Franz Kafka lived in Berlin from September 1923 to March 1924. After a walk along Unter den Linden boulevard, he noted in his diary on 27 July 1914: „Here you see people who have time, who are out for pleasure.“ Whether he also visited the newly opened building of today’s Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin is not known. What is known, however, is his enthusiasm for the library of the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums (Higher Institute for Jewish Studies).

Kafka and the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies in Berlin

Opened in 1872, the Institute was an autonomous Jewish academic institution that was not dependent on any government or religious organisation. Many of its students came from Eastern Europe and had attended Jewish educational institutions there. They had a much better knowledge of the Hebrew language and Jewish scriptures than Franz Kafka, who came to the institute out of interest in his Jewish heritage. Both the teaching and research activities as well as the maintenance of the building erected in 1907 at Artilleriestr. 14 (today: Tucholskystr. 9) were financed solely by donors and patrons. In the crisis-ridden, even more hectic metropolis, the university was another place of refuge for Kafka alongside his suburban home:

To me the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies is a refuge of peace in wild and woolly Berlin and in the wild and woolly regions of the mind. […] A whole building of beautiful lecture halls, large library, peace, well heated, few students and everything free of charge. Admittedly, I am not a proper student, am only in the preparatory school and have only one teacher there, moreover go seldom, so that in the long run all the glory evaporates again; but even though I am not a student, the school exists and is a fine place and basically not at all fine, but rather odd to the point of grotesquerie and beyond that to the point of intangible delicacy (namely, the liberal-reformist tone and scholarly aspects of the whole thing).

To Robert Klopstock, 19 December 1923

Kafka was quite a remarkable figure amongst the students. The composer Josef Tal, son of a rabbi who taught at the Institute, remembers that his father once even invited this particular student home for coffee. Kafka sought conversation, preferably in Hebrew, and stocked up on Hebrew reading in the library. Plagued by rising inflation, studying at the Institute was a much appreciated free activity for him.

Quoted and translated from: Hans-Gerd Koch: Kafka in Berlin. 2. Aufl., Berlin 2015, S. 129-130.

The history of the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies and its collection, which was lost as a result of the Nazi crimes, is the subject of the project Library of Lost Books of the Leo Baeck Institute.


das Gebäude der Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums im Jahr 1936.

Building of the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums (Higher Institute for Jewish Studies) in 1936

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