Dear Ladies and Gentlemen and Distinguished Scholars (who are usually neither Ladies nor Gentlemen, let alone Distinguished) --
No matter how proud or self-satisfied we might appear, our lives are all empty in different ways - which is why we have all gathered here today on Franz Kafka’s anniversary in search of literature’s holy grail – Kafka’s Missing Manuscripts.
For decades scholars have diligently sought to locate his missing notebooks, striving against all odds, and history itself, that they might exist. And today I propose to offer the evasive and conclusive key in this quest. When Hannah Arendt went to Jerusalem in 1961 to cover the Eichman trial there were developments whose shadows, not entirely philosophical, still affect us today. In a never before published or seen interview with Adolf Eichman - infamous architect of the Holocaust and banality of evil’s poster child - Hannah Arendt reveals an even more pedestrian side to Eichman than previously suspected, one that’s so banal and mercenary it’s almost shaded with humanity. But I’m racing ahead of myself.
Before you is a transcript found in Hannah’s upper Westside apartment by her Polish cleaning lady right after her death. This is not the standard Arendt marginalia or Arendt ephemera you’ll find up at the reclusive Bard Collection Library. Nor is it the salacious gossipy correspondence between the Jewess and her favorite Nazi - Martin Heidegger.
He only comes into the picture later on.
No, this is Hannah Arendt and Adolf Eichman discussing something very dear and precious to all our hearts: Franz Kafka and the missing Blue Octavo Notebooks confiscated from Dora Diament’s Berlin apartment at the time of her arrest by the Gestapo in 1933.
“You’re right. This is incredible.”
“Now look who’s interested.”
“How did he get this?”
“Turns out that the student in his class, the one we
met at the bookstore…”
“Yes, the Girl, she was also his part time research assistant.”
“How did she find it?”
“Her parents employed the same Polish cleaning lady that worked for Hannah Arendt.”
“Is it authentic?”
“Wait till you read it.”
He prints out a copy of the transcript and is about to hand it to me, but then pulls back at the last minute.
“Wait. Perhaps we should act it out.”
“I can just read, thank you.”
“Yes. But I think we’ll get more out of it if we perform the text. Quarry the deeper nuances, if you know what I mean.” With exaggerated ceremony he hands me the printed copy. “Here.” Then offers to martyr himself. “I can read off the computer, unless you’d prefer to do that.”
“That’s okay,” I say. “But who is going to read what?”
“I thought I’d be Eichman. And you can be Hannah.”
“Why am I the woman?” I ask resentfully.
“Don’t be a baby. Besides, I’m better at playing evil. Look at my work.” He shoves away from the computer. “What are you waiting for? Get up!”
K meticulously configures the chairs for our re-enactment, setting the scene just right. When he’s done, he sits behind the dragged out desk, with his back to the window. Mine is to the door. I assume the intellectually incisive role of the phenomenological inclined Hannah Arendt. And start.
HANNAH ARENDT: Mr. Eichman…? You wanted to see me?
“No, no. You must make an entrance.” K insists.
“Can’t I just start facing the door?”
“You need to go out and come back in.”
Since it’s easier than arguing, I oblige. But when I re-enter the room a moment later, K is gone and it’s like Eichman has replaced him. The transformation is truly amazing. It takes me a minute before I can speak again, trying to equal his inspiration.
HANNAH ARENDT: Mr. Eichman…? You wanted to see me?
ADOLF EICHMAN: Thank you for coming.
HANNAH ARENDT: The lawyers said you had some very specific questions for me.
All at once Eichman vanishes and Kafka reappears.
“More falsetto,” he instructs. “You need more falsetto to play Hannah.”
“Ok. How’s this?” I repeat myself as Hannah, but higher pitched:
HA: The lawyers said you had some very specific questions for me.
“I’m sorry.” K shakes his head, still out of character. “Do you mind if we start again. From the top.”
“Ok. Fine.” I clear my throat with a cough and take a moment to get back into character.
HA: Mr. Eichman? You wanted to see me…?
“No, no. Could you enter again? It would really help me if you made your entrance.”
What a diva! But we’re still close to the beginning so I grudgingly agree.
“Don’t forget the falsetto!”
I re-enter. Everything else the same as last time. Except that now it’s a little bit later.
