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Kafka's Other Woman
By Ruth Z. Deming
It was only by chance I had read his “A Country Doctor,” a bit reminiscent of Chekhov’s “Ward 6.” I’ve been a reader since Mama first put me on her lap and said, “Little Eva,” nuzzling my cheek, “you may not understand every word I read to you, but in time you will, and like all the Harsányi’s, you will become a great reader. And maybe like Grandfather, you will also write plays performed on the stage.”
So it was that as I approached the Hoffmann Sanitarium it was the author of “A Country Doctor” — Franz Kafka himself — I saw, sitting shirtless on the balcony, taking the sun cure. What a hairy chest he had, as he leaned back in his chair, facing the warm May sunshine.
They were expecting me. My cough had persisted for too long. I had persuaded Mama and Papa, who were minding our furniture shop, that I would be fine to go by myself. My cough was barely a trickle. I didn’t cough at all when the street car dropped me off in the front of the enormous rectangular building, that, if looks could speak, seemed, with its cloudlike whiteness, to proclaim, “All ye who enter, shall get well.”
When I stepped inside, I immediately felt a chill run through my body. The place was freezing! If you weren’t sick already, you’d catch the death of a cold or, God forbid, influenza that decimated our city six years earlier in 1918.
“Don’t worry,” said the nurse. “We must conserve heat for the upper floors.” She gave me a starched orange uniform and told me to change when I got to the third floor. A short man with bandy legs carried my black suitcase up the stairs. I followed slowly behind him, afraid I might cough and contaminate him.
The little man, whose name, I learned, was Hans, showed me into a small bed chamber.
“Thank you, Hans,” I said, reaching into my coat pocket to give him some gold coins, which he transferred to his own pocket.
“Doctor Hoffmann will be here soon,” he bowed. “We hope you will enjoy your stay.”
First thing I did was look out the third story window. My room was in the back. A grassy meadow, where sheep grazed, spread out below like a green carpet.
The room was sparsely furnished. There was a narrow bed, on which I placed both hands to feel if it were comfortable or lumpy. Lumpy, I’m afraid to say. An open closet held hangers. I took off my long yellow dress, corset, and petticoat and hung them up, leaving my bloomers on. I am terribly modest and feared the doctor’s hands. No one except Mama has ever seen this body of mine.
I became aware of noises. The radiator under the window began to hiss. I could also hear people walking on the floor above me. The floor creaked as if a ghost dwelt there. But these sounds were nothing in comparison to the cries of the sick.
Sitting on my bed in the orange hospital gown, I put my head in my hands as I heard the crying and screaming of patients from the various chambers where they lay sick and dying.
“Please, Jesus,” I prayed. “Please help these innocent people.”
Jesus himself healed the sick. We all know that. He raised Lazarus from the dead.
I am a believer. What we don’t understand and, I fear, never will, is why He heals some people and not others. Were they praying the wrong way? Did they not pray enough?
I have so much to live for. I refuse to die. In the same literary magazine where Franz Kafka had published his work, I had gotten two stories published, as well as a long poem, a lamentation about the only man I had ever loved. Georgio was an Italian worker on Grandfather’s farm. He worked with our draft horses and many a day the two of us would ride together, my body pressed tight against his. One day the man simply disappeared. Never to return again. I try not to think about him.
My journey to the sanitarium in Kierling had tired me out. Removing my heavy black-laced shoes, I lay down on the bed, and patted my starched uniform. I could even smell the starch, along with the steam coming from the radiator. Scarcely had I closed my eyes and slept a few moments, than there came a knock on the door.
A tall man in a white suit entered the room. It was Doctor Hoffmann himself.
“Fraulein Harsányi,” he said. “I had the pleasure of reading your grandfather’s work. Never did Hungary have a better writer.”
“Except, sir, for Franz Kafka,” I said shyly.
He nodded and said I would meet him, “a nice young man.” I wondered what he really thought of Kafka, the Jew. Antisemitism was sprouting like poisonous mushrooms across the land.
The doctor stood above me and explained he would examine my chest “to see how we were doing.”
He pulled out his stethoscope which he gently slipped under the front of my hospital gown. I jerked because it was so cold.
“Sorry, my child,” he said, looking up at the ceiling in concentration. He asked me to breathe quickly and then slower. He also asked me to cough.
“Oh dear,” I said, “I’m afraid if I cough, I won’t be able to stop.”
“A shallow cough, dear,” he said. “You’re in the best of hands here at the clinic.”
Then he put the cold stethoscope on my back.
I looked up at him expectantly.
“I don’t want you to worry,” he said. “You don’t have the dreaded tuberculosis, nor do you have the flu, which is far milder today than the one that brought death to half our city six years ago.”
