a letter in March 1914. He felt that his best prospects for getting away—from parents, the office, and the old crone claws of Prague—would be in Berlin, where he could make best use of his writing ability. "I choose Berlin" because "I love it," he proclaimed. Berlin was the city-screen onto which he projected his early escape dreams. It's not surprising that an "empty face" young woman from Berlin became his first, and probably most enduringly significant muse.
On August 20, 1912, a week after Franz met Fräulein Felice Leonie Bauer—a relative by marriage of the Brods—at the Brod residence, he wrote in his diary:
When I arrived at Brod's, she was sitting at the table. I was not at all curious about who she was, but rather took her for granted. Bony, empty face that wore its emptiness openly. Bare throat. A blouse thrown on. Looked very domestic in her dress although, as it later turned out, she by no means was.
Felice did not have physical beauty to recommend her. But she had the right résumé for Franz. She was a professional woman living in Berlin, a shorthand typist and executive secretary at Carl Lindström Inc.—a firm that made gramophone and dictation machines. She traveled frequently and represented her company. She enjoyed transcribing manuscripts and had invited Max to send his manuscripts to her in Berlin. She attended the theatre, read books, was interested in Zionism and learning Hebrew. Kafka had a subscription to the Zionist monthly, Palästina, but had not yet taken up Hebrew study. He was astonished by the confluence of qualities. Normally reserved, he suddenly asserted he was willing to devote his entire vacation the following year to traveling to Palestine, and he invited Fräulein Felice to join him. She declared her willingness, and they shook hands on it.
By the time Franz was walking Felice back to her hotel, he'd reached an "unshakeable opinion," he wrote in his diary. On September 20, he penned his first letter to Felice. And during the night of September 22-23, in an eight-hour marathon, he composed his breakthrough story, "The Judgment," a suicide, or dying-into-life tale, which he dedicated to Miss F. B. She wrote back on September 28, and their five-year, upwards of 500-letter correspondence—punctuated by two broken engagements and fewer than 20 "live" encounters—tumbled into motion.
(Felice secretly kept most of the letters Franz wrote to her, and only late in life, under financial pressure, sold them to Schocken Books of New York, along with the rights to publish them, for the modest sum of $5,000. Letters to Felice was first published in 1967, 43 years after Kafka's death. Felice's letters to Franz were not preserved.)
I'm hardly alone in feeling degrees of uneasiness in reading Kafka's letters—rich as they are in drama, melodrama, and quotidian detail—for he surely intended them for Felice's eyes only. He famously willed the incineration of all his unpublished manuscripts—letters and diaries included. And Max Brod, as executor, famously defied that will and devoted much of his own life to publishing all of Kafka's retrievable writings and promoting the literary legacy of his best friend. The letters and diaries—a lion's share of all that Kafka wrote—provide a wealth of insight into how he constructed his daily life: what he did and felt and dreamt, what he thought and saw and read, what he ate and how he ate it, what he wore and what he weighed, how he slept or didn't sleep, where he stayed, for how long, and with whom.
For the duration of his relationship with Felice, Kafka regularly stayed at the Askanischer Hof Hotel when in Berlin. The Baedeker travel guide recommended the Askanischer Hof as one of the more expensive smaller places to stay: 50 rooms with 70 beds, baths, a restaurant, and a garden terrace. Kafka liked it well enough to become a return customer. "My joys and miseries are so entwined with the place," he wrote to Felice on May 25, 1915, "it is almost as though I had left behind some roots into which I could graft myself on my return. Besides, they like me there. On the other hand, it is rather uncomfortable, also fairly expensive; but—I stick to it—I still like it best." With Franz there was always an "other hand."
In my early phase of tracking Kafka, the Askanischer Hof Hotel was at the top of my visit-list—the Berlin location most mentioned by Franz, the site of the most dramatic scene in his relationship with Felice, perhaps in his entire life: the "tribunal," as he referred to it in his diary entry of July 23, 1914, that spurred the writing of The Trial.