HA: Mr. Eichman…? You wanted to see me?
AE: Thank you for coming.
HA: The lawyers said you had some very specific questions for me.
“This is so much better, you have no idea.” K mutters.
“I’m glad,” I say, my voice confusedly high.
K revisits his Eichman persona. I follow suit with Hannah.
AE: I wanted to see you because you’re the only one who doesn’t see me as a monster.
HA: That’s because I prefer to have you take responsibility for your actions. Which were indeed heinous and monstrous.
(Hannah ignites a cigarette, emitting real smoke for once.
Leave it to the intellectuals to light up in an impotent gesture of
Now what’s all this about?
AE: Off the record?
HA: Off the record.
AE: Did you study the case report like my lawyer instructed.
HA: I always do my homework.
AE (smiling): See anything unusual?
Hannah and I are slightly stumped, wearing the same stupefied expression, we raise our shoulders in mutual bewilderment. When she smokes, I cough.
AE: Funny, I thought with all the close readings you’ve done throughout your life, you’d be a bit more savvy. But maybe I was wrong.
HA: You’re in no position to give criticism.
AE: You’re right. Forgive me. Did you have a chance to read what happened right before the Mossad drugged me and took me on the plane?
HA: According to the report, you were returning from the rare book store on Corrientes Avenue in Buenos Aires.
AE: You don’t find that strange?
HA: Nazis are famous for collecting other people’s things. In fact I just got back from Freiburg to return stolen ‘treasures’ to their proper owners. What a mess!
AE (chuckles): I’m afraid my motives were a lot more pragmatic than that. You see, I needed some funds for my wife’s operation. And Mercedes Benz, who I worked for since the war, wasn’t ready to give me another loan. Said they’d done enough for me and I was becoming a liability that could only tarnish their image. Disgusting Bolsheviks!
HA: So you went to the rare bookseller to dispose of some books. That’s understandable.
AE: Not just any books. I happened to have in my possession something of great interest.
HA: Please, our time is brief. Elaborate without being so coy.
AE: Could I trouble you for a cigarette?
(Hannah lights another one for herself and blows the tantalizing smoke out the window.)
AE: Well, I first came across some of Kafka’s writing at the tender age of 15. I was at gymnasium in Linz and bored out of my mind. A hopeless student. My teachers all felt sorry for me, but that didn’t stop them from disciplining me. One day I was kicked out of class and forced to see the Headmaster, who happened to be Jewish and kept trying to convert me through series of private punitive measures, but that’s a different story altogether…
Playing the role of Hannah Arendt, I start to feel a motherly concern for Kafka as Eichman.
“Are you listening?” K asks out of character.
“Of course I am. Your German accent is very convincing.”
“What did you expect? Bohemia was part of Germany at the time I grew up.”
“Ok. Now this is where it gets interesting,” Kafka says preparing to launch back to his Eichman impersonation - when the door to my room flies open and my parents barge in, camera rolling.
“Oh, you have guests!” my mom freezes in place, disappointed that she is no longer the sole center of attention. “Perhaps we should film you later.”
The fact that they don’t recognize me doesn’t surprise me half as much as how happy they look behind the camera with something specific to do. So much vitality in their eyes, alacrity in their movement, whereas before their existence seemed to be marked by a staid spiritless lassitude infected with quotidian resignation. Moreover, I find myself stunned by who they actually think I am, if I’m not their son.
“Is that your sister?” Mother asks K, referring to me.
“The one from the hospital?” my father adds.
I am after all wearing a bandage on my head and speaking in a quavering falsetto, but still I am their flesh and blood and my expectations are slightly higher.
“They just released her this morning.”
I nod mutely.
“Poor dear, she looks so sacred and pale.”
“You can stay if you want.” K offers. “We were just rehearsing a scene from my new book.”
“How exciting! Can we film it?” Mother asks. “Be amazing if we could.”
“We won’t get in the way.” My dad has already raised the camera back to his eye. “Promise.”
“Up to my guest.” Kafka defers to me. “I’m just the author here.”
I shrug that either way is fine with me. This after all is the most affection I’ve received from my parents to date. Besides, I’m tired of always playing a background extra in my own life, a shadowy understudy. Finally I’m ready for my close up.