“Then what is it?” I asked, looking up at his large nose with black hairs spilling out.
“I’m afraid I don’t know. But you’ll stay with us. You’ll eat healthy meals and get plenty of sunshine.”
He opened the door and called out, “Nurse!” I heard her feet pattering down the hallway. She entered in her long white dress and white cap. “A schedule for Fraulein Harsányi, please. I’d also like you to give her the grand tour.”
How I longed to leave this room. It was nothing like my comfortable pink bedroom at home with my bouncy mattress filled with goose down and soft crocheted cushions on several chairs. Magazines were piled high on my bedside table, and on my mahogany desk, which once belonged to Grandfather. Yes, that’s how much faith Mama and Papa had in me to be his successor. We had all saved our money from the furniture store and bought me a brand-new typewriter. If I close my eyes, I can see it now, from this dingy hospital chamber.
It is beautiful, I tell you. “Rheinmetall” is written in italics on the top – I am pretending now to run my fingers over the raised metal lettering – and the ribbon is both black and red. My fingers, even now, bear some black smudges from when I last worked on a new short story.
Nurse Maria opened the door and broke into my reverie. She handed me the typed-up schedule. Looked to be similar print as my own Rheinmetall. “Why,” I thought, “hadn’t I brought my own typewriter here?”
Of course! I came here by streetcar. But I did have my brown diary. Yes, I will try to remember to write in it.
The nurse helped me out of bed and held onto my arm.
“Oh, I can walk by myself,” I laughed.
“Regulations, Miss Eva,” said the nurse.
The hospital had white-washed walls which gave it both an air of safety and sterility. Far-off music played on some sort of Victrola. Was it Chopin? Mama and Papa had an old piano and I practiced well into the evening with the windows wide open, hoping the neighbors on Strassville Street would hear how good I was.
Sounds so silly now. Now that I am among the sick and dying.
The dining room was huge, with cheerful paintings on the walls, which the nurse explained were painted by the patients. Had any of them perished, I wondered. The nurse guided me to a seat at a table near the window. Was that the Danube River in the distance? Soon the table began to fill, until eight patients had taken their seats. Many had scarves around their necks or little white facial masks that hid their coughs. Should I be wearing a mask?
I noticed that no one, including Doctor Hoffmann, shook hands. That’s how germs are spread. It was common knowledge among learned people that a Hungarian physician, Doctor Ignaz Semmelweis, taught physicians three little words — “Wash your hands”— that saved thousands, and now millions of lives, from invisible germs, both deadly and helpful ones, that formed a metropolis on and within our own bodies.
A white linen tablecloth was spread with delectable looking foods in the center. Fresh fruits lay in trays — raspberries, strawberries, pears and apples – and platters of cooked beans of all types — soy, lima and white beans – how they glistened under the light coming in from the window. Several pitchers of wine, water and fresh cold milk also sat upon the table.
I looked around.
“Hello,” I said. “I am Eva Harsányi.”
“You’re sitting at Kiki’s place,” a woman said grimly.
“Kiki?” I asked.
“Dead of lung inflammation. Pretty girl,” she said.
Embarrassed, I looked at the food in the middle of the table and tried to think of something to say.
“No meat?” I finally came up with.
“Eat your meat at home,” said a pretty woman with pulled-back blond hair.
“We’re vegetarian,” smiled a handsome dark-haired man across the table with a huge swirl of black hair that reared up on his head like a proud stallion. Whatever disease lodged in his body, he affected nonchalance.
Clearly, he was a Jew.
“Thank you,” I smiled at Franz Kafka, meeting his dark eyes.
The food was so unfamiliar, yet I filled my plate and tentatively began to taste the food. All these odd-shaped beans. So unlike the magnificent dinners Mama would prepare. Wiener schnitzel, pork with sauerkraut. Oh, well, I’m only here for a little while. Would that it were true.
All eyes turned to Kafka, who, like a prince, was the center of attention. He stared solemnly at his food, fork in hand. He touched a lima bean, put it to his lips, and shook his head “no.” He did the same with a piece of fruit, again shaking his head “no.”
A chill ran up my spine. This dear man could not eat! He would die if he didn’t. His blue starched hospital gown ballooned about him. He looked like a tiny doll among its folds.
I’m in a charnel house, I realized. Kiki had died. Who knows what will happen to Little Eva Harsányi, twenty-two years old. What a terrible place to die.
Quickly, I prayed to my Jesus, who immediately comforted me. “My dear girl,” He said. ”You shall take out your brown diary and record everything you witness.”
Before bed each night, I lay on the lumpy mattress, whose lumps seemed to attempt to eject me from the bed when I lay down, and wrote a few pages with my blue fountain pen.