There's an eerie foreshadowing of the novel in Franz's very first letter to Felice, the last words of which read: "... you might well give me a trial." He likely meant nothing more than "give this man a chance," but since "a trial" did ensue, these first words assume an oddly ominous quality. Though Felice was the one under examination at the start of the relationship, not Franz. Already in his second, long letter of September 28, he was demanding details about her life in Berlin—as if collecting data for a life insurance package, travel prospectus, storyline, or all three: "You must record at what time you get to the office, what you had for breakfast, what you see from your office window, what kind of work you do there, the names of your male and female friends, why you get presents, who tries to undermine your health by giving you sweets, and the thousand things of whose existence and possibilities I know nothing." Just as strangely, in the same letter he also admitted to mood swings and indecisiveness: "Oh, the moods I get into, Fräulein Bauer! A hail of nervousness pours down upon me continuously. What I want one minute I don't want the next." His tone is effusive, his manner extravagant, unlike the cool, removed style of his fiction. Yet no less crafted.
By November 1912 Franz and Felice were writing to each other almost daily, sometimes more than once a day. Franz is candid about his sleeplessness, his restlessness—especially at the office "which bears no relation to my real needs." He deems himself "sincere... perhaps also insincere"; says that his "life consists, and basically always has consisted, of attempts at writing, mostly unsuccessful; that when he isn't writing, he is "flat on the floor, fit for the dustbin." He is abjectly honest. He tells Felice that there's hardly a quarter of an hour of his waking time in which he does not think of her, yet even this, he concedes, is related to his writing: "My life is determined by nothing but the ups and downs of writing." Writing, he makes clear from the start of their correspondence, is his life. And Felice—as subject of his romanticized fixation—is subjected to his writing.
On November 9 he drafted a letter that he didn't send: "Dear Fräulein Felice, You are not to write to me again, nor will I write to you. I would be bound to make you unhappy, and as for me I am beyond all help." And on November 11 he wrote: "My health is only just good enough for myself alone, not good enough for marriage, let alone fatherhood." The story of Franz and Felice might have ended here. But the following week he made a passionate about-face. "Dearest, dearest!" he exclaimed, switching from the formal German form of you—"Sie"—to the familiar "Du": "The Du stands firm, like your letter when I kiss it." He was gushing. With Felice in the picture, his writing was suddenly going well. He'd decided not to give up on his first novel, The Man Who Disappeared (for the time being), and in October completed the first chapter, "The Stoker," to his rare satisfaction.
In mid-December 1912 his first book, Meditations, was released with Rowohlt—a collection of short prose pieces he'd been shaping for publication the evening he and Felice met at Brod's. He was working on his story "The Metamorphosis" and waved off an opportunity to reunite at holiday time, with sugary pledges of love: "Where are your lips?" (December 27-28) and "goodnight, dearest, and a long, calm, confident kiss" (December 28-29), countered with rebuffs: "You have proved your love with long letters, now prove it with short ones." He wanted the connection with Felice, as long as it served and didn't detract from his writing. But inevitably it came with anxiety over physical intimacy, which he broached with Felice, but never to the depths.
Seven months of letter writing passed before the two met again. And in March, 1913, leading up to the meeting, Kafka went through a ritual round of indecision, writing on March 20 of "newly emerging further threats of possible obstacles to [his] short journey," and the next day: "Still undecided." The dithering had to have been unnerving for Felice. Yet on March 23 he did arrive in Berlin, and then it was his turn to feel unnerved: "What has happened Felice?" he wrote on Askanischer Hof stationery, "You must surely have received my express letter on Friday in which I announced my arrival on Saturday night... now I am in Berlin, and will have to leave again this afternoon... and still no word from you... I am sitting at the Askanischer Hof waiting."
