Posts Tagged ‘Elena Danielson’

Leon Trotsky @Stanford: it’s a long story of love, murder, and archival records

Wednesday, March 4th, 2020

A guest post from Elena Danielson, director emerita of the Hoover Library and Archives:

The Times Literary Supplement recently republished the late Francis Wyndham‘s review of Jean van Heijenoort‘s 1978 book on Leon Trotsky, With Trotsky in Exile: From Prinkipo to Coyoacan. (It’s in the February 7, 2020, issue with the title “Love thy neighbour, Trotsky’s exile as a Feydeau farce.” )

A Frenchman with a Dutch last name, Van Heijenoort was Trotsky’s secretary and bodyguard in exile. Van, as everyone called him, observed Trotsky’s life first hand, and wrote his book to correct the many errors that were circulating in the vast literature on Trotsky and Stalin.

Van was a mathematician and compulsively accurate. Wyndham was surprised and appalled by Van’s factual description of Trotsky’s blithe bed-hopping all while the old Bolshevik and his long suffering wife Natalia were being hunted down by Stalin’s assassins all over Europe and Mexico. In 1937, Diego Rivera befriended Trotsky, often referred to as “The Old Man,” whom Frida Kahlo called “el Viejo” or “Piochitas.” Trotsky was soon initiating an affair with Frida, who eventually decided it was too dangerous. Wyndham apparently not aware of Van’s own entanglement with Frida. The “Feydeau farce,” as Wyndham styles it, only came to an end when the assassination was finally successful in 1940 in Mexico. In 1978, Van tried to correct all the accumulating errors in the historical narrative at a time when some leftists saw Trotsky as the true heir of Marx.

Meanwhile in California in 1978, I started working in the Hoover Archives at Stanford, where there is original correspondence from figures such as Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in the papers of Bertram and Ella Wolfe. These affectionate and exuberant letters from Frida to Ella, whom she calls Ella, Linda, and Ellochka, are sometimes sealed with lipstick kisses. The archives also hold a rare home movie of Trotsky, Diego, and Frida – donated by a former Trotskyist named Alex Buchman. The film and the papers helped fuel a kind of frenzied interest in Diego and Frida. Bertram Wolfe died in 1977, but Ella carried on his legacy and generously helped scholars such as Hayden Herrara, then writing her famous biography of Frida. All of this was great fun for me, and I looked forward to the publication of Bert’s (“Boit,” as Frida called him, imitating his Brooklyn pronunciation) posthumous memoirs, A Life in Two Centuries.

Archivist extraordinaire: Elena Danielson

By 1982, Van, as everyone called him, became a presence on the Stanford campus where he was working in the Math Department on the history of logic (primarily the work of Kurt Gödel) with the department chair Solomon Feferman. While Van had mostly left his political life behind, he attended Ella’s 1982 talk about her late husband’s Life in Two Centuries (New York: Stein and Day, 1981). Van made a public comment during Q&A that drew my attention.

Van had presence: Tall, thin, precise in his speech, and unexpectedly charismatic. Van had helped with the opening of the Trotsky papers at Harvard in 1980. There were no Trotsky papers at Stanford, he knew, because he had made inquiries. I did not expect to see him again.

In 1983, in the Hoover Archives reading room, I was helping a researcher, a professor of cultural studies from York in Canada, Marlene Kadar, who was an expert on André Breton, who had ties with the Trotsky circle in both France and Mexico. I showed Marlene the Buchman film, and she got quite animated: on the flickering gray screen, behind the massive figure of Diego, the intense Trotsky, and the flamboyant Frida, was a tall, thin, strikingly handsome figure of a man in the background. “I know that man! He is here.”

She had met Van at Harvard in 1980 at the opening for the Trotsky papers. He went on to participate in her doctoral defense, so she gave him a copy of her dissertation while they were both on the Stanford campus. Marlene dashed off and brought Van to see the home movie, which much amused him: there he was himself in his earlier political life, more than four decades before. Both in 1937 and still in 1983, he was courtly and quiet, but with an intensity you could not miss.