“Looks like a green light to me,” Kafka concludes. “Film your little hearts out.””
“What a treat, Arthur, what a treat this is!”
Mother jumps up and down, clapping like a toy monkey.
The tally light comes on and dad begins taping.
As Eichman - but not part of the written transcript - K struggles to recall where we left off. The vague act of remembering gives him license to play both parts simultaneously.
K & AE: So where was I?
There is a real issue with the I in that question. Is it Kafka or Eichman? And without thinking, I automatically adopt his confused mongrel tone; like when someone outdoors needlessly whispers back to someone calling from a library or a sleeping dormitory.
HA: The principal’s office. You were at the --
K & AE: Yes! The Jewish principal’s office.
That’s right. I was there waiting outside his office when I found a book by one named Franz Kafka abandoned on a nearby desk.
From the corner of my eye I spy my father panning to a book by Kafka on my desk. He pushes in, but mother interrupts.
“Wait, wait… can we move you both more towards the window. Like so. Use the light to sculpt you. Ok. From the top where we left off.” Directing really suits my mother. She can make all her demands without apology or veiled insinuation. “Arthur. Reset the shot. But less air. Tighter frame.”
“Like so…?” he asks meekly, and presents the new frame for her approval.
She makes a slight adjustment and pats his head.
“Perfect! Brother and sister… remember. The story is in their faces. Just a hint of shoulder, and give me a tight CU. We’ll get cutaways later.”
Then to us: “Go on, you two. Ignore us. Do what you were doing. Action!”
Kafka glows under the camera, becomes more assertive, he is now playing Eichman to the hilt. I am more distracted, self-conscious.
AE: So while waiting outside the Jew’s office I found a book by one named Franz Kafka. No doubt you’ve heard of him.
“Oh this is great.” mother hisses. “Genius! Are you getting this Arthur?”
I can feel the camera dogging my profile, begging me to confess. But I am Hannah Arendt; Eichman is the guilty one.
“Please don’t look at the camera, Hannah!” mother chides with asperity, as if she detects the real undissembled me sitting by the window, revealed in its scathing light.
AE: The book was put out by Kurt Wolff publishing. This was 1923, maybe 24. I could not have been more than 16. Naturally I thought he was a native German, a distilled Teuton, or I would’ve burned it right away. So I’m there waiting for the circumcised martinet known as our Headmaster, and I’m trying to do anything I can but think about the trouble I’m in. So I start reading the stories, and pretty soon I can’t put it down. ‘The Penal Colony’, ‘The Hunger Artist’, ‘The Burrow’ – you see, Hannah, these stories all touched a nerve.
HA – How so?
AE – It was as if this Kafka fellow had invented German guilt before we Germans even had the need for it.
HA: Now there’s not enough to go around. Hahaha.
“Get that Arthur, get the laugh!”
But soon as the camera finds me, I dry up.
“You idiot! What did I marry you for?”
“I’m sorry, I tried,” my father apologizes. “The auto-focus was getting its cue from the window where it’s bright, and by the time I got there she was done.”
“Then go on manual,” she barks peremptorily. “Quick, back to K! Back to our star!”
AE: The man had such an imagination it was almost as if he were remembering into the future.
A plane passes overhead, snipping the last part of K’s words.
“Could you repeat that for sound?” mother asks.
He’s only too happy to oblige.
AE: The man had such an imagination it was almost as if –
“No, no!” our director commands. “We’ll need a little more running start than that.”
K and Eichman nod their ready consent.
AE: It was as if this Kafka fellow had invented German guilt before we Germans even had the need for it.
HA: Now there’s not enough to go around. Hahaha.
We laugh again, as expected, but this time it sounds forced and studied; unlike tears, laughter works much better the first time.
“Did you get it this time?”
My father gives her the thumbs up but I notice that the camera’s red tally light wasn’t on and know he’ll catch hell for it later.
AE: The man had such an imagination it was almost as if he were remembering into the future.
HA: Didn’t you just say that? - I might be Hannah or myself.
AE: I know. But they asked me to repeat it. - Same with K and himself.
HA: You do everything they ask you?
AE: Eichman does. – It’s either Kafka or himself speaking in the third person.
HA: You didn’t call me here to discuss literature, did you?
