Stalemate in Poland over work of a Yiddish author

AP News
Posted: Sep 21, 2011 11:01 AM
Stalemate in Poland over work of a Yiddish author

Free after a decade in Soviet labor camps, Yiddish author Naftali Herts Kon believed he was entering the free world when in 1959 he took his wife and daughters to Poland to start a new life.

He wanted to write the truth about what he had experienced: the Soviet system destroying its own people.

Instead he was sent to prison and his writings were confiscated.

Now his two daughters are fighting to get them back.

"When he came to Poland he had this immense urge to write, day and night," Kon's daughter Ina Lancman told The Associated Press. "He kept saying he must tell the truth about communism, about (Soviet leader Jozef) Stalin."

What Kon forgot was that Poland at that time was also a part of the same oppressive system, though with some vestiges of sovereignty.

Kon, whose real name was Jakub Serf, got a job with a Yiddish newspaper in Warsaw. But the Folk-Shtime, sensing trouble, refused to publish a report he wrote from Romania on the persecution of political opponents and Jews.

So Kon put the text in the mail for a Yiddish newspaper in the United States. The secret security found out and used it as a tool for prosecution.

Kon was imprisoned in Warsaw in 1960 on fabricated charges of spying for Israel, which were later revised down to hostile propaganda. All his works _ poems, writings on persecution in Romania, notes and letters _ were confiscated in a home search. A portion of them was later returned.

He spent 15 months in prison and psychiatric institution, due to insomnia brought on by the trauma of his experience and having his writings taken away.

Kon's imprisonment is seen by some as the first step toward anti-Semitic persecution that erupted in Poland in 1968, forcing tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors to flee.

Kon, his Polish-born wife Lisa and daughter Vita left well before that, emigrating to Israel in 1964. He died there seven years later, never having recovered from the loss of his writings.

Today, Lancman _ who defected to the U.S. in 1966 _ says she is "disillusioned and indignant" as she and her sister hit a wall trying to regain their father's works.

"The return of these documents would be a modicum of justice, of the justice that was never granted to my father," Lancman, 69, said.

They are also of historic value.

"Kon was among many writers who were caught in the wheels of history," said Yiddish literature expert Joanna Nalewajko-Kulikov.

"His personal story can stand as a symbol of the fate of all Yiddish literature in the 20th century: from a time of flourishing in Eastern Europe, and especially in pre-war Poland, through its intentional liquidation by the Soviet authorities, until a kind of decline in Israel, where it was published but not widely read," Nalewajko-Kulikov told the AP.

Lancman, a retired chemist and her sister, a retired textile industry engineer, want to have Kon's writings translated into English and published, to make the work of their father known in the world.

She had thought that righting the wrongs of the past oppressive system would be a formality.

But a year of correspondence with the City of Warsaw Archives, which house the documents, and court action have brought no results _ even though the state National Remembrance Institute has confirmed that Kon was a victim of the communist regime.

The latest court ruling was inconclusive and left the decision with the head of the State Archives, which say they will give proper attention to the matter when they receive a formal request from Kon's daughters. The daughter's lawyer, Tomasz Koncewicz, says no new request is required because the one submitted to the Warsaw Archives automatically also obliges the higher body to react.

Born in 1910 near Chernivtsy, then in the Austrian Empire, now in Ukraine, the teenage Kon was arrested briefly for leftist activity, and sought refuge in Poland in 1929, where for some three years he contributed to the Yiddish cultural life of Warsaw.

In the 1930s he went to Ukraine, but was soon sent to a labor camp for exposing the shortcomings of communism in his writings. Released in 1941, he was evacuated with his family to Kazakhstan when Germany attacked the Soviet Union. He worked at a state-owned farm, but no detail is known from that time.

He spent the years between 1949 and 56 again at Soviet labor camps, among other persecuted intellectuals. He felt compelled to relate that experience.

Without paper in the camp, he wrote poems on glass with the end of a burning cigarette. Each time he would memorize the poem and erase it, to make room for a new one. In Poland, he committed them to paper, from memory.

"It hurt my father enormously that they took these papers from him," Lancman said. "I will keep on fighting until I get them back."