Franz Kafka was born in Prague on July 3, 1883, the son of Hermann and Julie Kafka. The oldest, he had three surviving younger sisters. Valli, Elli, and Ottla. His father was a self-made middle class Jewish merchant, who raised his children in the hope of assimilating them into the mainstream society of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The official ruling language of the empire was German, so Franz attended German grammar school (Volksschule am Fleischmarkt), and later the German Gymnasium (Altstädter Deutsches Gymnasium).
Kafka studied law at the Deutsche Karl-Ferdinands-Universität of Prague starting in 1901. At the end of his first year of studies, Kafka met Max Brod, a fellow law student who became a close friend for life.
He finished his Doctor of Law degree in Prague, studying at the German language University (Die deutsche Universität) there. He initially gained employment at a private insurance firm Assicurazioni Generali and then with the Arbeiter-Unfall-Versicherungs-Anstalt für das Königreichs Böhmen in Prague.
Kafka’s job at the Worker’s Accident Insurance provided him with a steady income and “regular” office hours, so that he could dedicate his evenings to writing. His diaries contain continuing accounts of his restlessness and sleeplessness, as he would work all night writing, only to return to the office for the next day of work, thoroughly exhausted.
After seeing a Yiddish theatre troupe perform in October 1911, Kafka “immersed himself in Yiddish language and in Yiddish literature.” This interest also served as a starting point for his growing exploration of Judaism.
Kafka grew up as a German-speaking Jew. He was deeply fascinated by the Jews of Eastern Europe, who he thought possessed an intensity of spiritual life that was absent from Jews in the West. His diary is full of references to Yiddish writers. Yet he was at times alienated from Judaism and Jewish life. On January 8, 1914, he wrote in his diary:
In his adolescent years, Kafka declared himself an atheist.
Around 1915, Kafka received his draft notice for military service in World War I, but his employers at the insurance institute arranged for a deferment because his work was considered essential government service. He later attempted to join the military but was prevented from doing so by medical problems associated with tuberculosis, with which he was diagnosed in 1917.
In 1918, the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute put Kafka on a pension due to his illness, for which there was no cure at the time, and he spent most of the rest of his life in sanatoriums.
Although he spoke and wrote Czech fluently throughout his life, his literary work was all completed in German. He is known to have started writing at an early age, but all of his earliest attempts were later destroyed.
His first published work came in 1907, and he continued to publish throughout the next seventeen years, but most of his works were published posthumously by Max Brod.
Kafka’s relationship to his father dominates all discussions of both his life and his work. See his Brief and den Vater to get a feel for the relationship between the thin, intellectual, and awkward Franz, and the robust, loud, and military corporal father. The ideas of “father” and “family” permeate the fabric of many of Kafka’s texts, either directly as in Das Urteil or Die Verwandlung or more abstractly as in the cases of his two novels The Trial and The Castle (which remained unpublished during his lifetime).
Kafka considered moving to Palestine. He studied Hebrew while living in Berlin, hiring a friend of Brod’s from Palestine to tutor him and attending Rabbi Julius Grünthal’s and Rabbi Julius Guttmann’s classes in the Berlin Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums (College for the Study of Judaism).
Toward the end of his life, Kafka sent a postcard to his friend Hugo Bergman in Tel Aviv, announcing his intention to emigrate to Palestine. Bergman refused to host Kafka because he had young children and was afraid that Kafka would infect them with tuberculosis.
Kafka suffered from laryngeal tuberculosis, which worsened in March 1924. He died in a sanatorium outside Vienna on June 3, 1924. His body was brought back to Prague where he was buried.
Kafka never married and was virtually unknown during his lifetime.
Photo: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.