“It’s been a long and difficult journey,”
I said, “from Sun Up San Diego to Kafka’s Last Love: The Mystery of Dora Diamant.”
“I know,” said former KFMB-TV Sun Up cohost Kathi Diamant, the author of the recently published Kafka’s Last Love. “A lot of people thought it very strange that I chose the path I took.”
"I loved my seven years on Sun Up, and I loved the perks — the beautiful clothes from Saks Fifth Avenue, the hair and makeup artists who made me look as good as I possibly could every morning. But perhaps it was because on Sun Up that I interviewed so many people about their passions that made me want to follow my own — my longing to find out about Dora Diamant’s life and to tell her story. Led by Dora, I found myself entered into a world far from television studios. I found myself spending weeks in Nazi archives in Berlin and feeling my heart pound when I approached a shelf where there might be some Kafka or Dora treasure. I found myself at a gravesite in Poland and in the room in the Kierling Sanatorium outside Vienna where Kafka died. I often asked myself, ‘Kathi, how did you get here?’ ”
The short version of what took Kathi Diamant from the Channel 8 studios in Kearny Mesa to Prague and Berlin and Athens and London and Jerusalem is that Kathi Diamant was drawn to those places by Dora Diamant. Under normal circumstances, Kathi would never have known Dora existed. But in the long-ago summer of 1923, events drew 25-year-old Dora to the Berlin Jewish People’s holiday camp for refugee children on the Baltic Sea. Over dinner at the camp, Dora attracted the attention of novelist and short-story writer Franz Kafka (1883–1924). After the meal (Kafka, a vegetarian, eschewed the fish), Dora read to the frail 40-year-old, in Hebrew, from the book of the prophet Isaiah. That evening, a romance budded between the two. Eleven months after their first meeting, the tubercular Kafka, one month short of his 41st birthday, breathed his last stertorous breaths in Dora’s arms.
Kafka’s story collections and novels — The Metamorphosis and Other Stories, The Castle, The Trial, and Amerika — make for unsettling reading. In “The Metamorphosis,” traveling salesman Gregor Samsa awakens one morning to discover that while he slept he had been transformed into a “monstrous vermin,” or insect — “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” Kafka’s Trial opens with this: “Someone must have traduced Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.” Kafka’s disturbing fictions provoked coinage of the term Kafkaesque. A situation that is Kafkaesque is absurd, terrifying, and hopeless. When people are caught — trapped — in Kafkaesque situations they tend to feel a sense of doom, of guilt both earned and unearned, of dizzying uneasiness and despair. “The true way leads along a tightrope not stretched aloft but just above the ground,” Kafka wrote. “It seems designed more to trip one than to be walked along.”
Kafka’s name, converted to the adjectival, began to show up regularly after World War II. Kafkaesque, like the terms angst and nausea and Sisyphean and absurdity, became a catchword in the language of postwar existentialist despair. To this day one regularly hears and reads radio and television and print commentators invoke Kafka’s name. Poor Kafka, one cannot help but think, would feel each usage as a dull object’s heavy blow.
Dora Diamant was born in 1898 in Poland and died in a London hospital in 1952, three months after Kathi Diamant was born in Bronx Hospital in New York. Kathi Diamant’s new book, Kafka’s Last Love: The Mystery of Dora Diamant, has received praise from Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly. The latter writes:
Kafka’s story is well known, Dora Diamant’s is not. She was, as the title states, his “last love,” and the author…has assiduously tracked the traces of her subjects through personal recollections, private papers and newly opened archives in the former Soviet bloc. Dora and Kafka first met at a Baltic resort, and she was instantly captivated by his intelligence and deep sensitivity. Kafka in turn was swept away by the vivacious 25-year-old Polish-born Jew, who had fled her Orthodox family for the broader intellectual currents of Weimar Germany. But Yiddish was her first language and she knew Jewish traditions, and Kafka found her a beacon for the religion his own family had rejected. The author describes at great length the one year the lovers lived together in Berlin, but more interesting is the account of Dora and her larger family history after Kafka’s painful death in 1924. Here was a woman intent on keeping Kafka’s flame alive, who was forced by war and political upheaval to flee from one country after another. Many relatives died in the Holocaust. Her treasured possessions, Kafka’s last diaries, were seized by the Gestapo and have never been found. For 15 years her husband, having served time in Nazi prisons and the Soviet gulag, lived in East Berlin, unaware that Dora and their daughter had survived the war. The remarkable story continues in Moscow, London, San Francisco and Tel Aviv, the far-flung points of dispersal of a family caught in the maelstroms of fascism, communism and the Holocaust.
Were you to knock on the fire-engine-red door that opens into Kathi Diamant’s Normal Heights home and were she to answer that knock, you would find yourself face-to-face with a well-conditioned attractive blonde, her shoulder-length hair tucked up into a black ball cap. On the front of the cap Chinese characters, embroidered in white and red lettering, read, “Wu Style Tai Chi: Return to Simplicity.” Earrings — pearl drops — dangle from her earlobes. She wears a black cotton sweatshirt and black cotton pants and, on her bare feet, Earth Shoes. You’d be surprised to learn that this blonde — her smiling face washed clean of makeup — is a bit more than half a century old.