Trotsky, Kahlo, Heijenoort, and friends

Marlene encouraged me to look for more Trotsky materials to show him, that sent me to the index of the massive Nicolaevsky papers. Nicolaevsky’s widow, who had tightly controlled access to the papers, had recently passed away. Looking through the typed list of the contents, I noticed recent handwritten additions to the index: Sedov and Trotsky in section 231. So I brought out a sample box from Fond 231. Van and Marlene were elated….these were indeed papers of the Old Man, some typed by Van himself decades earlier.

From then on for the next three years, he was often in the archives, helping us process the Hoover set of Trotsky papers. Most notably, he compiled a detailed list of all of the pseudonyms used by the Trotskyists. Van himself had operated under quite a few false names. Solomon Feferman and his remarkable wife Anita created a kind of salon, and generously included me in some of the dinners and discussions with Van and other Trotsky historians, notably Pierre Broué. Sometimes when I was supervising the reading room, it took a while to notice that Van had come in to work. He was preternaturally quiet, and wore very soft, soundless, rubber-soled shoes. He came of age evading the attention of the police and spies, and just knew how to move quietly. Old habits die hard.

From conversations with Anita, I was aware of Van’s colorful personal life, which initially seemed at odds with his reserve. However, it was not ordinary reserve, it was more like oceans of emotion held in check by a sea wall. His affair with Frida became public with Hayden Herrera‘s biography, but it was definitely not something we would talk about. He would periodically disappear without explanation, then quietly show up later, without any mention of where he had been. I would assume maybe a trip to France or Mexico.

After one of his puzzling absences, the telephone rang. Van had been murdered in Mexico. His fourth wife shot him, and then killed herself. It was chilling. He had survived Stalin, but not his wife.

It had always seemed best not to ask too many questions. Fortunately, the witty and vivacious Anita won his confidence, and she did ask questions and put the information he told her in her biography with the enchanting title Politics, Logic, and Love: the Life of Jean van Heijenoort (Boston: Jones and Bartlett, 1993). Here it is February 2020 as I’m writing out these memories, as I get email that the de Young Museum in San Francisco is opening a new exhibition on Frida Kahlo. The mystique around these flamboyant people lives on.

Read the article, “Love Thy Neighbour,” over at the Times Literary Supplement. It’s here.

Remembering Vladimir Bukovsky (1942-2019): a long-ago lunch with a man who loved freedom and roses

Thursday, October 31st, 2019

Elena Danielson: archivist, correspondent

A guest post from one of our favorite guests: Elena Danielson, former director of the Hoover Library & Archives at Stanford, who has written for us here and here and here. Today she shares her memories of a man who is already missed.

While he probably wouldn’t have remembered us, we remember him. My husband Ron pointed out the obituary in the New York Times: Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky died October 27, 2019 in Cambridge at age 76. I hope at the end he was quietly able to declare victory for surviving as long as he did, considering the foes he had fought and the demons he had battled.

Ron and I had a memorable lunch with him in Cambridge in April 1998. More than memorable. On business for the Hoover Institution Archives at Stanford, I was on an archival collecting tour in Europe and visited various families of Russian dissidents in Paris, Fontenay-aux-Roses, London, Oxford, Cambridge. Keeping in touch with historically significant people was part of my job, a dream job: after establishing connections, their documents and papers would generally arrive at the Hoover Archives in due time. On this trip I met with members of the Pasternak family, the Siniavsky family, even a Romanov, Rostislav Romanoff (“you can call me Rosti”). My travel reports are full of all the practical details regarding scope of collection, contracts, shipping issues, etc., yet what comes through when I review my personal notes is the warm and generous reception I received from mostly strangers. It is still overwhelming to me. The Russian dissidents and emigres are a remarkable lot of human beings with amazing stories and a generosity of spirit totally at odds with their experiences. And even in this extraordinary group, Bukovsky stood out for both Ron and me.

