I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

In Kafka’s Deathhouse


Franz Kafka is buried in the New Jewish Cemetery in the Prague suburb of Žižkov, but he died, on June 3rd, 1924, some three hundred kilometres to the east (and south) in the Hoffmann clinic at Kierling, near Klosterneuburg on the northern outskirts of Vienna. He was just a month short of his forty-first birthday.

Kafka’s place of death (Sterbehaus) can be visited, though it is now no longer a clinic but a private apartment house. There is a small exhibition in a couple of rooms there chiefly devoted to the measures taken to alleviate his medical condition, a tuberculosis of the larynx which was in fact untreatable. Kafka could not, at this stage of his illness, eat or drink or talk and his cause of death is given as starvation; successful methods of feeding a patient with such an advanced throat condition had not then been developed.

Admission to the Franz Kafka Gedenkraum (memorial room) is straightforward, gratis and surprisingly free of bureaucratic obstruction, waiting, form-filling or misdirection. Just drive into the Hofer supermarket car park next door: it is unlikely that you will have any difficulties with the High Car Park Admission Authority but you might, all the same, call into the shop after your visit and buy something small as a gesture of good will. If you ring the bell at the house an elderly lady who lives on the ground floor will admit you and hand you a ticket and two keys. You then make your way upstairs to the exhibition room and small academic library on the second floor and let yourself in. You will be alone, and on your honour.

Kafka’s medical records for the final days of his illness, showing daily temperature readings, are displayed in a glass case, as are some unpleasant-looking medical instruments used in the treatment of tuberculosis and facsimiles of his last letters to his father and mother in Prague. In another case there is the register of deaths, kept neatly and conscientiously, though written in a challenging hand. The notice of Kafka’s death (you would not easily decipher the name, or indeed any other name) is identifiable chiefly from the difference in the religion column between him and the patients who go before and after him: each of the others is marked with a clear K (Katholisch); Kafka is marked not with a J (for Jude/Jew, as he might have been) but with a squiggle, a squiggle one supposes to represent “nothing”. “And what shall I register you as, Herr Kafka, in the event ..?” “Oh, you can put me down as a nothing.”

In the village of Gugging, now called Maria Gugging, a kilometre or two further up the road that climbs from Kierling into the beautiful Vienna Woods, local doctor ‑ and early Nazi party adherent ‑ Emil Gelny murdered several hundred (perhaps six hundred) psychiatric patients and elderly infirm during the Second World War both by poison (tablets and injections) and with an apparatus he had designed himself to administer electric shocks. The war was a period of crisis and acute shortage in which even German soldiers were being underfed. The inmates of the Gugging asylum, Dr Gelny felt, were just “useless mouths”.

Gugging was also the site of a grand replica of the Lourdes grotto, built in 1923 and consecrated, in the year after Kafka’s death, by Father Ignaz Seipel, leader of the clericalist and anti-semitic Christian Social Party and twice prime minister of Austria in the 1920s. Father Seipel’s distinctive contribution to national politics was to move the Christian Socialists (CS) into a position of total opposition to the Social Democrats and an alliance with big business, Austria’s pro-German party and right-wing militias. His presumed responsibility for the deaths of civilians in the 1927 “July massacre” in Vienna led the left to name him “the bloody prelate”. Seipel was called upon again to be foreign minister in 1930 and who knows where his career might have ended had his life not been cut short by tuberculosis? He died in the Wienerwald Sanatorium, where Kafka had also once been treated, in 1932.

Few of us harbour any warm feelings for hospitals or clinics. Anglophones also often feel that there is something more sinister about a Doktor and a Klinik than a doctor and a clinic, and we know where that comes from. There is no reason, however, to believe that the people who ran the institutions where Kafka, and later Father Seipel, died were anything other than humane and philanthropic persons: the fact that the two Jewish founders of the Wienerwald Sanatorium, Hugo Kraus and Arthur Baer, were either murdered or cornered and forced into suicide by the Nazis tends only to confirm this view.

When Kafka died in 1924 he was the only surviving male child of his family (two male siblings had died in infancy). He had three sisters, Elli (Gabriele), Valli (Valerie) and Ottla (Ottilie). They were all to be murdered in the Nazi extermination camps.

Justice did not catch up with Emil Gelny after the war. He disappeared. Perhaps he had influential friends. We do know that he turned up in Syria and later in Iraq, where he was made welcome and enabled to practise medicine again. He died in Baghdad in 1961.

In 1989 the village of Gugging renamed itself Maria Gugging in recognition of its special connection with the Marian devotion. It is now a significant place of pilgrimage for Catholics from both Austria and abroad. One imagines they must have quite a lot to pray about.

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