Naftali Herts Kon's Works Wrenched Out of Poland's Clutches

After Struggle, Yiddish Writer’s Work Finally Comes Home

Literary Reunion: Ina Lancman (center) and Vita Serf leaf through the writings of their father, Naftali Herts Kon, at the Warsaw City Archives in March. Tomasz Koncewicz (left) is the lawyer who argued their case.
Agencja gazeta
Literary Reunion: Ina Lancman (center) and Vita Serf leaf through the writings of their father, Naftali Herts Kon, at the Warsaw City Archives in March. Tomasz Koncewicz (left) is the lawyer who argued their case.

By Paul Berger

Published July 21, 2013, issue of July 26, 2013.
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But Kon chose to ignore the limits of democracy in late 1950s Poland, a Communist country and part of the Soviet Bloc. His travels to nearby Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia, filing reports for a Polish-Yiddish newspaper, Folks-shtime, alarmed the authorities. So, too, did his friendship and correspondence with foreigners, particularly Israelis, in Poland and around the world. His activity attracted the attention of the KGB, which sent a spy to Warsaw to befriend and report on the family. Kon was arrested at Christmastime in 1960.

The catalyst for Kon’s arrest was a letter he sent to the Forverts, this paper’s Yiddish language counterpart, in 1960, according to Karen Auerbach, a lecturer in Eastern European Jewish history at Monash University, in Australia. In an essay on Kon, published in Polin magazine, Auerbach writes that the Polish authorities intercepted the article, which was about Romanian anti-Semitism. Kon was arrested and charged with spying for Israel and with “subversive writing.” (The Forverts was the first newspaper to report the arrest of this “acclaimed Jewish writer,” in April 1961.)

Polish prosecutors eventually dropped the spying charges, but Kon was convicted of subversive writing and released from prison in March 1962. He was given permission to leave for Israel a few years later, but he was forced to leave his confiscated papers behind. He died in 1971.

Lancman returned to Poland for the first time in 2004. It took a further six years and several visits before Lancman tracked down and viewed her father’s files at Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance, a not-for-profit dedicated to righting the wrongs of the Nazi and Communist regimes. There she discovered 13 volumes of information about her father, compiled by the Polish secret police.

Lancman noticed that the files contained copies of her father’s writing. She asked a librarian for the originals; the librarian replied that they were most likely in court archives.

“That’s when I realized I would need a lawyer to get to them,” Lancman said.

By chance, a few months later, in 2010 in Queens, she met Koncewicz, who specializes in European human rights cases. Koncewicz had more than a professional interest in Lancman’s case. While studying for his law degree, he lived with his grandmother in Wrocław, Poland. She regaled him with stories about a Jewish girl whom she hid during the war. Koncewicz thought the Lancman case was “something I could do for the memory of my grandmother.”

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