Dora Diamant was Franz Kafka’s last love, fled to Britain to escape persecution, suffered wartime internment, and devoted her final years to working in the East End to preserve Yiddish language and culture. PROFESSOR KATHI DIAMANT, her biographer, tells her extraordinary story. On May 26 we have a day of events celebrating her life.
Seventy-five years ago, Dora Diamant (Dymant-Lask), a refugee from Hitler and Stalin, was arrested from her flat on Carysfort Road in Stoke Newington, north London, along with her 6-year-old daughter Marianne. Three days earlier, a secret memorandum had gone out from the Home Office, under Winston Churchill's orders, to all chief constables in Britain. Early on the morning of May 27, 1940, as the world's eyes focused on the evacuation of Allied forces from the beaches at Dunkirk, police knocked on Dora's door and thousands of other doors. Dora was told she could pack one suitcase before they were arrested and locked up behind the grim gates of Holloway Prison. Dora's crime: a German passport.
Classified as dangerous enemy aliens, Dora and Marianna were deported three days later to the Isle of Man and interned at the Women's Detention Camp at Port Erin. On the ship transporting Britain's enemy aliens were other innocent women, Jewish refugees from Hitler or Stalin, or, as in Dora's case, both. Over 3,200 women and children were deported from the British mainland on those last days of May 1940, including Hanni Lichtenstern (Johanna Metzger-Lichtenstern), a gifted singer from Berlin, who met Dora and Marianne on the journey to the Isle of Man. They quickly became friends. Hanni had come to London on a domestic permit to escape Nazi Germany. Her crime was the same as Dora's: a German passport.
In Berlin, where Dora lived from 1920 to 1936, Dora's crime was twofold: she was a Jew and a member of the KPD, the German Communist Party. She was an actress in a KPD agitprop street theatre troupe, and helped her husband, Lutz Lask, publish the KPD newspaper, Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag), which was illegal under the Nazis. In 1938, in Sevastopol, her last official address before Carysfort Road, she was the wife of a criminal – Lask, convicted without a trial, was imprisoned in the gulag as a Trotskyite saboteur. While her nationality and property had been stripped from her, she herself had escaped arrest. Until now.
After a mysterious, truly miraculous and harrowing journey though Nazi-occupied Europe that lasted months, crossing from the Hook of Holland to Harwich eight or nine times before they were admitted, Dora and her daughter finally reached safety in England in 1939, exactly a week before Germany invaded Poland. But a year later, their haven turned into a trap. Dora would be imprisoned on the Isle of Man for over a year, and it would be still longer before she could return to London.
As with everything else in her life, she made the most of it. In the camp, Dora organised theatre and poetry readings for the internees, with variety shows and events to help keep spirits up and to preserve what she could of the Yiddish culture and language she loved.
Dora and her daughter Marianna in Russia, c.1935. Marianna’s name is also on Dora's tombstone in East Ham. She died in London in 1984 and was cremated. Her ashes are at Golders Green cemetery. Photo: Lask Collection
Born into a strict Hassidic family in Poland in 1898, Dora ran away after the First World War and went to Berlin with the goal of emigrating to Palestine to help build a Jewish homeland. On the Baltic Sea in the summer of 1923, she met and fell in love with Franz Kafka, who, but only after his death, would be proclaimed a literary genius. Until he died in her arms 11 months later, they lived a Bohemian idyll; it was the happiest period of their lives. She was the only woman with whom he lived, and her perspective is critical to a fuller understanding of Kafka's writing. Her story is considered important because of the role she played in the last year of Kafka's life.
As Kafka's influence on our culture continues to grow almost a century after his death, awareness of Dora's life and her view of Kafka expands, too.
When Dora was released and returned to London in 1942, she found a new purpose on the bombed streets of the once vibrant Jewish East End: the preservation of the Yiddish Language, a cause to which she devoted the last years of her life. According to an old friend from Berlin, the Yiddish poet Avrom Stencl, she helped co-found of the Friends of Yiddish, and wrote theatre reviews and articles for his Yiddish journal, Loshn un Lebn (Language and Life).