With Bukovsky on the Bridge over the River Cam, April 1998

I had met him over a decade earlier when the was at Stanford to study psychology, and also to work with anti-Soviet activists. He had survived over a decade as a Soviet political prisoner in various jails and psychiatric treatment centers until he was sent into exile in a prisoner exchange program in 1976. The Hoover Institution published one of his books in 1987. My supervisor there asked me to drive Bukovsky to a human rights conference in Berkeley. As his chauffeur on this long drive, I remember vividly his wild and engaging conversation. It was clear that this man would challenge abuse of authority where ever he encountered it. It was built into his personality. This mindset enabled him to take on one of the most powerful and ruthless political structures in the world. “You have to do it,” he told me, “despite the fact we knew we would lose.”

A decade later, since I was going to be in London anyway, I wrote Bukovsky a formal letter in 1998 and asked to meet him in Cambridge. His response was coy. He said he’d be in Colorado the whole time of my trip – available on April 24 only. Closer to the time, I faxed back that I could take him to lunch on April 24, and decided to leave a voice mail to that effect on his answering machine, since he could access that while traveling. Bukovsky answered his Cambridge home phone immediately, he was most certainly not in Colorado.

Ron and I showed up exactly on time, noon on April 24, at 145 Gilbert Road in Cambridge. He lived alone in a charming classic English cottage with an entry path lined with lushly blooming tree roses … for all his disruptive behavior this was a man who loved roses. And a man who did not always answer the doorbell. It was the era before cellphones, so Ron and I left the house to walk to a public telephone down the street. Halfway down the block we hear someone yelling, “Hey, you!” We turned and saw a very rumpled Bukovsky leaning out his doorway and inviting us to come back. “I just woke up,” he said, smelling of alcohol. And he offered us each a lovely cup of smoky tea, the very best lapsong suchong. This was a man who would never drink Lipton’s tea.

On his table were heaps of photocopies of once top secret Soviet documents, archival heaven for me. And he knew it. Rumpled as he was, he had prepared assiduously for our meeting. He did his homework.
Ron and I offered to take him out to lunch. A congenial tour guide, he took us for a walk through Cambridge, showing us the sights along the way, smiling gargoyles on churches, Christopher Wren’s library, college courtyards. Then we came to the historic café/bar “The Eagle,” where he showed us the graffiti left by World War II pilots, some of whom never returned. As he ordered us a lunch of savory moules marinière accompanied by generous pourings of red wine, he began to reminisce about his life as a dissident: “We knew we were playing a game; we didn’t know the stakes were so high.” He had enormous respect for Reagan for paying attention to the human rights movement, which he felt many intellectuals tried to ignore.

Bukovsky, Ron Danielson at Cambridge

Since the fall of Soviet communism in 1991, Bukovsky had advocated vigorously for a Nuremberg style trial of communist leaders to finally discredit the Soviet system. He did not see any point in putting old villains in jail, he said he wanted to use the documentary evidence to totally ruin their credibility and to prevent any return of the repressive system. Such an effort at a judicial process began in 1992 with Bukovsky serving as an expert, determined to open up the archives.

Bukovsky was himself a scientist who tried to approach the factual data in a systematic way. He used new technology including a hand held Logitech scanner, that was 4-5 inches wide, with which he would swipe the documents several times across each page and then use a computer program to join the pieces together. It was uncharted territory both in terms of legal access and in terms of technical access. He successfully captured an enormous amount of data including heavily guarded secrets from the Politburo and even copies of KGB documents held in Central Committee files. He said he worked with an official named Poltoranin to declassify the materials he wanted to read. Apparently, they worked and drank together simultaneously. Bukovsky would tell Poltoranin what he needed and Poltoranin would order his staff to bring materials out on that topic, which Bukovsky would then scan on the spot. The Russians were unfamiliar with scanning technology at the time and apparently unaware that the documents were being copied. “I paid for every document with my blood,” he explained in an almost matter-of-fact way. “I paid for every document with my liver.” Already in 1998 he had plans to put the scanned data set on the internet. He said it would be ready to go online by October 1998. Today the documentation he secured in 1992 can be found online here. Now it all looks so obvious, but at the time it was exceedingly experimental and daring.

