Kathi Diamant first heard Dora Diamant’s name when she was a 19-year-old student in a German-language literature class at the University of Georgia. She explained, “We were translating Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ when the instructor interrupted the class and asked, ‘Fräulein Diamant, are you related to Dora Diamant?’ I wasn’t doing very well in the class. I had taken the class because I had grown up in Germany and I thought that I could ace it, but I hadn’t counted on either Thomas Mann or Franz Kafka.
“I said, ‘Who is she?’ One reason I responded that way was because I had never in my entire life, up until that point, heard of anybody else with my last name. I asked who she was, and the professor said, ‘She was Kafka’s last mistress. They were very much in love, he died in her arms.’ He gripped the lectern and looked right into my eyes and said, ‘And she burned his last work.’ ”
“How did you feel when he told you about Dora?”
“Oh, very special. The instructor was talking to me. I had a dialogue going with him. My next question to him was, ‘Was she Jewish?’ I remember all the heads in the class whipping around to look at me. I guess in Georgia at that point you still whispered ‘Jewish.’ My father’s Jewish, but I was not raised as an observant Jew, although I had a great deal of pride in my Jewishness. I was surprised at how my fellow students responded — you know, all of a sudden they were staring at me. The German professor said, ‘Well, Kafka was Jewish, and, yes, I think Dora was Jewish.’ And I said, ‘Well, then, we’re probably related.’
“I went running to the library that afternoon. I found Dora’s name in the Max Brod biography of Kafka. I found a picture of her smiling at me up from the page. I was hooked.”
By the time Kathi Diamant arrived in the small college town of Athens, Georgia, she already had lived an out-of-the-ordinary life. Her father, William Diamant, received an M.F.A. in playwriting from Yale. Her mother was an actress. The two met while playing in summer stock in Connecticut. “My father’s family,” she said, “was Jewish and had come to the United States from somewhere in Europe a long time ago. I was the product of a mixed marriage — less than 5 percent of Jews were married to non-Jews in 1950 — and my father’s first Christmas was also my own. My mother was born Margaret Mary and nicknamed Peggy. Peggy’s birthday is December 25, which we call ‘Pegmas,’ and we have developed deeply loved family traditions, such as matzah brei for Christmas breakfast and a Star of David on the top of the tree. My dad’s eggnog also plays an important role.”
Kathi is the oldest of the five Diamant children. Her family moved from New York to France in 1954, where they lived, Ms. Diamant said, “in a huge house in Chevilly, near Orleans. The house is now a hotel, La Gerbe de Blé. My memories of France are limited to running through fields of wildflowers taller than me and walking to the wine dealer on the corner, giving him the bottle, and asking for vin ordinaire, s’il vous plaît.
“When I was five, we moved to Germany, where two of my three sisters were born. I was famous for organizing theatrical events with the neighborhood kids. I produced some real extravaganzas. I joined my first theater company at the age of seven — the Helen Hayes Theatre for Children — and got my first professional acting work that same year, playing Juliette Low, the founder of the Girl Scouts, as a child on a radio broadcast on Armed Forces Network–Europe. Playing Baden-Powell was a young soldier named Gary Collins, who went to TV fame — and now obscurity. My mother played the adult Juliette. My main memory of that experience was being unable, no matter how many times I practiced, to pronounce the word ‘Savannah.’ ”
After World War II William Diamant was hired by Special Services Entertainment for the United States Army, a unit funded by the Marshall Plan. Mr. Diamant served SSE as a theater director. The Diamants moved to Germany when Mr. Diamant was named director of the Frankfurt Playhouse, then the largest English-speaking theater in Europe. Kathi Diamant remembers that during the time they lived in Frankfurt, she and her brother “were not particularly supportive of our mother’s acting career. Whenever she’d leave for rehearsal, our drama would start and the tears would flow: ‘Pllleeessse don’t leave us, Mommy!’ I think Mom would have been in a lot more plays had we not been so dramatic ourselves.”
Ms. Diamant recalled that her parents gave “wonderful theater parties — opening night and closing night with the cast and crew. Their New Year’s Eve parties were just like you’d see in old movies, with hats and confetti. My mother was so beautiful — and she still is. I loved watching her get ready, putting on her makeup and her pearls. But the parties that my parents threw for us, the kids, were for us the most fun, especially on Halloween. Mom designed and made our costumes, which were always the best. Before we all went out trick or treating, the party was at our place, complete with games like bobbing for apples and special effects. Just as Dora described Kafka, my dad is a natural playmate. For Halloween, for instance, he would string a wire across the living room with a paper skeleton attached, which worked with a pulley. As Mom dramatically read the scary poem ‘Little Orphant Annie’ by James Whitcomb Riley, holding a flashlight under her chin to create scary shadows on her face, Dad operated the pulley, making the skeleton dance over our heads as all the neighborhood kids screamed in delight.”
Another of Ms. Diamant’s memories of Frankfurt that has stayed with her, she said, “are the burned buildings and bombed ruins in the city center. When I was still a little girl, we went to Dachau, near Munich, where I realized that had I been living during the early 1940s, because of my Jewish father, I, too, would have been put to death.”