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January 21, 2009

Remembering "Bill" Boreysza

Warrior, Polish patriot—and remarkable Hoover librarian. An appreciation by Maciej Siekierski.


The greatness of the Hoover Library rests not just on the strength of its holdings but on the generations of outstanding individuals who have worked there. The great builders of the Hoover collections—Ephraim Adams, Frank Golder, Ralph Lutz, Witold Sworakowski—are well known at Stanford University and recognized by the academic world. Less well remembered are the legions of curators, librarians, archivists, and assistants who brought to Hoover not only high professional qualifications but also the unique expertise of having participated in the very events that historians sought to study. These were as well read, educated, and qualified as anyone else in their position, but often they became librarians through an accident of history.

Such is the story of Boleslaw "William" Boreysza, a librarian-cataloger who served in the Hoover Institution Library for more than thirty years until his retirement in 1990. Boreysza died in 2002, and the Hoover Institution has just received his personal papers. Boreysza, known as Bolek to his Polish friends and as Bill to his co-workers, was a well-known figure in the Polish émigré community of Northern California. Readers may notice a lightly penciled "WB" inside the cover of the many thousands of Hoover books that he cataloged over the years. His quiet profession contrasted with the tumultuous history that swept him up in his younger years, when he participated in and witnessed years of war in Poland, Soviet Russia, the Middle East, and Italy.

Boleslaw Boreysza

Bolek was born in 1921 on an army hospital train that was returning wounded veterans and refugees of the Polish-Bolshevik war of the previousyear to the Polish city of Wilno. His father was Adam Boreysza, a major in the Polish army, later a Wilno bank manager, who died when Bolek was 16. Bolek completed elementary and secondary schools in his home city. Active in sports and scouting, he was also a member of a flying club and got his glider pilot certificate. He was preparing to enter the Stefan Batory University in Wilno when, on September 1, 1939, the war began with Hitler’s attack on Poland from the west, followed a few days later by Stalin’s invasion from the east.

Boreysza’s quiet profession contrasted with the tumultuous history that swept him up in his younger years, when he participated in and witnessed war in Poland, Soviet Russia, the Middle East, and Italy.

War changed young Bolek’s life completely. The Germans and the Soviets divided Poland according to a secret plan, the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement. Bolek’s home town, Wilno, was turned over by the Soviets to Lithuania and renamed Vilnius. A few months later, along with all of Lithuania, it was incorporated into Stalin’s Soviet Union. This period in young Bolek’s life is well documented, thanks in part to his own wartime papers and later writings but also to his Soviet investigation file, which was found in the former KGB archives in Vilnius. (Those documents were recently copied in advance of a major microfilming project now under way by the Hoover Institution and the Lithuanian State Archives.)

As war broke out, Boreysza volunteered for the Polish army and saw action against Soviet tanks in the Wilno area. He did not capitulate after the Polish defeat but joined a hastily organized partisan unit and continued resistance against the invaders. He was wounded in a skirmish with the Soviets in October 1939 and interned in a Lithuanian camp, which he fled after several weeks to continue the underground struggle. Boreysza was part of a clandestine network assisting with the evacuation of Polish military personnel, particularly pilots, to the West. Some of the fliers he helped to escape later flew in the Free Polish squadrons supporting the RAF in the Battle of Britain.

Also, as part of the ZWZ (Union of Armed Struggle), the precursor of the Home Army, Boreysza went on missions into occupied Poland, liquidating NKVD and Gestapo agents and provocateurs. Arrested by the Lithuanians and turned over to the NKVD, Boreysza and his associates were accused of terrorist activity "on behalf of feudal Poland—against the USSR, Lithuania, and Germany," and after a prolonged and brutal interrogation, during which he revealed little about his activities or comrades, he was sent first to prisons in Moscow, then to Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod), and later to a labor camp near Kotlas in the Arkhangelsk district of the Russian North. Simultaneously, most of Boreysza’s relatives, including his mother, were arrested and deported to Russia. She died probably a few months later, somewhere in southern Siberia.