But the process was not completed. He complained: “Reagan and Thatcher ruined the USSR, but they didn’t finish them off.” He covers all of this in his books, but hearing it from him in person, in the presence of his remarkable personality, made it clear how he managed to maintain the good fight against all odds.

The Hoover Institution has kept up its active archival acquisitions program under the direction of Eric T. Wakin. Eventually about 57 boxes of Vladimir Bukovsky’s papers were secured for the Hoover Archives by Lora Soroka under the guidance of the Russian and Eurasian curator Anatol Shmelev.

How Andrei Sinyavsky’s papers wound up at Stanford – and a long-ago trip to Fountenay-aux-Roses to get them.

Monday, June 11th, 2018

Mother, son, and wisteria at the rue Boris Vilde.

It’s a small world, of course. And even smaller if you’re at Stanford. No sooner had I posted yesterday’s thoughts about the Russian writer Andrei Sinyavsky (pen name Abram Tertz), then a tweet surfaced in cyberspace from a dear friend: “”Cynthia Haven brought back memories of reading Abram Tertz, then meeting him in the Hoover Archives reading room as Sinyavsky. Both he and his wife Maria Rozanova were regulars in the Hoover Archives reading room in the 1990s. They just could not stay away.” No wonder. With its extensive collections on the Soviet era, it would have been a miracle to them.

Elena Danielson, the friend, and also the former director of the Hoover Institution Library and Archives, told me that Hoover had, in fact, acquired the papers of Sinyavsky, and she herself had collected them from France.

I noodled around google a bit and found the Stanford press release from October 1998. It’s another story of Hoover’s truly remarkable archival rescue efforts:

The Hoover Institution has acquired the papers of the Russian writer and human rights activist Andrei Siniavski. Siniavski’s writings and his trial for allegedly publishing anti-Soviet slander in foreign countries are considered key in mobilizing the human rights movement that contributed in significant ways to the forces that discredited and toppled the Soviet system. “Siniavski was a writer whose fiction provoked the regime to frenzy and galvanized the movement that eventually brought it down,” said Hoover Institution Senior Research Fellow Robert Conquest after hearing about the acquisition.

Beginning in the 1950s, Siniavski sent abroad writings under the pseudonym Abram Tertz that he could not publish legally in the Soviet Union. He was arrested in 1965, tried in 1966 and sentenced to forced labor.

Demonstrations against the trial galvanized young intellectuals, among them Vladimir Bukovsky and Alexander Ginzburg, and inducted them into the human rights movement. In response to international protests at Siniavski’s mistreatment, the regime allowed him to emigrate to France in 1973.

Siniavski’s wife, Maria Rozanova, also publicized her husband’s plight and refused to leave the Soviet Union without his papers. Authorities relented in order to dispatch her abroad, and she was able to save the record of her husband’s life and work.

Once in the west, Siniavski taught at the Sorbonne, served as a visiting professor at Stanford and received an honorary doctorate from Harvard. He died in 1977. [Correction: it was 1997.]

The collection contains biographical information on Siniavski and his father, who was arrested for political activity; unpublished manuscripts and correspondence from before his arrest; materials on smuggling his manuscripts abroad, including secret codes he used; evidence of his influence on students at Moscow University; evidence of people spying on him; materials on his arrest and trial; a copy of the KGB interrogation files, notes on the search of his home and photographs from the early days of the human rights movement; papers from the emigration and continuing human rights activities abroad, including broadcasts for Radio Liberty and tapes of complete interviews and sections not broadcast; and papers on emigre politics.

“The trip to rue Boris Vilde was such fun, about 1998 I suppose,” Elena recalled. “The wisteria covered house was classic French, and the interior, stuffed with papers on make-shift shelving, was so very Russian. The son, Iegor Sinyavsky Gran, is a novelist and a charming guy.”

She went back to her notebooks and files to find some photos for me.