In August 2011, I set my sights on booking a room at the Askanischer Hof Hotel—with M., who at the time was aloof to my "Kafka project" as he called it, though he was keen on visiting Berlin. I was thrilled to find the Askansicher Hof listed online, at 53 Kurfürstendamm—the leafy, fashionable street that runs through the center of the city and leads southward to Grunewald, where Franz and Felice went for a walk on their second meeting and first "date."
The date must have been awkward. Franz cut it short and rushed off to meet up with literary friends at Café Josty on Potsdamer Platz. Yet they arranged to meet again—at Whitsun in May. Back in Prague on March 26, he wrote: "I gazed at you too long in real life... for your photographs to be of any use to me now... In the photographs you are smooth... whereas I have beheld the true, human, inevitably imperfect face, and lost myself in it." They had sat near enough to each other for Franz to take in Felice's fragrance and get a good look at her imperfect teeth. (She complained of toothaches and had a tooth extracted soon after.) On March 30 he proclaimed: "I love you too much," "I am obsessed by the need for news of you..." "I press your letter to my cheek and inhale its fragrance... it is then that you are more firmly in my heart than ever." In typical Franz fashion—of giving with one hand and taking with the other, he continued: "On the telephone from the Askanischer Hof I was closer to you, felt the happiness of our bond with greater intensity than earlier on, when sitting on the tree trunk in Grunewald." In other words, the bond is stronger at a distance—where physical contact doesn't encroach on imagination.
M. and I stayed at the Askanischer Hof Hotel, 53 Kurfürstendamm, for three nights in August 2011. During that phase of venturing into the field, I was more wishful than thorough: I thought I'd booked a room at the hotel where Kafka had stayed. When we checked in, I asked the concierge if she knew whether Franz Kafka had regularly stayed in the same room at the hotel. She smiled politely and told me that this was not the hotel where Kafka stayed. I blushed, suddenly deeply embarrassed; M. suppressed a chuckle. "But this is the Askanischer Hof," I went on, suppressing the embarrassment. "Yes, of course, but this is a different branch," she said. "The other building was destroyed in the War." "And there's nothing at all left of it?" I asked. "No," she said. "There's a new building at that location." M. took the key from the reception desk. Impatient from the day in transit, he was ready to go to the room. "I'd like to see where the other hotel was located," I continued. "Can you tell us how to get there?" "Take a taxi to the Askanischer Platz," she said.
On April 18, 1913, Kafka wrote to Felice: "I don't think you have properly taken in that writing is the only thing that makes my inner existence possible... I am awake only among my imaginary characters." And two days later: "Haven't you noticed, Felice, that in my letters I don't in fact love you; if I did, I would have to think only about you, write only about you; but what I do is worship you, and in some way expect your help and blessing." "Worship" is the operative word. Franz did not love Felice for herself; he was not attracted to her physically. He needed to elevate her to lofty heights, where she would be unreachable, except as a fount for attention and blessing. He expected to be accepted for how he was and for what he required for his writing. From his response of April 28, it's clear she was offended by his frankness. "So I wanted to hurt you, Felice? Hurt? You? When my one desire is to lessen as best I can all the unhappiness, which through no fault of mine, passes from me to you." Kafka must have realized how egotistical and self-righteous he sounded, and must have half-expected to be dismissed. Yet he insisted: "All the same you should allow me to come and see you in Berlin at Whitsun, for this journey was far too definite a plan, the changing of which would turn my whole life upside down." His entitlement is unabashed. On May 4, he announced that he would again be staying at the Askanischer Hof.