AE: No, but the stories did teach me how to divest myself of all sentimentality and look at the world with a cold dispassionate eye. More than that, I confess to you they were the inspiration for my life’s work, the incunabula for my adult philosophy.
HA: Murder is not an ideology.
AE: But ideology often results in murder.
“Great! Now I’m to blame for the Nazis, is that it?” Kafka laments.
“It’s Eichman, what do you care what he thinks?”
“Hey you two.” Mother claps her hands sharply; I’m surprised the sun doesn’t just switch off right then and there. “Stop bickering and stick to the script. Please!”
Next birthday it’s a monocle and riding crop for the old bitch, just like old Von Stronheim. We obediently resume our places, attentive to her command.
AE: Who would guess that his work would outlive the demonic curatorial whims of my Wansee Conference.
HA: That’s the power of literature.
AE: You know how many PhDs were there?
HA: One too many to know better.
HA: It takes a lot of education to talk oneself out of one’s conscience.
AE: We thought of the Jews like a division problem at school. How to subtract them in large multiples. Why are you looking at me like that?
HA: I was just thinking.
HA: You are a monster after all.
AE: I’ll take that as a compliment.
Then the room darkens. Outside the sun takes a breather behind some runaway clouds. And in the corner I can see my father standing on a chair to get a high angle of me and Kafka - Hannah and Eichman - at the table. My mother has spread my stained bed sheets at her feet to help bounce more light till the sun reemerges. A little something to remove the sickly shadows dwelling in our eyes. As Hannah, I light another cigarette; the smoke lends rich substance to the air, texturing the indoor light in interesting ways.
HA: The bookseller. Buenos Aires. Please, stay on topic here.
AE: Ok. Jump to 1945. End of the war and I’m in an American internment camp with other Nazis of various rank. Again I am fearful and anxious of what will happen to me. Just like that time outside the Semitic Headmaster’s office in high school. And again I stumble across Kafka’s work. Except this time it’s the blue octavo notebooks confiscated by the Gestapo from Dora Diament.
HA: How come no one knows this?
AE: Like me, the Gestapo soldier who confiscated them was so in love with Kafka’s work that he refused to burn them. But he couldn’t tell anyone about them either.
HA: If it were a living Jew he’d have no problem burning it.
AE: Ironic isn’t it.
My father chortles at this clever riposte. Mother stifles him directly. “You’re stepping on their lines.”
AE: Can you believe it? Kafka’s wishes first betrayed by his lover, than by his mortal enemy - both times with the same results.
There must be a German word for something that’s doubly ironic.
This time it’s my mother who chortles, but my dad is afraid to silence her.
AE: Anyway, when this Gestapo inmate died of dysentery, I took the notebooks into my own possession, knowing they might be worth something some day. Besides, being the fan that I was, I was curious to see what Kafka the man had written. And so, with a little willed incredulity and help from the Red Cross, that’s how Ricardo Klement – a.k.a. Adolf Eichman - ended up with the missing manuscripts here in Argentina.
HA: So where are they now? Does Mossad have them?
AE: You kidding? I offered it to them in lieu of some kind of mitigated sentence. But they said: “We have enough mysteries and secrets on our hands, what do we need this for?”
HA: So where are they?
HA: Who wouldn’t be?
AE: For days before the Mossad kidnapped me I was beginning to get suspicious, thought someone was following me. Pursued both in my dreams and waking hours I found little refuge on this earth. For once I knew what it was like to be a Jew. Eventually I decided to leave the notebooks with the bookseller on Corrientes Ave. with explicit instructions to mail them to you if I didn’t come back to retrieve them.
AE: You should get the first installment any day now.
HA: I did get a package today, but had no time to open it.
AE: A small taste of what’s to come if you help me. The rest will arrive after I give the signal.
HA: Is that why you wanted to see me?
AE: Look, I know they’ll probably hang me. I just want you to do for me what you did for Martin and I’ll get you the notebooks.
HA: Heidegger and I were in love.
AE: Yes, and he was a Nazi!
HA: A boy, a lost misguided boy when it came to mundane matters of the world….
AE: That’s just what he wanted you to think, and what you wanted to believe. You and your little sophist ways. He was a Nazi even after the war. Till the party was disbanded in 1945. He never left. Never renounced. God Bless his soul.