Dear Diary. A writer such as myself, and yes, I use the word “writer” proudly now, for I have been published in magazines. My “prison cell” is a huge rectangular building, not unlike our final resting place, the sarcophagus. While entirely possible to escape, I would be leaving behind the great Franz Kafka, who I intend to get to know, and also the hope for the cure of my cough, which, so far, has not worsened.
One would never know by the solemnity of this place, that right on the street below are children playing! How envious I am of their bike-riding and their trundling hoops across the sidewalk. Look! Right now a little boy in a green cap is delivering the newspaper to our sanitarium.
Each day bears a maddening sameness. I daren’t disobey or they will have me removed. When I walk past Kafka’s room he is never alone. He is attended by his court, including his lovely fiancée, a Jewish woman by the name of Dora Diamont.
Word has it she has taken an apartment outside the city to be with her beloved.
Every morning before leaving our rooms, the patients’ chests are thumped, blood pressure taken, medicines ingested and then the “cures” begin, starting with breakfast. Occasionally Kafka downs some fruit and soupy yoghurt, made with sheep’s milk. The table mates are very pleased about this. We are all rooting for him.
Toward the end of May, a new treatment has been established. In groups, we head out toward the grassy meadow behind the clinic.
“The salubrious advantage of this ‘cure,’” said Doctor Hoffmann, “is that the sun has nourishing effects.” Our learned doctor told us about a recent discovery by one Edward Mellanby of Cambridge College. Vitamin D, which emanates from sunshine “has curative powers when ingested through diet or through a solution called cod liver oil.”
The doctor continued. “You may have noticed Hans, who greets newcomers at the door. If we’d only known about vitamin D, found in fruits and vegetables, he may not have developed his odd little walk from the disease rickets.”
Twenty of us lay down on folded quilts on the soft grass. We were now permitted to wear whatever we wished, so I wore a dark dress with dark stockings. I will never forget the smell of the ticklish grass mingling with wisps of spring flowers the wind carried our way. I knew my silver cross, which I always wore, held a protective aura around me. Following the good doctor’s instructions, we lay with eyes tightly closed facing the healing sun.
Was it my imagination or was I growing stronger? I certainly thought so, as we all arose from the ground with open eyes. From being outdoors, flashes of light syncopated before me forming patterns like a modern abstract painting. During these trying days in the clinic, I had all but forgotten about Picasso with his triangulated ladies or violins leaping from the picture frame or the German expressionist George Grosz whose naked ladies, with their huge thighs and misshapen breasts, absolutely thrilled me in their oddity.
As we sauntered back into the building, Franz caught up with me. We had become quite friendly. I would often stop by his room for a brief chat with his beloved Dora and his dear friend, the young Dr. Robert Klopstock, a lung surgeon, who was also here for treatment. The two personages, Dora and the doctor, tended him like angels of mercy.
“Fraulein Harsanyi,” said Franz, out of breath. He refused to call me Eva as I’d asked him to. His breathlessness, everyone knew, was from losing his battle with tuberculosis. Even Franz knew this. “May I have a private word with you in your chamber?”
I could not imagine what he wanted from me. Fingering my silver cross, I led him into my chamber and offered him a seat at the desk. He was only too eager to sit down and catch his breath. Wearing black trousers, a black coat and white shirt, he looked ready for the undertaker.
“Fraulein,” he said. “I don’t quite know how to ask this of you.”
Sitting in the desk chair, he fingered his white collar and looked out the window at the broad meadow with sheep in the far distance.
He began with great hesitation to make his wishes known. I was absolutely shocked, as if he’d asked me to practice “sati,” the burning of the widow with the dead husband in India.
Ever sensitive, he saw my consternation.
“Please, Fraulein, think about it. But not for very long. My days are numbered.”
“Come back later tonight,” I said. “I will have my decision then.”
Undoubtedly, the people on the floor below heard me pacing back and forth while I prayed for an answer to his question. There was no question that it was wrong. Immoral. I thought once again of the naked bodies Picasso and George Grosz had painted. The models had shucked off their garments and proudly posed for these great artists. And now I was asked to make the ultimate sacrifice for one of our greatest writers.
“Yes,” I said when he returned to my room. I had opened the curtains so that the full moon shone in the room. Otherwise it was dark. We barely saw each other’s faces when we lay on the mattress, my skirt pulled above my waist.
He smelled none too good, this small man, dying slowly in front of me. Not to sully his name, but he smelled of “offal,” a word he used in his stories. Particularly his breath. His black swirls of hair smelled of Brilliantine.
The pain was horrible, but I stifled a scream. Afterward I could not speak. Shame, pain, horror but also hope spread through my body. He smoothed down my skirt.
“Fraulein,” he said. “I am so sorry, may God forgive me.” He touched my cheek with the back of his hand.
