Graal-Müritz is an old town on Germany’s Baltic coast. It began as the medieval community of Müritz, grew to a hamlet with a nunnery and mill, then to a village with shops and restaurants, hotels, a boardwalk and pier for its beach. Train service opened in July 1926. The nearby village of Graal merged with Müritz in 1938, and in 1960 the amalgamated-town received official recognition as a coastal health spa.
M. and I arrive in Graal-Müritz mid-morning, July 12, 2016. We haven’t come for the spas. We’re here because Franz Kafka was here. I’ve been tracking Franz — whose life has become as inexhaustible to me as his literature — seeking his traces in places he lived, worked and sojourned. Müritz was his last vacation destination, a fortuitous one, and I’ve come to believe that every significant contact leaves traces.
Kafka came to Müritz in the summer of 1923 — with his sister Elli, nephew and two nieces — and stayed from July 10 till August 8. He was forty at the time and seriously ill with tuberculosis. Retired in 1922 with a head secretary’s pension from the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute of Prague, in Müritz he was “testing his transportability,” as he put it, for a longer journey — to Palestine. His childhood friend, Hugo Bergmann, had moved to Jerusalem two years prior and the Bergmanns, visiting Prague that summer, were ready to take Franz back with them. He was sure Jerusalem didn’t need a tubercular former civil-servant lawyer, but maybe he could garden there — he’d tried his hand at gardening, and that was part of the plan. If he grew stronger in Müritz, he told his friends, he’d make the longer journey in the fall. The Bergmanns took another landsman back with them instead: Gerhard (Gershom) Scholem — credited with founding the modern study of Jewish mysticism. But in Müritz Franz met a girl.
M. and I drive into town on Rostocker Strasse, turn on to Lange Strasse, Bahnhofstrasse, and park adjacent the train station. I photograph the shiny red Regio standing at the platform — number 642 184 of the Rostock S-Bahn — and imagine Franz arriving by carriage, before the expansion of rail service from the terminus at Rostock. We grab our bags from the trunk of the car, walk back to the Tourist Information Center we passed on the way, and pick up a map of the town. Kafka, I’m surprised to see, is a main attraction, cited as 4 and 5 on the map — at Strandstrasse, on the east side of town. We take a roundabout route, along the gardened streets of the west end, through the woods of Rhododendron Park, down the ramp that leads to the beach: narrow between the dunes and sea.
The beach is long and wild. Wind brings tears to the eyes, ferries gull calls along the shore. The sea leaves bits of jelly-flesh, shell and plant in the sand. Bathers are back and forth — from the waves to their wicker beach chairs. These big roofed recliners, said to be ubiquitous on Baltic beaches, are all facing the grassy dunes — no doubt to shelter sitters from the wind and surf. But it’s an odd sight: chairs lined up like military men all along the strand. I photograph the beach, the chairs, gulls in the wind — transfixed. M. takes off-beat shots of my feet in the aqueous sand.
We walk, the beach repeats: sand and shore, what’s washed upon it. I choose three small white shells for the pillbox I bought at Goethe’s Garden House in Weimar the day before. Keepsakes for a keepsake. We pass the pier, a trampoline — caged and still as a relic; pause by a circular, swing-like ride — children strung from its metal limbs, spinning at awkward angles. This looks more like punishment than fun, at least to me, and I’m reminded of the “peculiar apparatus” in Kafka’s dark story, “In the Penal Colony”; his scratchy black ink drawings of the execution machine.
Sand feeds gradually into grass and we reach the edge of a wood, a path named F.-Kafka-Weg. Formerly the Badeweg, this was the way that Kafka came, to and from the beach, during his stay here. M. photographs me holding the pole with the sign that bears the name, the fingers of my right hand, taut as a claw.
Elli chose for her brother and children accommodations at Pension Glückauf — 12 Strandstrasse: No. 4 on our map. The pension advertised comfortable, well-furnished rooms with balconies or glass verandahs, hot and cold running water, personally-guided fine cuisine, central heat in the dining room, a view of the sea and an “eight-minute walk to the beach.”
M. clocks the walk through the woods — to check for the “eight-minute” match. I lag behind, snapping shots: the trees, the path, M. looking boyish from behind. I imagine Franz on his way to the beach, his lean figure floating faintly toward me, wearing a summer jacket and straw boater hat. Formal for the sand, but Franz is a man of hats and fashion. He’ll probably shed the jacket and shirt, bare his narrow chest to the sun, resting in one of the wicker recliners. The figure fades and disappears before I can see if he’s smiling, showing his teeth. (I want to see his teeth.)