“Maria Rosanova and Iegor Sinyavsky, rue Boris Vilde, Fountenay-aux-Roses,…I’ve just found the wisteria-covered house, stuffed with the late Andre Siniavsky’s papers in boxes, on shelves, overflowing the furnitures…Maria looked around in despair ‘Bumagi, bumagi, bumagi…'” (That would be бумаги, бумаги, бумаги. Or “papers, papers, papers…” to the rest of us.)


“The widow was totally bewildered by the huge stacks of papers,” she recalled. “But we got it all shipped and cataloged.” Then, a little later, “Such charm. The two of them made the collecting trip into one of the highlights of my career.” I could almost hear her sigh, all the way from Twitterland.

And she had another souvenir in her house from his days at Hoover, way back in the 1990s. She explained: “I bought The Trial Begins with an intro by Czesław Miłosz for a class at Berkeley, so in the 1965-1969 era. I just found the book which he autographed for me in the Hoover Archives reading room, dated 1992. He signed it Abram Tertz.

More from Elena’s albums:


Herbert Hoover: “He was a techie, a geek, a nerd. Where did he come from?”

Sunday, February 12th, 2017

Hoover with a homemade ham radio, probably at Stanford’s Lou Henry Hoover House. (Photo: U.S. Dept. of Commerce)

Elena Danielson, director emerita of the Hoover Institution Library & Archives, is one of Stanford’s most charming and engaging speakers – not to mention a fount of knowledge on a dazzling range of topics. The former Fulbright scholar is the author of The Ethical Archivist (Society of American Archivists, 2010) – we’ve written about it here. Her Ethics of Access will be published this year with the same publisher. One of her many enthusiasms is Herbert Hoover (we’ve written about the president’s astonishing philanthropic efforts to save a starving Russia here.) Elena spoke last week for the Stanford Historical Society. And what better venue than the Hoover Institution’s Stauffer Auditorium?

An excerpt:

Herbert Hoover’s particular mentality, while unusual for an American politician, is something familiar to us at Stanford and perhaps easier to recognize in the 21st century than it was previously. He is part of a Stanford tradition that has been with us since the founding in 1891, and only become more clear over the decades. He loved science, technology, engineering, math, and machines, chemistry, trains, steamships, radio, television. He was also a collector, collecting ore samples and semi-precious stones all his life, and also collecting books and manuscripts. Collecting seems to go with this mind-set.


Archivist extraordinaire. (Photo: Sunny Scott)

He was the kind of person who knew how to quickly take advantage of the new technology of the late 19th century. In 1898, he proposed to his beloved bride, recent Stanford graduate Miss Lou Henry, by telegram. Also fascinated by emerging technology, she immediately accepted by return cable. He traveled constantly by rail, steamship, ocean liner (an estimated hundred weeks of his life – or two full years – on ships). He went around the world at least four times prior to World War I, and crossed through war zones during the Great War.

During the belt tightening and labor shortages of the U.S. entry into World War I, he dismissed his chauffeur (normal for a man of his wealth to have), and delighted in driving his roadster a bit too fast for comfort. When he was elected president, before the inauguration, back then held in March, he got on a ship and took a four-week good will tour of Latin America. His train car or steamship cabin was always a mobile office. Going through his papers, I remember marveling at the number of telegrams he would shoot off every day to keep various business and philanthropic organizations mobilized, the way we send off emails. And he was never happier than when he was focusing his math skills on complex financial transactions with large numbers of zeros, the more complicated the better…He was different from Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, Roosevelt, Truman. You’d have to go back to Benjamin Franklin to find the same combination of love of science, love of foreign travel, and love for complex negotiations.

He was an early adopter. He had a ham radio in his campus home for Herbert Hoover Jr. He was the first person to broadcast on TV in 1927. He was the first president to broadcast a campaign speech on the radio, the first president to have his own telephone on his desk, the first person to use a teleprompter on national TV (1952). He thrived on using emerging technology. It was his strength, enabled him to solve problems, and, in some ways, it was also his weakness, he expected problems to have solutions. He was a techie, a geek, a nerd. Where did he come from?