After exploring our hotel room—furnished genteelly in the manner of La Belle Époque, M. and I went down to hail a cab. Dinner would wait. I was eager to see something of what I'd come for, even if only a trace. We climbed into the back of the cab, gave the destination. I noted the route: Kurfürstenstrasse, Budapeststrasse, Tiergartenstrasse... and asked the cabby if he knew of Hotel Askanischer Hof—that had once stood at the Askanischer Platz. "Yes," he said matter-of-factly. "My mother lived in the building beside the hotel." "Really," I said, surprised by this. "Yes," he confirmed. "Those buildings were destroyed in the War." "How weird," I whispered to M. "that we happen to get a cabby whose mother lived beside the hotel that Kafka stayed at." "It's a coincidence," he whispered back. "It means nothing." Maybe not, but to me it felt like some kind of indication. "Here we are," the cabby said, pulling up beside a subway station on Stresemann Strasse. "This is Askanischer Platz. The hotel was there," he said, pointing to a block of concrete buildings. We thanked him, paid, and got out at the subway entrance — marked with a green S: Anhalter Bahnhof. I took out the camera, photographed the street, the signs, the Askanischer Platz—a parkette of dry grass, shrubs and tall leafy trees. The building where the hotel once stood is now DKV: Deutsche Krankenversicherung—an insurance company, of all things.
During his second stay at the Askanischer Hof—on Whitsun—May 11-12, 1913, Franz met Felice's family at their home on Wilmersdorfer Strasse. They were celebrating the engagement of their son, Felice's brother, Ferri. Franz was anxious about being cast into a family festivity of this sort on a first meeting and cognizant of being on-course for an engagement of his own. Fortunately, the subject of marriage was not broached. But back in Prague, he wrote a series of self-recriminatory letters—building a case against why Felice would want him as a spouse, then grieving her silence as dismissal. On June 16 he penned a singularly strange, long letter in which he asked Felice for her hand: "Will you consider whether you wish to be my wife?... Fundamentally this is a criminal question... but in the conflict of forces, those that have to pose this question are victorious." Felice said yes without delay, yet Kafka continued, throughout July and August, to badger her with letters of dread: "Felice, you have to believe what I say about myself; which is the self-knowledge of a man of thirty who for deep-seated reasons [he cannot specify what they are] has several times been close to madness... To be frank... it is my dread of the union [his emphasis]... "I have a definite feeling that through marriage, through the union... I shall perish, and not alone but with my wife." And at the end of August he wrote to Carl Bauer, Felice's father, a letter that sounds more like a warning than an introduction to a future son-in-law: "My whole being is directed toward literature... I am taciturn, unsociable, morose, selfish, a hypochondriac, and actually in poor health... I lack all sense of family life... Is your daughter destined to live with this kind of man? Is she to tolerate a monastic existence... and in a foreign town, in a marriage that may turn out to be a relationship of love and friendship rather than a real marriage?" Felice intercepted the unhappy missive. But Franz's unhappiness did not abate.
On September 6 he traveled to Vienna with colleagues as an official delegate of the Workers' Accident Insurance Institute at the Second International Congress for Rescue Service and Accident Prevention. He was miserable. On September 9 he wrote to Felice that he sits "at meals like a ghost." From Vienna he traveled on alone to vacation in Trieste, Venice, Verona, and Riva on Lake Garda in northern Italy. On September 16 he wrote Felice a letter "overflowing with unhappiness" from Hotel Sandwirth in Venice. He closed by saying: "We shall have to part."
The two remained incommunicado for over a month.
When M. and I arrived back at the Askanischer Hof on Kurfürstendamm, the concierge asked us if we'd visited the Askanischer Platz. "We did," I said. "There wasn't much to see. It's a parkette of overgrown grass. But where the hotel once stood there's an insurance company, which is curious, seeing that Kafka was a lawyer for an insurance firm." I felt silly saying that, like I was reaching for connections. "Well," she said, lowering her voice to a confidential pitch, "we have the desk and chair from the room that Kafka stayed in. Some of the furnishings were saved and brought here." "Really?" I said, sounding incredulous. "Yes, really," she said. "We keep them in our private area at the back. Would you like to see them?" Of course I did. M. was silent. She emerged from behind the reception desk, and leaving it unattended, led us down a long hallway to the back of the building. In a room with a window overlooking a courtyard stood a large dark wood desk with a carved floral motif around the edges and thick twist legs. The chair was of the same dark wood, with the same floral motif on the arms, upholstered with a heavy red fabric. "Have a seat," she said. I did, and in the moment I believed that this desk and chair might have been the desk and chair that Kafka had once-upon-a-time sat at. It seemed plausible.
