March 06

My Dear Son Franz

Stephen E. Tabachnick

This letter was discovered among Hermann Kafka’s papers after his death. The letter is Hermann’s response to his son Franz’s criticism of him as a father and as a man in the famous “Letter to My Father” of 1919. Believed to have been composed in 1920, it is published here, and in an English translation, for the first time. There is no evidence that Hermann ever showed it to Franz.

My Dear Son Franz,

Your detailed letter outlining my influence on your personal development shows that you are indeed a writer. I doubt if any other parent has ever received such a letter. But, as you might expect, I am not very happy about its tone and contents. Blaming parents for one’s own deficiencies is scarcely a new sport, although I believe that the philosophy of your infamous Professor Freud has recently given it added legitimacy. Perhaps out of cowardice, you passed your letter to your mother instead of handing it directly to me. You may have thought that she would not show it to me for fear of angering me. But there you were mistaken. After some hesitation, she did in fact put it into my hands. This is my response.

You claim that my overpowering presence and allegedly tyrannical nature have robbed you of your physical and mental confidence and have led you to a persistent feeling of insecurity and guilt. Have you considered that your feelings may not reflect the true situation, but only your own distorted view of it? You may be surprised to learn that I have read some of Professor Freud’s writings to see what interests you so much in them. For all I know, your emotions may well be caused by what he describes as an “Oedipus complex.” For instance, you write that you felt inadequately small as a child compared to my adult size and strength. You claim that you were, therefore, embarrassed when going to the beach with me. This, according to you, left a permanent mark on your psyche that you have not been able to overcome, even with a regimen of intense physical exercises. If you had spoken to me about these feelings, I could have shown you how baseless they were. No one watched us at the beach, and certainly no one noticed for a moment how small you were compared to me. (And even if they had noticed, who would have cared about this at all?) Now you are a strong, handsome man, and there is no objective reason for you to believe yourself otherwise, your recent ill health aside. Moreover, it was my duty as a father to teach you to swim. This is a role that the Talmud itself says every father must perform for his son. If you think hard, you’ll remember that you enjoyed your times at the beach very much, and were always begging to go back again. No doubt, your very active imagination and morbid sensitivity are to blame for your strange memories. However, I am sure that you have it within your power to correct your distorted self-perception, if you wish to do so.
As for your claim that I do not appreciate your writing, I appreciate it all too well, especially your story “Metamorphosis.” I may not understand fully what your bug, Gregor Samsa, is meant to symbolize (do you?), but I can clearly recognize you in Gregor, myself in Gregor’s tyrannical father, and other members of our family in that story as well. (Also, “Samsa” and “Kafka” are so closely related that the connection between Gregor’s family and ours must be obvious to any reader.) I thought that you at least loved your sister, Ottla. According to your letter she was supposedly your comrade in arms against my alleged tyranny. But your portrait of her as Grete in “Metamorphosis” is anything but flattering. She, like Gregor’s mother and father in the story, ultimately abandons Gregor and rejoices in his death. I wonder what your reason for depicting us as so uncaring can possibly be, when you know very well that we have rejoiced over your successes, and have strongly supported you during every illness and mishap. Did you simply decide one day for no reason to embarrass us before all the world?
I wish that “Metamorphosis” were the only story in which you portrayed your own family in such a distorted, hateful way. In “Judgement,” though, a father sentences his son to death, and I cannot help but think that this wicked patriarch is yet another representative of me. Do you really believe me capable of handing down such a sentence? You also make your character Georg obey his father’s monstrous command--and Georg, I’m afraid, seems (like Gregor Samsa) to be some version of your idea of yourself. But as your behavior at home reveals, you are far from submissive to me. So once again you have painted us both in a perverse manner that bears no relation to reality. In view of just these two stories, you can understand, I think, why I am not eager to read new tales from you. I need to give myself time to summon up the courage to read them! And even when I do so, I can’t figure out exactly what it is that you seem to be struggling to say.

Instead of inventing obscure symbols that no one can decipher, I suggest that you write a realistic novel about a man like me, who rose from an obscure provincial ghetto to the heights of retail commerce on a major shopping street in Prague. Now, that would be a straightforward story about a real man who makes good, rather than another of your vague, weird tales of indecisive idiots whose lives go nowhere! Such a realistic novel would inspire people rather than leaving them confused or depressed. I admit I have little hope that you will ever write an exciting novel like that. Instead, only God knows what crazy, confusing stories you will continue to dream up.
The mention of God brings me to another of your favorite complaints against me. You claim that I hypocritically forced you as a child to attend synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur although I myself was not devout. Let us be clear about this: I wanted you to attend synagogue, if only once or twice a year, primarily to give you a feeling of Jewish solidarity, so you would have the strength to face the anti-Semitism that is very strong here in Prague. I wanted you to go to synagogue so you would proudly identify yourself as a Jew and even eventually take part in defending us against anti-Semitism. But I’m not sure my efforts did any good. Let me give you an example of what I mean. As you know, I am a member of B’nai B’rith, which defends us against such scurrilous antisemitic charges as that of using the blood of Christian children to make our matzot. You seem to be attacking the charge of the blood murder ritual in your novel The Trial; at least, you show someone accused for no reason of a vague but heinous crime of which he has no knowledge, and who is ultimately sentenced to death for that nonexistent crime. So far, fine. But you refuse, Franz, to make clear in the novel that its true subject is this senseless charge against the Jews. You leave readers to figure that out for themselves, if they can. Only you can understand your own motivation for obscuring your attack on the ritual murder libel in The Trial with vague language and slippery, meaningless symbols. But in view of your own evasions, please don’t criticize me for supposed indifference to Jews and Judaism!

lower image: Kafka's father (from
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