Walter Benjamin and “Drilling” for Pearls

“Walter Benjamin knew that the break in tradition and loss of authority which occurred in his lifetime were irreparable, and he concluded that he had to discover new ways of dealing with the past. In this he became a master when he discovered that the transmissibility of the past had been replaced by the citability and that in place of its authority there had arisen a strange power to settle down, piecemeal, in the present and to deprive it of ‘peace of mind,’ the mindless peace of complacency.”

–Hannah Arendt, “Introduction” to Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations

Hannah Arendt was a capacious thinker. She tackled topics such as totalitarianism in Fascist and Stalinist forms, the tradition of Western political philosophy, the human condition, international law and human rights, and the destruction of the world in an atomic age. Moreover, as her former students and current readers can attest, her range of knowledge is daunting as she moves with ease among languages, time periods, historical detail, and philosophical abstraction. Yet Arendt was also invested in fragments, moments, poetry, and individuals as a way to remember the past and speak to present political needs. One place where this is well-represented is in her introduction to Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations.

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See You Again

“To my dear Hannah,

In these years our friendship has stood the test.

In this relationship we no longer need to have any worries.


Your Kurt.

New York, April 30th 1945.”

 “Meiner lieben Hannah,” reads a handwritten inscription in a copy of Franz Kafka’s Der Prozess (The Trial), gifted from publisher Kurt Wolff to Hannah Arendt in New York; the book is a Schocken Verlag 1935 edition published in Berlin. “In diesen Jahren hat sich unseren Freundschaft bewährt,” Wolff writes: “Wir brauchen in dieser Beziehung keine Sorge mehr zu haben. Auf Wiedersehen, Dein Kurt. New York, 30. April 1945.”

This inscription stands as a symbol of survival on many levels: from the survival of the names mentioned – Hannah Arendt, Franz Kafka, and Kurt Wolff as well as Schocken Publishing House – to the survival of friendship, to the implications of the date which invite this reading.

Kurt Wolff, who founded the publishing house Kurt Wolff Verlag in Leipzig in 1912 and soon became one of the leading publishers of expressionist literature in Germany, worked extensively with Kafka’s works up until the author’s death in 1924. With the exception of the unfinished, posthumously published writings, Wolff published the majority of Kafka’s works. A look at their correspondence indicates how significant Wolff was in convincing a hesitant Kafka to prepare his manuscripts for publication. Despite his efforts to come to terms with the gap between what the public wants to read and what the public should want to read, a problem which troubled him personally and financially throughout his publishing career, Wolff closed down the Kurt Wolff Verlag in 1933.

Wolff came from a German-Jewish family and, after fleeing to the United States, he started a new publishing house with his wife, Helen Wolff, what was to become Pantheon Books in New York. It was there in New York in the early 1940s that he first made Hannah Arendt’s acquaintance.

Although Arendt never met Kafka personally (she was 17 when Kafka died), she did seriously engage with his work during the last thirty years of her life. Indeed, after immigrating to the United States in 1941 she resolved to ‘save’ or ‘rescue’ many eastern-European Jewish authors threatened by abandonment through an idea for a ‘Jewish Journal’ (Jüdische Zeitschrift) featuring these writers. As Marie Luise Knott writes in her co-authored book with Barbara Hahn on Arendt, Von den Dichtern erwarten wir Wahrheit, this goal was something which, while never reaching fruition, endured throughout Arendt’s career.

Kafka, in particular, represented for Arendt a distinct voice articulating the alienation involved in the assimilation into a new place or society. In fact, after finally meeting Salman Schocken (of Schocken Verlag) in 1945 and accepting a position as a Chief Editor at Schocken Books (which had also recently recently moved its offices from Berlin to New York), her initial project was to edit the first English translation of Kafka’s diaries. Even before that, Arendt wrote an essay in 1944 for the 20th anniversary of Kafka’s 1924 passing, entitled “Franz Kafka: A Revaluation”; she spends the first half of the essay discussing The Trial (the novel Kurt Wolff chose for his inscription a year later). Kafka also appears in Arendt’s essay “The Jew as Pariah”, and she would go on to work with Helen Wolff, after Kurt’s death, for example, to co-edit Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations in 1968.

With all of this in mind, why did Wolff send this particular book of Kafka’s to Arendt, and why at this specific date?

“April 30th 1945” has become a historically significant date:  it is the date of Adolf Hitler’s suicide, marking a turning point and a near-end to World War II. It is unlikely, though, that anyone in New York knew of this on the actual day it happened. For Wolff and Arendt, however, both transplanted German Jews, the date after the fact also connects them symbolically to their survival of Hitler’s Third Reich and the Holocaust.

Postcard from Kafka to Wolff

In a different yet related reading, the date concerns Kurt Wolff’s publishing ventures in New York where he started Pantheon Books in January 1943. In Kurt Wolff: A Portrait in Essays and Letters, he is quoted as having written that “Pantheon was founded on an extremely small amount of initial capital to give me the chance to earn a living. It was an experiment- and since no matter what the balance sheet says on April 30, 1944, a profit is unavoidable- the experiment is a success.” One can read this, in conjunction with the Kafka inscription, as April 30 taking on a new meaning in his life. It marks, in addition to his personal survival, the survival of his first publishing undertaking in the United States, and it now points to his valuable lasting friendship with Hannah Arendt.

Wolff, though Kafka’s first publisher, never published The Trial. Max Brod prepared the manuscript from Kafka’s Nachlass for Verlag Die Schmiede in Berlin in 1925, then in 1931 gave full publishing rights of Kafka’s works and manuscripts to Schocken Verlag. That The Trial itself was not published by Wolff, but more importantly, was not published in Kafka’s lifetime, speaks to this theme of survival in the inscription. The Trial survived Kafka, this copy published in 1935 survived World War II, and Arendt, through her essays and editorial work, helped Kafka to survive and arrive in the public world after 1945.

Wolff sent this book to Arendt certainly not as a reading recommendation, but rather as a symbolic gift. For Arendt, as Wolff surely knew, had not only already read The Trial, but had also written essays on it. Thus, in contrast to other books in her personal library, there are no annotations or markings to be found anywhere else in the book. This particular copy was not meant to be read, it seems, but to be appreciated in a different way.

To conclude the inscription, Wolff writes Auf Wiedersehen. To translate this as the usual “Goodbye” gives this entire gift – of the book, of their friendship, of their survival – a perhaps unnecessarily ominous and melancholic feeling. Rather, the literal meaning is here the more accurate one: “See you again”.

– Kerk Soursourian, Bard College