We emerge from F.-Kafka-Weg and turn on to Strandstrasse. I photograph hollyhocks, a typical Müritz thatched-roof house, Zur Goldenen Kugel restaurant with its half-timber detail and flower boxes. We’ve passed the “eight-minute” mark by the time we arrive at No. 4: a plexiglass-covered plaque on a metal stand. The text, translated, reads: “Here stood Pension Glückauf where Franz Kafka — born in Prague on July 3, 1883 and died of tuberculosis in Kierling, Austria on June 3, 1924 — spent his last summer, from the beginning of July to August 8, 1923. From his window, he could see the former children’s camp of the Jewish People’s Home in Berlin, later Haus Huter. He met Dora Diamant at the camp on July 13, 1923. She travelled with him to Berlin and remained at his side till his death.” — A distillation so reduced it hardly tells the truth. I photograph the plaque and the edge of the Rostocker Heath beyond — remnant of an ancient forest of mostly deciduous trees: birch, beech and oak.
Franz had a room with a forest view, on the third floor, at the back of the building. When he opened the balcony door, he could hear the voices of children singing in Yiddish. Their teacher, cook, and counselor was Dora Diamant, a free-spirited woman of twenty-five who’d fled the strictures of her ultra-Orthodox Eastern European Jewish family for the opportunities of Berlin, and was working for the summer at the Jewish children’s camp. No. 5 on the map — the building that housed the camp, was demolished, I learn, in 2007. The pension where Kafka stayed came down in 2002. A new building stands in its place.
I wonder if any stories were kindled in Kafka at Müritz. One can’t know for sure. He wasn’t keeping a diary by that time and there’s no record of sketches. The last of his diary entries was written a month before his summer vacation — on June 12, 1923 — in tiny spidery writing: “More and more fearful as I write … Every word twisted in the hands of the spirits — this twist of the hand is their characteristic gesture … a spear turned against the speaker …” The language is conspiratorial, almost occult, and the entry seems to augur an end to his writing. Yet he did continue to write, and therefore to battle the spirits. Müritz was a fateful stay in an unexpected way.
It was Dora who first saw Franz. A tall, gaunt, dark-complexioned man, playing with three young children by the dunes. She was attracted at once, though assumed he was married to the woman he was with, vacationing with his family. She followed them from the beach through the woods, observing their interactions. Two days later, July 13, he appeared in the camp kitchen where she was cleaning fish for the Sabbath meal. He smiled, said something typically witty, tipped his hat and left. At dinner they met again. He was the guest of honor: Dr. Kafka from Prague. A lawyer, retired high civil servant and author, visiting for Friday night dinner with his sister, nephew and nieces. Franz had never attended a Sabbath meal like this — in a communal hall filled with cheery Jewish children singing Hasidic songs. He’d brought a Hebrew prayer book along and verified which blessings would be read, so as not to show his lack of knowledge of the ritual.
There’s no remnant of this to see, no original structures — apart from the path through the woods (now paved) and the canopied wicker recliners (newer models). Yet I do sense something of Kafka’s presence in this place. It’s nothing to do with structures. He tapped into connection here — general and Jewish — and felt the gladness that came of that. From Müritz he wrote to Hugo Bergmann, “It’s not that I am happy … but I am at the threshold of happiness.”
In addition to letters to friends, fragments of the story of Kafka’s sojourn in Müritz are told — most personally in Kafka’s Lost Love: The Mystery of Dora Diamant, a pioneering work by Kathi Diamant (no relation to Dora); also in Kafka: The Years of Insight, the third volume of Reiner’s Stach’s formidable biography. By Kathi Diamant’s report, not a single day passed after Kafka’s and Dora’s first Sabbath meeting on Friday, July 13, that they did not spend some time together. Franz was no doubt drawn to Dora’s youth and independence, impressed by her knowledge of Yiddish, Hebrew and Scripture, Hasidic music, lore and tradition.
Dora was born in a town near Lódź, Poland. She was of the Ostjuden — Eastern European Jewry that Kafka regarded as embodying the authentic spirit of Judaism. This element of authenticity had attracted him to other friendships as well — to Yitzchak Löwy, the Yiddish-speaking actor from Galicia who’d performed with his troupe in Prague from 1911 to 1913. And to the eccentric Prague-born writer, Hebrew teacher and Zionist, Georg Langer, “the Western Jew who assimilated to the Hasidim,” as Kafka describes him in his diary entry of March 25, 1915. Dora loved the theatre, too, and had acted in plays. She was also a Zionist, with practical plans.
Kafka and Dora met as often as her duties permitted — to walk, talk, and sit on the beach reading Hebrew. Dora had knowledge Kafka wanted and he was an eager learner. She, for her part, was fully enthralled — by his voice, his work, his being, and his interest in her. They shared their dreams of immigrating to Palestine and spoke of what they might do as ‘pioneers’. Maybe open a restaurant — Dora would be the cook and Franz the waiter. They had to have laughed at that.
Franz’s spirits were lifted in Müritz but his physical health declined. He lost weight, suffered headaches, was weak and fatigued. He knew he wasn’t well enough for the rigors of the longer trip, even with Dora by his side. But she had entered his life and revived another possibility. With Dora, he turned his vision to Berlin, the city that had long held liberation allure. “Berlin is the best medicine against Prague,” he wrote in a letter to his friend Robert Klopstock in 1922. Dora lived there, and she was keen to facilitate Kafka’s move to the city, to help make his life there as livable as possible, and to keep him near.
