Mention the name “Franz Kafka” and what immediately comes to mind?
For most, it would be the giant cockroach from his short story “The Metamorphosis.” For others it might be terms like alienation, existential angst, surrealism, and bureaucratic nightmares. But how many would answer, “Kindness”?
One of my favorite stories from Kafka’s life was his encounter with a young girl in a local park while he was living in Berlin. As he was strolling along through the park with his fiancée , Dora, they came upon a disconsolate young girl. She was in tears and Kafka stopped to find out what was wrong. The girl informed him that she had lost her favorite doll.
“Please do not mourn,” he told her, “your doll has gone off on a trip”
The little girl was confused, “How do you know that?”
“Because she told me so,” Kafka replied, “in a letter.”
Naturally suspicious, the girl asked, “Can I see the letter?”
“I’m afraid I left it at home, but if you will be in the park again tomorrow, I will bring the letter with me so you can read it.” That night, Kafka sat down at his desk and, with the same intensity with which he wrote his stories, he began composing a letter from the doll.
The very next day, Kafka and Dora return to the park and find the little girl. She sees him and asks, “Did you bring the letter?” He takes the letter from his coat pocket, but since the girl is too young to know how to read, they sit down on a park bench and Kafka reads it to her. In the letter, the doll tells the girl, “Please do not mourn for me. I have gone on a trip around the world, which is something I have always longed to do. But do not worry, I will write you of my adventures.”
With that very line, Kafka committed himself to writing the little girl letters from the doll. Why? Simply to console this child. And he does, every night he sits down and undertakes the task of writing a letter from somewhere new and of the experiences that this doll was having in a new land or city. He pays close attention to details, he makes the letters lively, funny, and loving.
Every day for three weeks, Kafka returns to the park with a new letter from the doll for the little girl. The doll grows up, meets new people, has new experiences, but assures the girl of her love for her. As Kafka is writing these letters, he begins to wonder how he is going to end it, as he must help the child understand that the doll is never coming back. Little by little, he adds complications to the doll’s life and then, he comes up with a satisfactory reason, the doll has met someone and is getting married. In the letter, the doll describes this young male doll and of their engagement and their wedding ceremony in the country, as well as the house where they will live.
By the last letter, the girl is no longer sad. Kafka’s letters from the doll have helped her heal from the loss. Seeing a child in pain, he was moved to the point of wanting to help her, not just to get her to stop crying, but to provide a way for her to feel less alone (something amazing from an author best known for his isolated characters). How many of us would go to such trouble for a child that was not our own?
Whenever I think of this story, the words that come to my mind are the opposite of what mostly comes to mind when I read Kafka: they are compassion, empathy, kindness and love. This story is one of grace and gentleness. It’s astounding that this author, in the last year of his life, would take the time to not only write one letter, but a letter for every day of the week for three weeks just to help a child go from grieving to healing.
An author who so often wrote of hopelessness, gave a child hope.
“Youth,” Kafka wrote, “is happy because it has the capacity to see beauty. Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.” In that moment, with that little girl, Franz Kafka saw the beauty of how the imagination can help another heal from their hurt. He offered his gift into the service of restoring a child’s fear of being abandoned into one of not being forgotten, but loved dearly by a favorite doll. What kind of an impact did this make on the girl? I cannot help but wonder if, as an adult and a mother, she recalled this small part of her young life with not only gratitude but amazement that a complete stranger would take the time to comfort the sorrows of a little girl. Did she recall this moment when, perhaps, her own daughter lost a favorite doll?
Hopefully, as I go about my own days, if I see someone else suffering, I will stop and have the kindness of Kafka.