Her son was more fortunate. In the summer of 1941, Nazi Germany attacked its Soviet ally and the USSR switched sides in the war. Boreysza was released in October 1941, under the amnesty negotiated between the Lon-don-based Polish government in exile and Stalin’s Russia. (Boreysza’s original camp release certificate is one of the 13,000 such documents preserved in Hoover’s Polish Ministry of Information collection.) Under the agreement, former Polish prisoners and deportees were organized into several divisions and trained on Soviet territory in camps in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. This army, led by General Wladyslaw Anders, along with tens of thousands of Polish civilians, left the USSR during 1942. The transports moved gradually through Iran, Iraq (where Boreysza completed officer training), and then Palestine and Egypt. In early 1944, Cadet-Officer Boreysza, his 3rd Carpathian Infantry Division, and the other Polish divisions, collectively known as the Polish II Corps, under Anders’s command, were taken to the front in southern Italy, where they became an independent part of the British 8th Army. Boreysza and his unit took part in the defense of the Sangro River; then, in the offensive against the Gustav/Hitler Line, famous as the Battle of Monte Cassino, Monte Cassino was captured by the Poles on May 18. This was followed by an advance along the Adriatic and the battles of Ancona and the Gothic Line.

On June 22, in the vicinity of Monte San Giusto, Boreysza suffered a serious head wound that cost him his left eye. The bullet that caused the injury—and miraculously did not kill him—would remain lodged in the back of his skull for the rest of his life, as shown on X-rays and doctors’ reports in the collection. After four months of hospitalization, Boreysza, wearing a black patch, his future trademark, returned to the front and participated in the final operations in northern Italy, which ended in late April 1945 in the liberation of Bologna.

Aside from the personal satisfaction of having fought for the right cause and the friendship of a few surviving comrades, Boreysza had little to look forward to after the war. At the age of 24, he found himself partially disabled, his family gone, his beloved city of Wilno no longer Polish, and, thanks to the West’s complete capitulation to Stalin at the Yalta Conference, Poland itself under Soviet control. He stayed with the Polish II Corps in Italy until its demobilization and transfer to Britain. Boreysza began study at the University of London, but soon had to give up because of financial difficulties. Destitute, he worked at various jobs, including carpentry and farm labor; finally, in 1949, he decided to leave England and immigrate to Canada.

On June 22, 1944, Bolek suffered a serious head wound that cost him his left eye. The bullet remained lodged in the back of his skull for the rest of his life.

In 1950, Boreysza enrolled at the University of British Columbia, where he studied Russian and Slavic studies and took courses in political science, graduating with a bachelor’s degree four years later. In 1955, Boreysza received his master’s degree from the Department of Slavonic Studies at the same university. His thesis was titled "The Introduction of the Soviet System into Poland." He became a naturalized Canadian citizen and remained one for the rest of his life. Nevertheless, he found more favorable employment and educational opportunities to the south, and in 1956 he received a master’s degree in librarianship from the University of Washington in Seattle.

While working at a library in Ohio, he was recruited for the Hoover Library by Witold Sworakowski, assistant director for library operations and the chief builder of Hoover library and archival collections after the Second World War. Thanks to his excellent émigré contacts, Boreysza helped Sworakowski expand Hoover’s East European collections during the 1960s.

Bolek never married. For many years, he spent his summer vacations prospecting and hunting in British Columbia, which reminded him of the forests of his native northeast Poland. Despite his disability, he was able to fulfill his boyhood dream of piloting a plane during his wilderness trips. Although mostly solitary and surrounded by books, he corresponded with fellow veterans throughout the world and frequently entertained friends in his home, where Polish graduate students and visitors gathered for his celebrated Thursday dinners. The favorite topic of conversation was history and politics, especially anything to do with the six heroic and tragic years of his life, 1939–45.

Those who knew Bolek will never forget him, and his corner in the Cataloging Room will forever be his.


Maciej Siekierski is curator of the European Collections at the Hoover Institution Archives and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.


Special to the Hoover Digest.