There was nothing more to say. He let himself out.
I lay there sobbing, then looked down at the sheets. In the moon light, I saw spots of my blood and his sperma. Too tired to clean up, I fell asleep in my clothes and my shame, and awoke in the bright new morning.
Quickly I washed myself in the little tub and soaked the guilty sheets in cold water. Rather than feeling closer to Franz, I hoped I would never see the man again, cruel as that may sound. Unwittingly, I got my wish one week later on Tuesday, June 24, 1924. I had avoided his room but learned that two people were at his death bed. His beloved fiancée Dora and his friend Doctor Komstack.
At the dinner table, where his seat lay bare, we learned what had happened.
“You must murder me,” Franz told his doctor friend. Screams of agony filled the hallway as if he were being burned alive. Most of us had heard those screams.
The compassionate doctor injected his forty-year-old friend with morphine. Franz Kafka of the brilliant mind, of the handsome malnourished body, the beloved of many women, was no more.
My body collapsed with sobs and I fell from my dining room chair onto the floor.
Two months after his death, I was discharged from hospital. His seed was growing inside me. After arriving at home, I hid my swollen belly from Mama and Papa as long as I could. Now I was back to my humdrum life at our shop, dusting the furniture, stocking shelves, and selling items that became harder to obtain because the war, later known as World War I, disrupted normal routes of trade.
Finally, it was time for a little talk. We sat at our dining room table, set atop a red Persian rug. White curtains blew in the evening breeze as we discussed the matters at the shop.
After cleaning my plate of delicious sausages and peppers, I stood up and patted my belly.
I cleared my throat a couple of times.
“A baby is growing inside me,” I said with pretend confidence.
They looked up at me in astonishment. Never will I forget the look on their faces.
“It happened at the clinic. One night someone entered my dark room. Who it was I do not know. I was asleep and when I awoke, it was happening. I pushed him away to no avail.”
“We must file a report,” said Papa. “This is a terrible violation.”
“No need, Papa,” I lied. “I discussed this with the good doctor. He knew who the man was and filed the report himself. The man is now locked up.”
I began to perspire with my lie, but my parents believed me.
And so it was that Little Thomas, whom I named after the great German writer, Thomas Mann, was born in early March with black searching eyes and a smattering of light hair. He was uncommonly alert and a more curious soul you have never met.
We lived through the Hitler years which began in 1933 with his election. One man is elected and the earth turns red with blood. The full terror he inflicted on this earth will never be known. Three of the murdered lives were Kafka’s own three sisters, Ottla, Elli and Valli. What a blessing it was that Kafka never knew of their brutal deaths in concentration camps.
It is enough to shake the faith of the staunchest Catholic like myself. I still pray. I must believe. I must believe that Ottla, Elli and Valli have life everlasting somewhere in the high heavens.
At the end of the war, when the Allies had marched triumphant into our city of Berlin, I changed the birth certificate to read the truth. I, Eva Harsanyi, am the mother, and the father is Franz Kafka, a Jew who if not dead already from tuberculosis, would have ridden the boxcars to his death.
Little Thomas has dressed himself. He likes bright colors and wears a striped green shirt with black shorts that stop well above his scuffed knees. He does very well in his studies. This is the day I take him to meet his papa. We take the train from Berlin to the Jewish cemetery in Prague. Our land lies in ruins. The mind simply cannot comprehend. My Kafka would have found wry words of description.
“Look, Mama,” calls black-haired Thomas as he looks out the window of the train. Everything fascinates him. “They still haven’t put back the buildings! When I knock down my blocks” — he looks at me — “I pick them right up so they won’t make a mess and you get mad at me.”
“You’re Mama’s good boy,” I say, kissing him on his sweet cheeks.
The grave yard is deserted. We wander around and I pick up Thomas, who is getting tired.
“Ah, there it is,” I say and walk across the grass, crunching on the fallen leaves to his father’s grave stone.
How unusual, I think. Franz is buried in the same grave as his parents — he detested his domineering father — but it is the shape that puzzles me. What does it look like?
“Mama,” says Thomas. “My Daddy is inside a pointy mail box!”
“Yes, Liebling,” I say, laughing and holding his hand. “It does look like a mail box.”
Nearby is a marble bench. We have a seat and I pull out a picnic lunch from a straw basket. My little lad is hungry and munches on a croissant filled with plum jam. I pull out two small Thermoses. One has milk in it for my boy. The other, coffee for his tired mama. Into the cup I pour out the coffee which sends its steam up into the sky. Sipping slowly, I watch the two men of my life, one deep underground, the other learning who he is and what the world will teach him. He curls up next to me on the bench, leans his head in my lap and snores softly.