Kafka was born into a middle-class Jewish family in Prague, the capital of Bohemia. His father, Hermann Kafka (1852–1931), was described as a “huge, selfish, overbearing businessman” and by Kafka himself as “a true Kafka in strength, health, appetite, loudness of voice, eloquence, self-satisfaction, worldly dominance, endurance, presence of mind, [and] knowledge of human nature”. Hermann was the fourth child of Jacob Kafka, a ritual slaughterer, and came to Prague from Osek, a Czech-speaking Jewish village near Písek in southern Bohemia. After working as a traveling sales representative, he established himself as an independent retailer of men’s and women’s fancy goods and accessories, employing up to 15 people and using a jackdaw (kavka in Czech) as his business logo. Kafka’s mother, Julie (1856—1934), was the daughter of Jakob Löwy, a prosperous brewer in Poděbrady, and was better educated than her husband.
Franz was the eldest of six children. He had two younger brothers: Georg and Heinrich, who died at the ages of fifteen months and six months, respectively, before Franz was seven; and three younger sisters, Gabriele (“Elli”) (1889–1941), Valerie (“Valli”) (1890–1942), and Ottilie (“Ottla”) (1891–1943). On business days, both parents were absent from the home. His mother helped to manage her husband’s business and worked in it as much as 12 hours a day. The children were largely reared by a series of governesses and servants. Franz’s relationship with his father was severely troubled as explained in the Letter to His Father in which he complained of being profoundly affected by father’s authoritative and demanding character.
Franz’s sisters were sent with their families to the Łódź Ghetto and died there or in concentration camps. Ottla was sent to the concentration camp at Theresienstadt and then on 7 October 1943 to the death camp at Auschwitz, where 1267 children and 51 guardians, including Ottla, were gassed to death on their arrival.