Franz Kafka

The first of six children, Franz Kafka was born in 1883. His father, Herman Kafka, was an industrious man; he owned a dry-goods store in the Jewish ghetto in the city of Prague. Herman was ashamed of his Jewish heritage and tried, as much as possible, to appear German. He married into a higher social class when he married Julie Loewy, Franz’s mother.

A bright child, Kafka was an excellent student at a prestigious German high school. When he graduated his parents rewarded him with a trip to the North Sea. Afterwards, instead of entering the family business, Kafka decided to go to a university. As a student, his rebelliousness led to reckless living and deteriorating health. In 1902 Kafka met the writer Max Brod, and the two men became close friends. Kafka published his first work, Description of a Struggle, in 1904. In 1906, Kafka received his doctorate in law from the German university, Karls-Ferdinand, in Prague.

Armed with his law degree, Kafka entered the insurance business. Through a family contact, he began a successful sixteen-year career as one of a handful of Jews working in the semi-public German Workers’ Accident Insurance in 1908. There he produced technical writings with a masterful lucid prose. He worked long hours and then managed his brother’s factory. Seeing the obvious strain on his friend, Brod begged for help from Kafka’s mother. She secretly hired a manager to take her son’s place. During this time, Kafka lived at home, in a room between the living room and his parents’ noisy bedroom. He gained some recognition as a writer when he was awarded the Theodor Fontane Prize in 1915.

Kafka never married. He had several long-term relationships but companionship troubled him and he wrote in his Diaries that he viewed “coitus as the punishment for the happiness of being together.” Kafka sabotaged his long engagement with Felice Bauer in 1917. Two years later he was engaged to Julie Whoryzek, the daughter of a janitor. Kafka’s father said that the shame of such a match would be so disastrous that he would have to sell his business and emigrate. In response, Kafka wrote the angry and self-lacerating Letter to His Father and gave it to his mother. She decided against giving it to her husband. Kafka broke off the relationship just after they had found an apartment together.

Not surprisingly, work and family strains began to take their toll and Kafka took restorative vacations for his health. Finally, in 1923, he retired from business in order to devote himself to writing. He also moved to Berlin. Missing the activity and tensions of home, he returned. His health problems persisted, however, and he traveled to find a kinder climate for his fragile condition. Kafka died of tuberculosis on June 3, 1924, in Kierling (near Vienna, Austria).

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