Kafka, as if possessed by Eichman, gives a smart Hiel Hitler salute.
HA: Have you even read Heidegger’s work?
AE: No, but you should read the missing notebooks.
For a moment I am distracted by mother’s conspiratorial whisper to my dad, she silently mouths to him in the background: Oscar time… Arthur! This is it! We’ve got an Academy Award here! A Jew in love with a Nazi. You can’t beat that!
AE: Look, I’m not asking you to whitewash my Nazi past,
or make me Kosher
HA: Even god couldn’t do that if he existed.
AE: I just need your help in rehabilitating my image a bit. I’ve got kids you know. Descendants.
HA: That didn’t stop you from committing your crimes.
HA: I’m not sure it’s possible.
AE: I know you can do it. You popularized Heidegger and championed his work around the world. He might have been brilliant, but there’d be no Heidegger with out Hannah.
HA: I wouldn’t go that far.
AE: Just think of what you could do for Kafka with this new material.
HA: Kafka’s done alright for himself, given he was so self-deprecating. [Pause] Sometimes, you know, it makes me think it was all just an act.
Kafka sheds the Eichman persona and winces visibly at this last aspersion.
“Hey, I’m just reading what’s there,” I say.
“But how could she say that?”
“Please, you two. Don’t break character. Keep going. Don’t stop!” Mother begs shamelessly. “Just stay in the moment.”
AE: Remember when you sent Heidegger, Kafka’s collected works after you re-met in 1950 and what he said about them.
HA: Said it was the praxis of all his thought. Only someone as clearly displaced from himself as Kafka, he said, could understand him so well.
I recall reading somewhere that Heidegger the Nazi died peacefully in his sleep. Whereas Kafka was tortured for months with agonizing pain in his larynx and, when he could no longer swallow, died speechless of starvation. Another reason not to believe in God or justice.
HA: So what exactly do you want from me? What are you proposing I do?
AE: What’s the name of your essay now? The one covering my trial.
HA: It’s called - Eichman in Jerusalem.
AE: Couldn’t you temper that with something?
HA: What do you mean?
AE: How about something like -- Eichman in Jerusalem: A report on the...
HA: …the banality of evil?
AE: Yes, something like that.
HA: I don’t know…
AE: Come on. You’ve seen me in that glass booth. And you’ve seen the judges sitting across from me. We could easily have exchanged places and no camera filming us could tell the difference. For Chrissakes, I could’ve been a factotum in the post office. Instead it just happened to be Gestapo Headquarters.
HA (smoking again): I really just don’t know. This is…it’s…
AE: Just promise to renovate my image any way you can, reduce me to human scale, and I’ll make sure you get the rest of your package.
HA: I’ll need to think about it.
AE: Go home and open your first installment, see what you think then. After you’ve had a chance to read it. I promise you it’ll be worth it.
“Can you believe this shmuck?!” K cries. “Bartering my work for his crimes.”
“Is there more?” I ask.
“Crap! I just ran out of film,” my father announces.
“You idiot!” Mother klops father across the head. “How can you not bring enough tape?”
“I didn’t know he’d have his sister here.”
“Bresson’s Camera Rule #8½ - Always be prepared!”
“It’s okay. Relax, there’s nothing else,” K moderates. “That’s where the interview ends. Fini.”
“What about you and your sister? Maybe you two can improvise the rest?” Mother suggests before returning to scold my father. “Arthur, run down the hall and fetch the Taxi Driver monologue you did last week and we’ll tape over it.”
“But that was-“ he begins to object.
“- not very good anyway!” she completes before offering her ruthless reenactment. “Are you talking to me? Are you talking to me? - sounded like you couldn’t remember your lines if you ask me.”
Just then, and expediently so, the doorbell rings downstairs. Mother leans out the window to see who it is.
“Bankers!” she shrieks.
I feel the hair stand up on my neck underneath the many layers of bandages. A bundled porcupine bristling with fear.
“Persistent bunch,” K mutters.
“I keep telling them he moved out, but they won’t believe me.”
“That’s it.” K stands. “I’m going to spit on them!”
He grates his throat and I feel a gob of mucus enter my own mouth.
