Jewish Heritage Europe

Secular cemetery pilgrimage: the case of Kafka

Stylized face of Franz Kafka on a banner in Prague, 1992


When we think of Jewish cemeteries as sites of pilgrimage, we generally think of Orthodox Jews traveling to cemeteries in Eastern and Central Europe to pay homage at the tomb of a great sage or rabbi. Others, too — including tourists — also visit these places, where they may place pebbles or candles on the tomb and often leave messages or prayers written on slips of paper, known as kvittleh.

But the graves of secular figures also, of course, become sites of pilgrimage — outside the Jewish world, think of the graves of actors, or poets, or soldiers, or rock stars….

The  writer Franz Kafka, who died in 1924 and is buried in the New Jewish Cemetery in Prague, is a case in point. After the “Velvet Revolution” in 1989, Kafka became an iconic figure in Prague, with his works and his image resurrected as a symbol — and a commercialized touristic brand, glaring out from  sourvenir T-shirts, mugs, postcards, posters, even wrapping paper and candles.

Tourists at the tomb of Rabbi Löw in Prague’s Old Jewish Cemetery

Just as tourists and visitors leave written messages at the tomb of the famed Rabbi Löw, the Maharal, in Prague’s Old Jewish Cemetery, visitors to Kafka’s simple grave — a six-sided, crystal-like marker that commemorates Kafka and his parents, who survived him into the 1930s — also often leave written messages.

Kafka’s epitaph, in Hebrew, gives his Hebrew name, Anschel — the name of the provincial rabbi and Talmudic scholar who was his great-grandfather. A plaque commemorates Kafka’s three sisters, who were killed in the Holocaust.

In a blog post, the National Library of Israel describes how the late journalist, author and translator Ruth Bondy, a Czech-born Auschwitz survivor who moved to Israel after World War II, was struck by the notes she found when she visited Kafka’s grave in 1992.

In an article published in 1994, the NLI post writes, Bondy “explained that she had never heard of Kafka during her childhood in Prague, even though she was born a year before his death into the same Jewish community. In fact, she had only heard of him after coming to Israel, as it was only in the years following the Second World War that Kafka’s name became so well-known.”

During her cemetery visit nearly 70 years after his death, Bondy discovered that Kafka was not merely an angst –ridden author, but also the patron of the broken hearted and ill-fated.

The notes at the gravesite were written in many languages- English, Romanian, Italian, Czech and French- showing just how broad this phenomenon was. The notes placed upon the grave of the secular saint were a part of a ritual pilgrimage and acted as a site of hope for those who found themselves in his books and shared a dour kinship and fate.

The cemetery caretaker explained to Bondy that, every now and then, he and his team collect the older notes but new ones quickly replace the old.

Bondy wrote in that same 1994 article: “I have nothing with which to compare this Kafka pilgrimage other than to the Jesus pilgrimage who was also a Jew. It is more than that Kafka’s writing affect the masses- he provides them with a crutch or a refuge. It is no coincidence that the cemetery workers collect the notes from his grave every few weeks, like [those left at] the grave of the Maharal [of Prague], and burn them.”

Franz Kafka’s grave when Ruth Ellen Gruber visited in 1992

JHE Coordinator Ruth Ellen Gruber also visited Kafka’s grave in 1992, following the sign down a long path pointing the final resting place of “Dr. Franz Kafka” — as if it were showing the way to a consulting room, not a grave. Like Bondy, she was struck by the memorial pebbles and written messages: fewer than those at Rabbi Löw’s tomb, but still quite in evidence. Someone had placed a bouquet of red roses, wrapped in cellophane, with a note reading “To Franz Kafka… Thank you.” One of the written messages read, “In memory of Franz Kafka, whose stories enable us all to partly understand the oppressive nature of totalitarianism everywhere.” Another person had left a tightly folded square of yellowish graph paper, torn out of a notebook, set carefully under a pebble — but the paper was blank.

Ruth Bondy died in November 2017 at the age of 94, and the NLI holds her archives. Among her papers are a number of the messages written to Kafka and deposited at his grave, which the cemetery caretaker gave her.

The NLI blogpost reproduces some of them.

Click here to read the full post and see the pictures

Ruth Ellen Gruber wrote about Kafka’s grave — and Rabbi Löw’s — in her 1994 book Upon the Doorposts of Thy House: Jewish Life in East-Central Europe, Yesterday and Today.  (Click HERE to see book details and “search inside.”)

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