January 14, 2013
Poems, espionage and the communists
It is a rare situation that you imprison poetry. However, this is exactly what has happened to the works of Naftali Hertz Kon – a Jewish poet accused of espionage.
The poems are currently being stored in the State Archive in Milanówek, not far away from Warsaw. They might occupy several boxes together with photographs and other items collected from the author’s house. All that content ended up in a yellowish building once the trial against Naftali Hertz Kon has been closed in 1962. His case was brought to the court due to the ideas contained in his writings – allegedly subversive articles.
If not the daughter of Hertz, Ina Lancman, the boxes would have been surely forgotten. The issue was interesting enough to catch attention of a renowned Polish lawyer, prof. Tomasz Koncewicz, who until recently has been vainly trying to bring the poetry back to the real world, outside of the communist buildings in Milanówek. He has submitted countless letters to the institutions that have been engaged in the issue but it seems that nobody wanted to assume responsibility for the “arrested poetry”.
Who was Hertz? He was born in Storożyniec in 1910 (Bukovina region, Ukraine today), close to Chernivtsi a small Jewish world of his times. People used to speak Yiddish and the day off at school was not Sunday but Saturday. Herz was a gifted child who spoke several languages and his memory was said to be remarkable. His debut took place in Chernivtsi, where he was writing for “Chernivtsi Blater” – a leftist anti-Zionist magazine related to Bund (General Jewish Labour Party). His calling for revolution is quickly spotted by the Romanian secret police agency Securitate. The young author is arrested couple of times and finally flees to Vienna. There he changes his name and becomes Jakub Serf. After that he is ready to head for Warsaw, the centre of the Jewish-Yiddish world. Countless discussion, vivid cultural life and the inspiring atmosphere of the Jewish Association of Writers and Journalists – this was the atmosphere that inseminated Jakub. There he has found his love and future wife – Liza Goldman. They move together to Kharkiv in 1933 not knowing yet what blunt future awaits them. The beginning is light and promising. Jakub publishes two volumes of his poetry, simultaneously in USSR, USA and Poland, Liza gives birth to their first doughter, Vita. Four years later, the Soviets decide to come to terms with all the minorities living in the country. Jews are among those who the state will deal with. Jakub is convicted for three years in a labour camp. The court claims that he was engaged in passing anti-Soviet information to Jewish journalists in Poland and the US. When Hitler crosses the USSR’s border, Jakub, Liz and their daughter are evacuated to Kazakhstan. The second girl is born – Lenina (Ina). During the war period in Moscow a Jewish Antifascist Committee is established. Stalin needs Jewish influences and money. The Serf family moves close to Moscow and Jakub is employed to document extermination of Jews in his native area. Finally they settle back in Chernivtsi and live a peaceful, prosperous life. The idyllic period ends in 1949, when Jakub is taken by the police. Stalin changes his mind and Jews are not only not needed any more; they are posing serious threat to the state. Kon is brutally cross-examined and accused of espionage. By a stroke of luck his death sentence is changed into 25 years of gulag (forced labour camp). He was released in 1956, four years after Stalin’s death. No matter how hard the time in the camp was, Kon “writes” all the time. He notes his poems on a piece of glass with toothpaste and learns by heart. There is no way to take down the cavalcade of thoughts. After coming back the nightmares of the past are a part of his life. He plans a suicide, there is always a rope under his pillow. Doctors who are trying to treat Kon are helpless and see a last resort in moving back to Poland, as this might heal poet’s mind. Liz does not want to go, but finally she gives in and the family moves again. Thanks to friendships from the period when they used to live in Poland (and the fact that Liz was born in Poland), they are granted Polish citizenship. Ina remembers that her father was drunk with happiness when they were crossing the border. After living for some time in Przemyśl, Czerwińsk and Otwock they settle down in Warsaw. The flat they occupy becomes full of poems and memories. There are a lot of people visiting, including the cultural attaché of the Israeli embassy. At some point a KGB agent in disguise becomes a friend of the family. He plants bugs in the flat and the family is observed closely the security police. The author travels a lot to Romania, Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia to write about the situation of Jews there. In one of his pieces he equals the ruling of communists with the Nazi period. Polish “Fołks-Sztyme” does not want to print the article; therefore Hertz sends the story to his brother who owns a printing house in Tel Aviv. Unfortunately, the security police put hands on the letter. The future is easy to imagine. A day before Christmas Eve in 1960 the police knock to the Kon’s doors. They arrest him and all his writings and notes kept in his flat are confiscated.
Hertz’s case receives a lot of attention internationally. There are articles printed in the US, France and Israel. Nothing is being published in Poland. International human rights organisations appeal to the Polish authorities. As an effect of the pressures the accusation of espionage is dismissed and after 11 months Kon is moved to a mental hospital. Though he finds it even worse than being under arrest. The sentence in his case is pronounced 19th March 1962: a year of prison and a fine 250 zloty. He leaves the hospital a day after as the period under arrest has been calculated as imprisonment.
The poet wants to get back his belongings confiscated when he was arrested. In 1963 the decision is taken by the court that they are being treated as a proof therefore will not be returned. Kon decides to emigrate to Israel, where he starts a new life with a 10 years younger Anna. Naftali Hertz Kon dies suddenly in 1971 never seeing his writings again.
Recently, in October 2012 the district court in Warsaw decided that the daughters of the writer should be returned the confiscated items. Those are not released though. The warrant was sent to Władysław Stępniak, the head of the Polish State Archives. He explains that the materials are in Milanówek and he has no authority to make them available. The judge should have sent the warrant to the department in Milanówek. The daughters are waiting.
I would like to thank Bożena Aksamit for sharing with me this story.