Papers of Naftali Hertz Kon
Scope and Contents
Scope and Content Note
The Yiddish poet, writer, and journalist Naftali Herz Kon (birth name Jakub Serf) was born in Storozhynets, in the Bukovina region (now part of Ukraine) in 1910. He suffered persecution and imprisonment at the hands of the interwar Polish government, the Soviet Union, and the postwar Polish communist state. This resulted in the fact that much of his literary and journalistic work was lost or deliberately confiscated and destroyed by authorities. The bulk of this collection spans the 1950s-1960s, and consists mainly of Kon’s correspondence and Kon’s manuscripts, typescripts, fragments, and notes for literary work (prose and poetry) and for historical and biographical essays and reports.
Though making up a relatively small part of the overall collection, Series I consists of personal and official documents that help illustrate Kon’s life as an ambitious and successful writer, and the hardships he faced under oppressive political regimes. Included are his membership cards to writers’ unions and associations, as well as official Soviet documents recounting his sentencing and imprisonment.
The correspondence in Series II establishes Kon as a well-connected Yiddish writer who was in close communication with key figures of Yiddish culture and literature of the time, including Joseph Elgiser, Ivker, Henech Kon, Abraham Sutzkever, Yehoshua Gilboa, and Arye Tartakower. Kon’s correspondence was not limited geographically, as he communicated with publishers and cultural institutions in Israel,Europe, Mexico, and the United States.
The bulk of the collection consists of Kon’s fiction (Series III), poetry (Series IV), and essays on historical, literary, and biographical subjects (Series V-VI). Kon’s fiction, poetry, and biographical and historical essays revolve around the subjects of the Holocaust, anti-semitism, life under the Soviet regime, and Jewish culture, life, and surivival in Eastern Europe. The documents vary from complete (or almost complete) typescripts, to partial manuscripts, and edited and corrected drafts. A significant portion of material falls under the category of notes and fragments that are difficult to place and connect clearly with specific works, but they help readers gain insight into Kon’s thoughts, and the manner in which he wrote, sometimes as a result of his dire and harsh working circumstances.
Series VII contains a single photograph of Naftali Herz Kon. The Kon papers confiscated by the Polish government in 1961 and reclaimed by Kon's daughters in 2013 make up the final portion of the collection (Series VIII), and contain personal correspondence with family and Yiddish writers, published and unpublished poetry, and essays on the Soviet Union, socialism, and Soviet Yiddish writers.
- Majority of material found within 1950s-1960s
Language of Materials
The collection is predominantly in Yiddish, with some Russian, Polish, German, Hebrew, and English.
Biographical / Historical
The Yiddish poet, writer, and journalist Naftali Herz Kon (birth name Jakub Serf) was born in Storozhynets, in the Bukovina region (now part of Ukraine) in 1910. Throughout his life, Kon suffered persecution and imprisonment at the hands of the interwar Polish government, the Soviet Union, and the postwar Polish communist state, resulting in much of his literary and journalistic work being lost or deliberately confiscated or destroyed by authorities.
Kon’s Yiddish poetry was first published in the Yiddish newspaper Tshernovitser bleter (Czernowitz Pages) in 1929. Kon’s early literary work espoused communist ideology, attracting the attention of the Romanian secret police, the Siguranța (Sigurantsa). Kon’s communist sympathies led to his arrest by the Sigurantsa. Soon after, Kon moved to Warsaw, Poland, a vibrant center of Jewish culture and literature, where he established himself as a prominent leftist writer, publishing essays and poems in various Communist and Bundist newspapers. In Warsaw, Kon is arrested twice for his leftist leanings, and during his second imprisonment, he was given the choice of either being deported to Romania or being sent to the Soviet Union, in a prisoner exchange type of transfer. Kon left for the Soviet Union in 1932, and there he was confronted with the grim realities of Stalinism.