The period from September 20 to October 29, 1913 marked a turning point in Franz and Felice's relationship. Felice recruited a friend—a young professional woman named Grete Bloch whom she'd met at a trade fair in Frankfurt—to mediate between herself and Kafka. The specific assignment was to induce Franz to make the trip to Berlin to discuss the impasse that had arisen between the two. Grete contacted Franz by letter, he agreed to meet her, and they met up in Prague at the Schwarzes Ross Hotel (no longer standing). Grete succeeded in getting Franz to make the trip to Berlin. She also succeeded in drawing him into a lengthy conversation that covered matters far beyond the designated purpose of the meeting.
On November 8, 1913, Kafka took the eight-hour train ride, arrived at the Anhalter Station at 8:30 in the morning and again checked in to the Askanischer Hof Hotel. He and Felice arranged by telephone to meet at noon for a walk at the Tiergarten. The walk lasted 90 minutes, after which Franz met with his friend the writer Ernst Weiss, then residing in Berlin. The meeting at the Tiergarten was tense and unpleasant. Felice and Franz could agree on nothing. Kafka put the details into a long letter to Grete Bloch, dated November 10. He also expressed his dismay in retrospect that Grete, who had introduced herself at the Schwarzes Ross as Felice's "close friend" could have spoken about such personal things as Felice's "tooth trouble" and the "breaking-off of her brother's engagement." What truly close friend would be so insensitive as to bring up such private matters at all, let alone at a first meeting with a stranger? He felt "rage and despair" at himself for having "said too much during their conversation"; that "in addition to having wronged Felice so deeply already, [he] had betrayed her as well." Evidently, he realized from the start of his correspondence with Grete—which lasted from October 1913 to October 1914 and is preserved in Letters to Felice—that his relationship with her as intermediary for Felice was dubious. Nonetheless, he took it up. And in many of the letters it's difficult to discern the fiancée from the girlfriend of the fiancée.
On January 2, 1914 Franz renewed his request of marriage by letter — with pledges of love, along with a plea to Felice to let him be: "Let's do it. Marriage is the only means whereby the relationship between us—so very necessary to me—can be maintained... You are not satisfied with me... want me to be other than I am... Why try to change people, Felice?" Kafka wanted to be accepted for who he was: a writer who desired a sexless marriage. He idealized the benediction of marriage, valued the stability and appearance of normalcy that marriage could conceivably afford him, but was repelled "for deep-seated reasons" by the idea of marital sex.
The two met during Kafka's fourth visit to Berlin—February 28 - March 1, 1914. Felice voiced her "fears about a joint future": She might not be able to put up with Franz's idiosyncrasies and fluctuations, forego Berlin—marriage would entail a move to Prague—and the lifestyle she was used to. Franz promised, against his will, to change his ways, but was conflicted. He spent a sleepless night at the Askanischer Hof. He would rather have lived in Berlin as a writer than in Prague as a civil servant, writing on the side, but he could not (for the time being) expect Felice to marry him, give up her well-paid position (as was expected) and have her face the prospect of a diminished lifestyle.
Meanwhile the correspondence with Grete Bloch continued. The letters to Grete are warm and playful, also eerily similar in pattern to the early letters to Felice. Kafka requested details of Grete's work, health, friendships, travels and reading habits. He recommended books, places to eat, performances to see, and suggested vacationing together: Grete, Franz and Felice. It was a triangle that was bound to collapse. Yet the marriage plans stood. On April 7, Franz announced to Felice: "I am coming at Easter... I shall be staying at the Askanischer Hof." On April 9, he added: "It would be better if you came to the Askanischer Hof at about 7:30, but punctually, I beg you [Franz couldn't bear to be made to wait]". And "No, Fräulein Bloch is not coming. I like her very much." Felice must have been feeling uneasy about the intermediary arrangement she'd arranged.