On August 10, Kafka left Müritz for a three-day stay in Berlin. He scouted the housing in the neighborhoods Dora had recommended; she stayed on at the camp to complete her work, praying Franz would join her in Berlin. On August 16, back in Prague, he was visited at his parents’ home by his closest friend, Max Brod. Brod noted that Franz had taken up praying and wanted a set of tefillin. Wheels of change were in motion, the tight “crone claws” — as he had once described the grip his home city had on him — were easing their hold. Dora rented a room for him at 8 Miquelstrasse in the suburb of Steglitz. He left his parents’ apartment and boarded the train for Berlin, where he would reside from September 23, 1923 till March 17, 1924.
But Berlin is another story and M. and I are standing before the memorial plaque on Strandstrasse. This is the point we’ve come to. My photos of the plaque and its backdrop look flat. I’m feeling a little deflated — wrangling with the idea that the point of a quest is not the thrill of a peak experience, but rather the experience of the journey as a whole. It’s the path that sacralizes any given point; the journey is the metonym for the point. I’m recalling something I read somewhere, trying to take it up, for the sake of assuagement.
Strandstrasse turns into Ribnitzer Strasse. M. and I are silent as we walk along the wooded side of the street, heading back to the center of town. We’ve visited the Kafka spots on the map, admired the gardens and architectural quaintness of Graal-Müritz, the wild beauty of the long beach. Randomly, it seems, at a certain point, we both pause and look down. We’re startled by what we see. Turning in the grass at the side of the path is a large black beetle, its iridescent carapace bright in the noon sun. “Gregor!” we exclaim simultaneously — meaning Gregor Samsa, the ‘human insect’ protagonist of Kafka’s, The Metamorphosis; the creature Gregor wakes up as in the first, fantastical sentence of the novella. The beetle before us circles in the ferns, as if to show off his shiny coat, not trying at all to elude us. I pull out the camera and snap. The digits on his right foreleg look almost like little fingers — skillful at gripping. I can’t remember ever thinking I’d seen a lovelier bug. He feels like a peak to me, an intensity, a point.
We mull the incident over lunch. M. is generally skeptical. But the sudden appearance of this big beetle, out of the blue, strikes us both as remarkable. We’d both sensed its presence before we looked down. We called out “Gregor” together and “Gregor” let himself be photographed, as if by way of proof. To me this feels like a visitation from literature, a stand-in for the man, an affirmation of his presence for us in this place. M., less effusive as always, wants to get back on the road, and googles our next destination: Lübeck, west-southwest on Highway 20. Ninety minutes till arrival, if the way is clear.
Until he came to Müritz, Kafka hadn’t been to the seaside for years. Not since 1914, when he traveled to Lübeck after what he called the “tribunal” at the Askanischer Hof Hotel in Berlin — where he was taken to task by his fiancée, Felice Bauer, in the company of others, and their first engagement came to an end. Lübeck was a consolation vacation. Franz needed to get away and decompress. He left Berlin from the Lehrter Station (now the Hauptbahnhof), arrived in Lübeck on the night of July 27 and stayed at the Hotel Kaiserhof on the Trave. He recorded this in his diary, without a hint of contrition. He went for a walk on the Old City Wall, ate at the Hansa dairy, visited Travemünde on Lübeck Bay — with its “view of the beach” and “mixed bathing.” “My bare feet struck people as indecent,” he projected.
The Hotel Kaiserhof, built in 1898, still stands — restored yet faded — and I’d booked us a room for the night of July 12. We check in, late afternoon, and set out to explore; cross the bridge over the Trave and enter the Old City. We visit the great two-turreted Holstentor (Holsten Gate) — emblem of Lübeck, built in 1477; Gothic Marienkirche (St. Mary’s Church) with its high brick vault — tallest in the world; and view the lay of the land from the tower of Petrikirche (St. Peter’s Church). The Hansa dairy is no longer extant. From what we’re told at the Tourist Information Center, MacDonald’s has taken its place. Lübeck, a Hanseatic port, is a stately place. Kafka came and went from here, by ferry, to Marielyst — to continue vacationing with his writer friend Ernst Weiss (and Weiss’s girlfriend) at a small resort with sandy beaches on the Danish island of Falster. Lübeck, it seems, does not remember Franz. He stayed at Hotel Kaiserhof, but there’s no commemorative wall plaque, no bronze bust on a stand in the foyer. No literary or fateful traces either. If not for his ‘private writings’, we would not know he’d been here. His intersection with the city, it seems, was evanescent, and washed away.
We pack up early morning, July 13. It occurs to me that this is the same day that Franz and Dora met in Müritz, 93 years ago. I’m warmed by the thought of this little convergence. It feels like a checkpoint on the course I’m on. We leave the Kaiserhof and Lübeck before the sun is up. We’re heading south to Berlin, the inland city that Kafka called the “antidote to Prague.”
All photographs by Elana Wolff (author)