Paths to recovery following the onset

Siřem – 1917

Franz Kafka spent the first seven months of his illness on and off in Siřem (Zürau) near Podbořany in Western Bohemia, where his sister Ottla was working for a period as manager on the family farm of her brother-in-law, Karl Hermann. The Insurance Institute dealt with Kafka’s requests for early retirement by repeatedly extending his sick-leave. In spite of harsh conditions and an uncomfortable farmhouse, Kafka endured the winter in Siřem surprisingly well. He slept by an open window even when the temperature was 8 degrees below zero, and before he could wash, he had to remove a layer of ice from the water pitcher and wash basin. He did not suffer from colds while there. He chopped wood and in spring he worked in the fields. He became acquainted with the local farmers and grew accustomed to country life. His illness did not abate to any great extent, however. There began a long and bitter struggle, in which brief spells of good humour and hope gave way to lengthy periods of doubt and despair.
After his return from Siřem at the end of April 1918, Kafka began to work again. In September of that year, he spent a period of convalescence in Turnov working in a market garden, but in October came down with the Spanish flu, which was rampant throughout all of Europe. One month later, he went back to work, but mere four days later fell ill again. This was followed by stays in various sanatoria interrupted by only brief periods back at work. Kafka was obliged to overcome his distaste for and distrust of orthodox medicine and its drugs, as well as the suspicion of sanatorium treatments which he had fostered within himself over the years.

Želízy – 1918

In the course of a single year (1918-1919), Franz Kafka made three visits to the Pension Stüdl in Želízy (Schelesen) near Mělník. He was not as happy there as at his sister’s in Siřem (Zürau), but his health did not worsen and he had no health problems apart from a slight cold. He actually lay out on the veranda in December reading (mostly Czech and French literature) or learning Hebrew. In Želízy he met his second fiancée, Julie Wohryzek. During his third stay he met Minze Eisner (1901-1972), a Jewish girl from Teplice (Teplitz), who was convalescing there after a lengthy illness. He kept up a correspondence with her for a long time afterwards.

Merano – 1920

On his return from Želízy (Schelesen), Franz Kafka spent the period April-June 1920 undergoing treatment at a sanatorium in the north Italian resort of Merano. His employers approved sick leave following a medical diagnosis of ‘advanced infiltration of both lungs’. Kafka combined his sick leave with his annual vacation. After two days, Kafka transferred from a rather expensive hotel to the comfortable Pension Ottoburg. His room had a balcony overlooking the garden and was surrounded by greenery. He could watch the birds as they flew past and the squirrels scurrying about. While in Merano, he began to correspond regularly with Milena Pollaková-Jesenská, who had just translated his story The Stoker and was about to tackle some of his other short stories. In letters to his friends, Kafka wrote detailed descriptions of his fellow guests and recorded his impressions and experiences.

Matliary – 1921

Franz Kafka did not stay long in Prague after his return from Merano at the end of June 1920. After visiting his doctor he had to decide which sanatorium to visit for treatment, Ottla having persuaded his employers to grant him a further period of sick leave. He eventually chose the health resort of Matliary in the Slovak High Tatras, spending eight months at the Villa Tatra from December 1920 to August 1921. At the alpine sanatorium, situated 900 m above sea level, doctors tried to tackle his advancing tuberculosis. The patient lay on his balcony or in the forest pavilion and received a high-caloric diet. Kafka’s fellow guests were long-term patients, some of whom he made friends with, in particular the Hungarian-Jewish medical student Robert Klopstock, whose friendship was to last to the end of Kafka’s life. Kafka often sent rather curious reports to Prague about the other patients.

Špindlerův mlýn – 1922

Franz Kafka spent the second half of 1921 and the first half of 1922 mostly in Prague. His work at the Insurance Institute was frequently interrupted by visits to the doctor and by sick leaves. He spent the month of February at Špindlerův Mlýn (Spindelmühle) in the Krkonoše Mountains in the company of his doctor. In spite of exhaustion, he made at least some attempts to take part in winter sports, although more as a spectator than a participant. A Kafkaesque incident involving his name also occurred there. It was at that time that he started writing The Castle.

The crisis in Planá – 1922

Franz Kafka had intended to spend three months in the summer of 1922 on holiday in Planá nad Lužnicí continuing his work on The Castle. Due to the presumed curative powers of water from the Lužnice River, Planá was the most popular spa in Bohemia, second only to Karlovy Vary (Karlsbad). It was the haunt of Prague high society, including the President of the Republic. Kafka hoped he would find peace and quiet there at his sister Ottla’s, who had rented the top floor of a private house for her family. Kafka however found himself at the epicentre of constant din. From morning to night there was the racket of the neighbours, the nearby saw-mill, a freight railway terminal and children playing below his window. Even the landlady was a source of disturbance. The outcome was repeated nervous collapse: the ‘quadruple breakdown’ that Kafka describes in his letters. It was also in Planá, in August 1922, that Kafka decided to discontinue writing The Castle. During most of that dubious holiday, Kafka was already a pensioner, having been granted early retirement as of 1 July 1922.

Berlín – 1923

During the year following his return from Planá nad Lužnicí, Kafka’s state of health could be likened to a truce before the final decisive battle. Even though Kafka spent most of his time in bed and very rarely left the house, he found his condition bearable, despite the fact that it caused his doctors’ concern. Kafka toyed with the idea that things would sort themselves out if he managed to get to Palestine and start a new life there. He regarded Berlin as a trial stage on the road to his ancestral land, a city where one could live more healthily and freely than in Prague. His dream was soon to become reality, although in a much bleaker form.
In July 1923, Kafka left for the resort of Müritz on the Baltic Sea to spend a holiday with his sister Elli and her family. There he met Dora Diamant, who was working as an assistant at a summer camp for East European Jewish children, and he once more encountered Hassidic Judaism. He and Dora decided to go to live in Berlin together. After returning to Prague and spending a month at Želízy (Schelesen) with Ottla, Kafka moved to Berlin in September 1923 ‘with his last ounce of strength and set up home in impoverished circumstances with Dora at a time of revolutionary fervour, street disturbances and spiralling inflation, when prices were ‘climbing like squirrels’. They lived on his pension, which he had sent from Prague, although they lost a great deal because of the unfavourable exchange rate for the Czech crown. Lack of means forced them to move three times. They could not even afford stamps for letters and Kafka would send postcards, using every last millimetre of space. They heated up food on candle ends because of the shortage of methylated spirits. Every month Kafka was required to write to the Insurance Institute confirming he was still alive. Kafka’s state of health deteriorated sharply between Christmas 1923 and the New Year and by the end of February 1924 he was in a critical condition. He received a visit from his uncle Siegfried Löwy who made him promise to undergo treatment in an Austrian sanatorium where Löwy had contacts. Max Brod came and brought Kafka back to Prague in March 1924, while Dora remained in Berlin for the time being.