In 1938, during the peak of Stalin’s Great Purge (also known as The Great Terror), Kon was arrested and sent to a Siberian gulag. His sentence was cut short in 1941 because of the outbreak of the Nazi-Soviet War. Kon was arrested again in 1948, this time for allegedly publishing anti-Soviet writings on the Holocaust in the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee newspaper, Eynikayt. For this he was sentenced to death, however, the initial sentence was brought down to 25 years of hard labor in a gulag. Following the death of Stalin in 1953, a period known as the Khrushchev “thaw” began, and it was during this phase that Kon was released from the gulag in 1956.
In 1959, Kon’s family was permitted to leave the Soviet Union and settle in Poland, at that time one of the more liberal states of the Soviet bloc. In Warsaw, Kon felt he was finally able to freely write the work that had previously been suppressed by authorities. His experiences in the Soviet Union and in labor camps, as well as his time spent traveling to Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia, informed his literary work and served as source material for his historical and political reports about anti-semitism, the Holocaust, Soviet Yiddish literature, and the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. Kon refused to hinder or censor his work to appease the Polish government, and was subsequently arrested in 1960 by the Polish authorities, with charges of spying on Israel, and the spreading of anti-communist information. The Polish security police confiscated Kon’s writings which they considered evidence of anti-communist propoganda. After serving a year-long sentence in a Warsaw prison, he was released in 1962. A few years later Kon was allowed to leave for Israel, and he lived there from 1965 until his death in 1971.
The papers seized by the Polish authorities in 1961 were never returned to Kon or his family. The process of reclaiming Kon’s papers was spearheaded in the 2000s by Kon’s daughters, Ina Lancman and Vita Serf, with the invaluable assistance of Polish lawyer Tomasz Koncewicz. Once the materials were located in the Warsaw branch of the Polish State Archives in 2010, a long and arduous battle ensued with the Polish courts. Finally, in 2012, the Warsaw Regional Court ruled that the papers must be returned to Kon’s family, and in 2013, Ina Lancman and Vita Serf were reunited with their father’s writings and documents in Poland.
Kon published a book of poetry titled Farshribn in zikorn in Tel Aviv in 1966, and a second edition edited by Eliezer Niborski was published in 2017 by Vita Serf and Ina Lancman, with assistance from the National Authority For Yiddish Culture of Israel.
Berger, P., 2013. Naftali Herts Kon's Works Wrenched Out of Poland's Clutches. The Forward, [online] Available at: /forward.com/news/180733/naftali-herts-kons-works-wrenched-out-of-polands-c/>.
Lancman, I., 2017. Literary Estate as Mirror of Persecution: The Papers of Naftali Hertz Kon. Gazeta, [online] 24(2), pp.9-13. Available at: /www.taubephilanthropies.org/files/assets/pdf/2017/Gazeta_Spring17-050217.pdf>.
7 Linear Feet
This collection consists of Naftali Herz Kon's personal and official documents, personal correspondence, and correspondence with literary editors and organizations, as well as manuscripts, typescripts, drafts, fragments, and notes for both literary work (prose and poetry) and historical and biographical essays and reports. The Kon papers confiscated by the Polish government in 1961 and reclaimed by Kon's daughters in 2013 make up the final portion of the collection, and include personal correspondence, published and unpublished poetry, and historical essays.
The collection is divided into series:
- Series I: Documents of Naftali Hertz Kon, 1950s-1960s
- Series II: Correspondence of Naftali Hertz Kon, 1960s -1971
- Series III: Literary Work, 1940s-1960s
- Series IV: Poetry, 1940s-1971
- Series V: Biographical Material, 1940s-1960s
- Series VI: Historical Material, 1940s-1960s
- Series VII: Photographs of Naftali Herz Kon, 1949
- Series VIII: Papers Confiscated in Poland In 1961 and Reclaimed in 2013, 1939, 1944, 1948-1949, 1959-1961
- Collection fully processed, arranged, and finding aid completed by Beata Kasiarz.
- Language of description
- Script of description
- Language of description note
- Description is in English.