The unofficial engagement took place on Easter, April 12 - 13, 1914. Grete was not present. The next day, Kafka wrote to her: "Dear Fräulein Grete, it would be nicer if instead of the telegram I were holding your hand." And the day after: "Dear Fräulein Grete, I feel an unmistakable and true longing for you..." On April 17 he added: "I do want to go to Berlin. Berlin does me good in every way. But it would surely be taking a great risk if I were to give up my safe job now. On my own I could have done it, or rather, I should have done it. But now, with Felice? Am I entitled to persuade her to give up her good job to which she is so attached, in order perhaps to suffer hardship with me in that same Berlin?" Marriage and Prague were presented by Franz as a package deal. On May 1, Felice arrived in Prague. She and Franz rented a three-room apartment at Langegasse 923/5. Franz suggested to Grete that she come live with them, make it a threesome. On May 8 he wrote: "... once [Felice and I] are married you are to come live with us... [and from the beginning]... We shall lead a pleasant life, and in order to test me you shall hold my hand, and I, in order to thank you, must be allowed to hold yours." A fantasy.
The official engagement was held on June 1 at the Bauer apartment. On June 6 Franz confided to his diary: "Was tied hand and foot like a criminal. Had they sat me down in a corner bound in real chains, placed policemen in front of me... it could not have been worse. And that was my engagement..." During the following month, he wrote 12 letters to Grete; none to Felice.
The indelicate balance collapsed on July 12 at the Askanischer Hof—in a back room with a window overlooking a courtyard: Felice, her sister Erna and Grete in attendance. In his diary entry of July 23 Franz called the ordeal the "tribunal in the hotel"; "Felice said very studied, hostile things she had long been saving up," he wrote. And added: "devilish in my innocence"; "Fräulein Bloch's apparent guilt." "Devilish" because he knew he'd been operating deviously on two tracks, though Felice did not—not until the beginning of July, when Grete shared with her friend what Franz had written to her. "Innocent" because he maintained his love for Felice—however skewed and fettered to his head. There must have been tension between Felice and Grete as well, but Grete managed to save the friendship at the 11th hour by handing over to Felice most (not all) of her correspondence with Franz. The passages implicating herself for having enticed Franz were excised, while Kafka's indiscretions were underlined in red. These Felice read aloud at the tribunal. Franz had nothing to say in his defense. The engagement was dissolved and the parents informed. Felice's mother, distraught, put the blame squarely on Grete.
On the last day of our stay in Berlin, I came across a small red volume on the bookshelf of the hotel breakfast room: Kafka in Berlin by Hans-Gerd Koch. I brought it to our room to examine the old photographs, most of which were new to me. I was intrigued by two in particular: one of the foyer of the original Askanischer Hof—a cramped, dim room with curved-arch wall-recesses, a few round tables and light armchairs (of the plain Deutsche Werkstätten style that Franz favored), and a staircase descending directly into the sitting area. I imagined Franz hunched gloomily in one of the wall-recesses, waiting impatiently for Felice. The other photograph—captioned "a letter sheet of the hotel used by Kafka"—shows the hotel's façade, with the byline Quiet family house. Comfortable Living. The date, "13 VII, 1914," is written in Kafka's hand. July 13 was the day after the "tribunal." This is the letterhead of the letter Kafka wrote to Felice's parents in wake of the breakup: "Now I no longer know how I shall address you. I shall not come to see you. I know what you would say to me. You know I would take it. So I am not coming. I shall probably go to Lübeck this afternoon... Farewell, you have won my unconditional admiration... don't think badly of me."