With Avrom Stencl, the Yiddish poet, in 1950. They co-founded the first version of what became the Friends of Yiddish while living in Berlin in the 1930s. Later the group reorganised in London and was highly active in the East End.
She arranged lectures at the Shabbat afternoons at Toynbee Hall, reading from Yiddish literature, especially the classics.
In dark performance halls in Whitechapel, Dora continued to wage a battle "against forgetting". She urged the Jewish community on to greater creativity and artistic expression. She produced and directed conferences, meetings, and shows in which she acted several parts, as one observer wrote, "deploying in front of a public to whom ancient, almost forgotten emotions had to be recalled".
Dora died at the age of 54 in Plaistow Hospital in August 1952, and was buried in an unmarked grave at East Ham Jewish Cemetery at Marlow Road. A memorial stone honoring Dora and Marianne was erected in 1999, with 75 people from around the world attending the celebration, including newly discovered family in Israel and Berlin.
Dora's story might have been lost for ever. I first heard her name in a German literature class in 1971, translating Kafka's The Metamorphosis, when my teacher asked me if I was related to Dora. I promised to find out, and let him know.
At the library, her story ended in 1924 with Kafka's death at the age of 40. She disappeared from the public record and from Kafka's timeline, which continues on in literary form until today. While I never discovered the answer to my teacher's question, it provoked a lifelong quest to discover what happened to Dora, and to uncover an extraordinary life shrouded in mystery.
Over the next decades, I continued my search for Dora. Through the discovery of her own letters, diaries and publications, and interviews with her closest friends, I was able to help reclaim her indomitable spirit. Her biography, Kafka's Last Love, first published in the UK by Secker and Warburg in 2003, is now incorporated into the Kafka literature, and has been translated in several other languages, most recently, in Albanian and Turkish, with more to come.
Without Dora's friends, Dora's story would never been known – friends who also had extraordinary and meaningful lives. There was Marianne Steiner, Kafka's niece, who until her death in 2000, worked to preserve Kafka's papers and legacy. After their reunion in London in the late 1940s, Mrs. Steiner became Dora's good friend and supporter, and was at Dora's bedside when she died.
For a decade before he died in 2005, Majer Bodanski would recount the magical afternoons he had spent listening to Dora read at meetings of the Friends of Yiddish. Ottilie McCrea, who helped care for Marianne, offered personal insights into their postwar life in London.
Without Dora's friend, Hanni Lichtenstern, Dora's biography could never have been written. When Hanni died at age 95 on March 22, 2012 her obituary summarised her eventful life, her escape from Hitler's Berlin to London, to the journey to internment on the Isle of Man, where she met Dora, to her career as a gifted vocalist.
Dora Diamant's great niece, Ruth Lask Kessintini of Berlin, Professor Diamant, and Dora's late nephew Zvi Diamant of Israel on the afternoon of Dora's stone setting, on August 11 1999. The memorial service was held on August 15, 1999, the 47th anniversary of her death. The inscription on the memorial stone reads: “Who knows Dora knows what love means”.
After our first meeting in 1990, Hanni became my friend, too, and generously shared her diaries and journals with me, even accompanying me to the Isle of Man in 2000, 60 years after she was interned there, to help me understand what life was like in those dark days. But, most importantly for Dora's biography, Hanni was a diligent and gifted translator, who translated all Dora's discovered letters, diaries, articles from German, Hebrew and Yiddish, making Dora's words accessible to me, and to the world. Without Hanni Lichtenstern, we could never fully know Dora.
So as we plan our celebration of Dora's life and spirit on May 26, her determination to live and thrive, her devotion to that which she loved, we must also celebrate the memories of those remarkable and extraordinary people who helped make the telling of her story possible. In honouring Dora, we remember them, too. In researching and writing Dora's life, I have learnt two things: love does not die, and we are all connected. It is our connection to their memories that "Dora Diamant Day" celebrates. As Kafka said, "We won't do anything without others."
Kathi Diamant is the Director of the Kafka Project at San Diego State University and the author of Kafka's Last Love: The Mystery of Dora Diamant. © 2015 Kathi Diamant.
A postcard from Bedzin, Poland, Dora’s home town