Stanford landmark

Then he took the technical skills he learned at Stanford, starting at age 22, to high-level, high-stakes ventures in Australia, China, and, what I consider the transformative period, in Tsarist Russia. This last is, in my opinion, one of the most significant and least researched episodes in his life. This technical career got him involved in Stanford campus politics, then some global politics and finally American politics, as he tried to apply engineering solutions to international and social problems, a technocrat in the good sense of the word, as a logical, fact-based problem-solver. Throughout this time, he remained deeply committed to helping the university that launched his career, and the career of his wife Lou Henry, his older brother Theodor Hoover, and his sons Herbert Hoover, Jr., and Allan Hoover, his closest friends such as Ray Lyman Wilbur. All Stanford grads, all techies. And we will see his two lasting monuments – not on Mount Rushmore, but two engineering marvels that both have strong connections with Stanford.

Hoover Dam was one of them. From Elena Danielson:

They excavated 3.7 million cubic yards of rock, poured 4.4 million cubic yards of concrete, built four tunnels through which they diverted one of the country’s greatest rivers, installed 45 million pounds of steel, imbedded 582 miles of one-inch cooling tubes, and built a 726 foot tall dam with a 2,000 megawatt power station. The electricity that was generated paid for the construction. Even as president, engineering was his great love.

And Stanford’s Hoover Tower is the other:

He planned the construction of Hoover Tower with instructions to make it as seismically sound as possible given the technology of 1939 with a steel I-beam skeleton and rebar reinforced concrete on a thick concrete pad. Here he stored the documentation he had collected from the turmoil of the Great War, the Russian Revolutions and subsequent political upheavals. The inspiration of those great collectors on the pioneer faculty John Casper Branner and Andrew D. White found tangible expression in the Tower. The Tower held up well in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake that devastated much of the construction on campus. His intellectual interests and his engineering mind-set worked together.

You can hear the whole talk here


Not a bad legacy. Ansel Adams’s 1941 photo of Hoover dam.

Ivy Low Litvinov: surviving Stalin … and D.H. Lawrence, too

Tuesday, January 14th, 2014



Ivy Low Litvinov and friends in the U.K. …before it all began. (Joseph Freeman Papers, Hoover Institution Archives)

“It is one of the wonders of the age that Ivy survived to die a natural death,” wrote American diplomat and historian George Kennan in a 1989 letter. Dying in one’s bed wasn’t the usual exit from Joseph Stalin‘s Russia, and Ivy Low Litvinov, as the wife of the genocidaire’s foreign minister Maxim Litvinov, wasn’t a likely candidate for a natural end. Yet she lived in Moscow with their children until 1972, when she returned to the U.K. The recipient of Kennan’s letter, the Book Haven’s own Elena Danielson, Hoover Institution archivist emerita, tells this and other tales about the British author in the current Sandstone & Tile here (beginning on p. 18):


(Photo: Joseph Freeman papers, Hoover Institution Archives)

“In November 1943, Ivy was traveling from Washington to Moscow and showed up, without warning, at the Stanford Library. She wanted to read a collection of original letters by her friend, British novelist D.H. Lawrence, in what was then known as the Felton Library. The research at Stanford was Ivy’s refuge in a dangerous time. In 1939, her husband had been dismissed as foreign minister and disgraced by Stalin, only to be recalled to active duty in 1941, when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union. He served as Stalin’s ambassador to Washington for a crucial year and a half, from December 1941 to spring 1943. He and Ivy arrived in the U.S. on December 7, while the Japanese were bombing Pearl Harbor. The Litvinovs, especially Ivy, were wildly popular guests in Washington and New York in 1942. She lunched with Eleanor Roosevelt and dined with Marjorie Merriweather Post, one of the wealthiest women in America. By 1943, however, Maxim – again in political difficulties – was abruptly recalled from Washington to Moscow and an uncertain fate.”