With the marriage off—for the time being: the two would reunite in January 1915—the prospect of quitting his job and relocating to Berlin acquired renewed appeal for Franz. In this he was encouraged by Ernst Weiss, who disliked Felice and had never approved of the match. In a letter to his parents, following the dissolution of the engagement, Franz asserted that his life in Prague could lead to "nothing good" and that he wasn't "finished with Berlin." He declared his plan to resign his position at the Institute, leave Prague, and live on his savings while pursuing his literary work in Berlin. But then War broke out and the plan was not put to the test.
After the fateful day at the Askanischer Hof, Kafka did not see Berlin again until 1923. In August he began writing The Trial, which Klaus Wagenbach called "a punishment fantasy" and Elias Canetti called Kafka's Other Trial. Canetti draws a direct connection between the engagement and arrest of Kafka's cipher, Joseph K., in chapter one of the novel, and the tribunal and dissolution of the engagement with the guilty verdict in the final chapter.
I ended up taking the small red volume, Kafka in Berlin, home with me. I'd intended to put it back on the breakfast room bookshelf. Instead it found its way into my suitcase. I felt mildly guilty for having "removed" it from the hotel but gave it a place on my Kafka shelf at home where it sat, mostly unopened, until 2016, when M. and I again visited Berlin. We were with a tour group this time, staying at the Crown Plaza City Center on Nürnberger Strasse. I suggested we take our "free afternoon" to walk over to the Askanischer Platz; my fascination with the location had not abated.
We walk along Kurfürstenstrasse, cross An der Urania and Potsdamer Strasse, pass through the sprawling sports park—Park am Gleisdreieck—cross Schönberger Bridge over the Landwehr Canal, continue along Schönberger Strasse, and cut across an open field in the direction of the Askanischer Platz. We stop in our tracks as a massive brick ruin comes into view. Approaching it from behind, we pass through the rectangular gateway and come to a memorial column in front of the broken façade: It is the surviving central portion of the Anhalter Bahnhof—where Kafka had disembarked and walked across to the Askanischer Platz on what was then König Strasse and is now Stresemann Strasse. Anhalter Bahnhof was one of three stations from where over 50,000 Berlin Jews were deported to extermination camps in Nazi-occupied territories of Eastern Europe. Today the S-Bahn subway station is the only remainder—still called Anhalter Bahnhof, though it's over half a century since the aboveground terminus closed.
We're puzzled. How could we not have seen this huge ruin on our previous visit? We'd stood at the S-Bahn subway station at Askanischer Platz, I'd photographed the parkette, the street and signs. We walk from the ruin across to the Platz—still a dry-grass parkette. I sit on one of the park benches and M. photographs the setting. The Anhalter Bahnhof terminus ruin isn't visible through the tall leafy trees. That's why we hadn't seen it. We'd approached Askanischer Platz from the northeast on our previous visit, and walked back to our hotel in the same direction, by way of Potsdamer Platz. Askanischer Platz itself yields nothing new; I didn't really expect it to. But now I want to retrace our steps—to visit the Askanischer Hof Hotel at Kurfürstendamm 53.
We take the hour-long walk only to find that the hotel is closed.
I learn that the original Askanischer Hof ceased operating as a hotel in 1923 and was rented out to various commercial enterprises. By 1924 it no longer appeared on the hotel list of the Berlin Address Book, and in World War II the building was destroyed by allied bombing.
According to Hans Gerd-Koch, a former staff member of the original Askanischer Hof operated the post-war hotel at Kurfürstendamm 53 under the same name. It was a family-run hotel, a bel étage representative of typical old Berlin. "Of the original furniture nothing remains today," Gerd-Koch writes: "You can't sleep in Kafka's bed, but you can perhaps read or write in the light of a lamp which served him during one of his visits." The hotel closed permanently in June 2015. It strikes me as fortuitous that we got to stay there in 2011; that I'd sat in the light of a desk that Kafka had never sat at. The concierge—she must have been a member of the family that ran the hotel—told me that story to please me, and it did. And I took the little red book from the breakfast room shelf.