“No! Don’t antagonize them.” Father pulls K back. “Whatever you do, don’t get them worked up.”
I swallow the phlegm.
“Maybe they’re not bankers.” I propose in my unsteady falsetto.
“Trust me they are Bankers to the core,” Mother says. Then drops a penny out the window. Immediately they chase down the street to retrieve it. “See…?”
Although I was able to successfully delude my folks this long about my identity, the refined fiduciary sense of Bankers makes me exceedingly nervous - as if they might discover who I really am and what I’m truly worth – the minute they see me.
“Maybe I should go,“ I say, standing slowly.
“Don’t be silly. We’ll go make some tea and matzohs and reassure the bloodletters that there’s nothing to worry about.”
Kafka motions for me to sit back down. Play it cool.
“You and your sister are welcome to join us if you’d like.”
“We can all play Monopoly!” my father perks up. “Us against them!”
“We’d love to, but I think my sister needs her rest. Remember, she just got out of the hospital this morning.”
“Well, don’t be shy if you change your mind. Our tea is very special. Arthur gets it at this special store where they just sell imported tea. You sure you don’t want any?”
Her disappointment is palpable. But why should I care?
“Alright,” she repeats. “We’re leaving now.”
But they don’t move.
It’s like a bad Chekhov play where they always stand by the door proclaiming their goodbyes, threatening to run off to Moscow but instead linger eternally in the wings without actually ever leaving.
The Bankers ring again.
“You sure you won’t come…?”
“I’m sure.” K replies. And I smile wistfully.
“Your loss. Isn’t it Arthur?”
“Yes, dear, it certainly is.”
Doorbell rings a third unabashed time, a charm as promised.
It takes me a moment to reclaim my normal voice. When I do it’s sore from all the smoked cigarettes, my own pack virtually empty now.
“So did Hannah ever get receivership of those notebooks?” I finally ask.
“Only Professor Herschel or his assistant might have the answer to that.”
“He wasn’t exactly outgoing the last time we met,” I now recall.
“That might just be his style. He’s been sending me all kinds of shit over the last couple of weeks.”
“Really? Like what?”
He then shows me the latest Faceboook message from the Professor, the same one I was trying to read earlier on when he exhumed my diary, which I mistakenly thought was his. It reads:
You have what’s mine and I’m coming after it, you suckerfish!
When I see you - you better not be alone!!
“You write him back?”
“What’s the point? I’ll see him at the Conference soon enough.”
“You’re not going!?”
“Why not? It’s on my birthday.”
“You just read his message.”
“We need to find out what else he knows about Hannah and the manuscript.”
“Don’t you think he’d have put that on his little penis-sized memory stick if that were the case?”
“Not so sure,” K shrugs. “But there’s only one way to find out.”
He sits at the computer to compose his reply.
“If you’re going to the Conference, you can count me out.”
“I thought you wanted to help?”
“There are limits.”
“You’re not scared, are you?”
“You’re not the one with letters on your head.”
“We can’t all be chosen.”
“You know, I found another letter when I woke up at the hospital this morning.”
I unravel the fetid bandages to show him my newly emblazoned “A”.
“Wow!” he laughs sarcastically. “ K A (blank) K (blank) - I wonder what it’s going to spell?”
I turn to the window and angrily re-wrap the bandages.
Soon as I see these Bankers exit, I’m thinking to myself, I’m outta here.
“Hey, I was only joking. Come on. Why don’t you take time to think it over? You’re obviously still shook up.”
“I doubt I’ll change my mind.”
“I’m pretty sure the Girl from the hospital will be there. She is his assistant you know.”
Suddenly I recall how warm her hand was the last time I held it atop those white glacial sheets and the mute solace it provided. I sit down.
“In the meantime, maybe you can help me get ready.”
“It’s not a question of what we’re going to do - there’s so much to be done - but rather where we’re going to begin.”
K turns his attention back to the computer and furiously types his cryptic response to the Professor. Then asks me to read it.
I have what you need.
But to get it, you’re going to have to give me what I want.
“I don’t understand,” I say.
“Perfect! Point is to always keep ‘em guessing.”
A shrill whistle permeates through the house. The “special” tea is ready to keep the cold Bankers warm. Everything in its time and place.
Kafka hits Reply and sends his message.