Still, she had a few dreamy days at the Stanford Library, where she recollected her loving, and stormy, history with D.H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda. She wrote in a letter to a friend: “In t. meantime I retire into my literary life and have been reading up on Lawrence & making unexpected discoveries… I went to Stanford University & was shut up for 2 days in t. adorable Felton Library, which has a rich collection of Lawrence being accumulated in the last 12 years, but I t. first person to ask to see it. In his letters found most amusing references to self. All this I have assembled & begun to write article.”

Elena writes, “Ivy may have spent most of her adult life in the Soviet Union, and she went down in history as the wife of Stalin’s foreign minister, but she always viewed herself primarily as Ivy Low, the writer. She was born into an environment where the people closest to her were constantly reading and writing for publication.”  She wrote for The New Yorker, Manchester Guardian, Blackwood’s Magazine, Vogue, as well as two published novels – and she did finally write her article “A Visit to D.H. Lawrence,” which was published in Harper’s Bazaar.  “Ivy’s research on Lawrence at Stanford helped her steady her nerves while awaiting her perilous return to the Soviet Union.”

Hoover acquired her papers, including letters, manuscripts and photos, in 1987 – not far from the D.H. Lawrence collection at Green Library.

It’s a fascinating story – read it here (again, beginning on p. 18).

More on the man who tried to stop the Holocaust: Jan Karski’s visit to Stanford

Friday, April 26th, 2013

photo(1)On Wednesday, we wrote about the Polish hero who tried to stop the Holocaust, Jan Karski.  No sooner posted than we got a letter from the former director of the Hoover Archives, Elena Danielson, who remembered one of his visits to Stanford (she’s pictured at right with Karski).  “Most of all, I was impressed by how gracious he was to us lowly archives staffers who brought him cardboard boxes full of the history he had saved half a century earlier,” she recalled. “He made us feel like keepers of the flame. His concern for human dignity was not just theoretical, it was part of his approach to life.”  The Jan Karski Papers collection was established at Hoover in 1946.

A story on Karski’s longstanding relationship with Hoover is here.  It begins: “A letter dated April 16, 1945, and signed by Stanford University president Donald Tresidder, formalized a relationship between Jan Karski and the Hoover Library (now known as the Hoover Institution) on War, Revolution and Peace that was to last until the end of Karski’s life. The letter confirmed a temporary appointment ‘to collect materials relating to political, economic, social, and other developments in Poland and other areas in Europe which have been attacked and occupied by Axis forces.'”

From Elena’s email:

Jan Karski was already a hero for those of us on the Hoover Archives staff when the East European curator Maciej Siekierski organized the visit by Jan Karski, seen in this photo from the mid-1990s [photo by Zbigniew Stanczyk]. Karski began working directly with Herbert Hoover back in 1945 to document the history of Poland in World War II. As a result, the Hoover Archives hold the largest collection of 20th century Polish archives outside of Poland, and the heart of the documentation is concern for human rights.

Hoover’s own interest in Poland went back to his humanitarian relief work there in World War I. Starting in 1945 Karski traveled to  London, Paris, and Rome, as well as Switzerland to coordinate the collection of documentation on the Nazi horrors in central Europe as well as the Soviet crimes. Those documents at Hoover preserved the truth about the Katyn massacre and the Gulag, information suppressed in Russia until 1992.  Karski used the same discretion, tact and diplomatic finesse to save the Polish embassy files abroad that he had used in his secret missions during the war.

jan_karskiThose skills were still evident in old age when I met him. He dressed meticulously, spoke in carefully chosen words, and conveyed the seriousness of his work to preserve the truth about the war. His sense of humor showed in ironic flashes. He told a story, now I’m retelling it from memory so I hope I have this about right, from 1942. He was in Switzerland conferring with OSS chiefs about his trip to the U.S. to see Roosevelt. He persuaded the OSS that they had to buy  him better shoes if they wanted him to be taken seriously by the president of the United States. Something like that. Most of all, I was impressed by how gracious he was to us lowly archives staffers who brought him cardboard boxes full of the history he had saved half a century earlier. He made us feel like keepers of the flame. His concern for human dignity was not just theoretical, it was part of his approach to life.