On both occasions that the KGB arrested the Yiddish writer and poet Naftali Herts Kon, it burned his writings. When Kon escaped from the Soviet Union to Poland in 1959, he thought everything would be different — but it wasn’t. When the Polish Communists arrested Kon in 1960, they simply confiscated his writings and refused to give them back. Once more, Kon had lost hundreds of pages of poems and letters.
Even after prosecutors dropped the trumped-up charges against Kon, a Polish court twice refused to return his works. Kon immigrated to Israel in 1965, bereft. “I remember him despairing over it,” Kon’s daughter, Ina Lancman, 71, told the Forward recently. “He left Poland without ever hoping to get [his papers] back.”
Today, Kon’s papers are once again with his family. After a decade of persistent questioning of Polish authorities and a two-year battle through the Polish courts, they sit in 15 manila folders atop a dining table in Lancman’s apartment in Queens. For the family, Lancman said, “it’s a little bit of belated justice.”
Tomasz Koncewicz, the Polish lawyer who represented Lancman in the fight for her father’s papers, believes his victory may provide hope for other Jewish families and institutions that have fought years-long campaigns for the return of their collections from Poland.
Koncewicz, a law professor at Gdansk University, said that although Lancman’s case was unique, other families could use his arguments as a starting point for building a strategy in their own restitution case. “It might have huge ramifications,” he said.
Wesley Fisher, a director of research at the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, said that Lancman’s victory is a coup in Poland where belongings usually return only “with tremendous difficulty and at great expense.”
Lancman has short, white hair and the air of someone who does not give in easily. She said that as a child in the “brainwashed” atmosphere of the Soviet Union, she chafed at authority. “Maybe it was my father’s genes,” she said, “because he was always very defiant against the predominant way of doing things.”
Lancman was born in Kazakhstan during World War II. After the war ended, her parents returned to their home in Chernivtsi, a historic town framed by the Carpathian Mountains in what is now Western Ukraine. When she was 7 years old, her father was arrested as part of a crackdown on the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, a wartime organization that Stalin grew to distrust during the late 1940s.
Kon was no stranger to imprisonment. Born in 1910, he spent his youth in several Eastern European towns and cities. He was arrested once in Chernivtsi, which at that time was a part of Romania, for his political views, and twice in Warsaw for leftist activities.
It was during his time in Poland that Kon established himself as a prominent member of a group of Yiddish writers, publishing poems and essays in Bundist and Communist newspapers.
During his second prison stint in Poland, he was offered a choice: deportation to Romania, or transfer to the Soviet Union as part of a prisoner exchange.
Kon chose the Soviet Union, believing that a great life awaited him there. He arrived in 1932, full of hope. But he quickly became disillusioned with Stalinism. In 1938 he was arrested and sent to a Siberian labor camp, where his sentence was cut short, in 1941, by the outbreak of war between the Nazis and the Soviets.
Kon’s next arrest, in 1948, was more serious than anything that had come previously. He was sentenced to death, later commuted to 25 years of hard labor, for alleged anti-Soviet writings about the Holocaust in the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee newspaper Eynikayt. Lancman said that when her father returned from Siberia in 1956, as a result of Khrushchev’s thaw, she almost didn’t recognize him. “He was… severely depressed,” Lancman said. “He wanted to write, and he couldn’t…. He had, of course, nightmares, and he had a feeling that he’s constantly being watched and followed and that he would be arrested again, anytime, any moment.”
The family was allowed to leave the Soviet Union in 1959, thanks to Kon’s wife, Liza, who applied to be repatriated to her native Poland. In Warsaw, Kon found a new Yiddish literary circle and began writing again. “He became himself, full of energy, ideas,” Lancman said. “And he began to work feverishly to make up for lost time.”
During his time in Soviet labor camps, Kon met a kaleidoscope of victims of Soviet repression: academics, party functionaries, everyday people and hardened criminals. Deprived of paper and a pen, he wrote poems by covering a piece of glass with powder used for toothpaste. Kon mixed the paste with water and spread it over the glass, creating a surface that he could write on with his finger. He memorized the poems before wiping the glass clean.
Now, in Poland, he was free to write down those poems permanently for the first time. “He learned a lot of secrets behind Stalin’s crimes,” Lancman said. “And he felt in Poland he can finally start recording it.”