A brave priest’s disappearance still haunts Britain’s Poles
A story needs an ending. Until we reach its final sentence we watch and wait for the peace that comes from knowing.
My mother was born eight days after Fr Henryk Borynski vanished. They never met, but like many children born to Polish immigrants in Bradford during the 1950s, she knows by heart the beginning of Fr Borynski’s story, but not the final chapter.
Irena Beck, affectionately known to my mother as Ciocia – “auntie” in Polish – was one of the last people to see Fr Borynski on the day of his disappearance. The priest had arrived in England with the Polish Second Corps in 1946. He was discharged three years later and appointed as chaplain to Bradford’s Polish community in October 1952.
Polish priests were not housed inside their local Catholic church at the time, so Fr Borynski led a peaceful existence, lodging with Ciocia and her husband, Colonel Beck, at 82 Little Horton Lane.
When the telephone rang on the evening of July 13 1953, Fr Borynski beat her to it. He cupped his hand over the receiver, replying in a strange, clipped style.
Ciocia sensed the call was private and left the room. Leaving the door ajar, she heard Fr Borynski say in Polish “OK, I’ll go”, before replacing the handset.
Taking his hat and his coat he told her he was going out and that he was not sure what time he would return. Ciocia never saw him again.
Fr Borynski’s disappearance made an enduring impact on Bradford’s Polish community. In an article for the Polish magazine Biblioteka Kultury, published eight years after he vanished, Fr Borynski was described as “a truly unique character”. The magazine praises him for his dynamism and versatility – traits similar to those of another Polish priest, who later became Pope – and it describes how Fr Borynski could turn his hand to writing an academic paper as effortlessly as he could turn his feet to kicking a ball.
Although he did not spend so much as a year as Bradford’s Polish chaplain, the Fr Borynski era was known as a Golden Age for the city’s Poles. The 42-year-old was renowned for voicing his strong opposition to Communism from the pulpit, his vivacity and strong build. It is easy to appreciate why, for weary congregants battered by the brutality of Nazism and Communism, this patriotic Pole soon became a mountain of hope. Because this mountain crumbled in mere moments the impact was devastating.
The same magazine report notes that eight years after the incident any conversation among Poles inevitably returned to the fate of Fr Borynski, who was last seen leaving Little Horton Lane.
And even now, 60 years on, his name still stings. A telephone call to a local library in West Yorkshire soon grew eerie.
“Borynski?” The librarian gulped and paused. “You’ve hit a nerve there. I never met him, he went missing just before I was born but my father played tennis with him. They never found his body, though. They think he was murdered.”
Generations later, the children who Fr Borynski never knew inherit their parents’ question: what happened to the priest on that infamous summer’s eve?
Both Ciocia and her husband were haunted by this question. Ciocia was displaced by the Soviet occupation of Poland during World War II and her husband, Colonel Beck, was a Polish officer who had endured a Nazi prisoner of war camp. But both testified until their dying day that it was Fr Borynski’s disappearance that most disturbed them ever after and catalysed a decline in their health.
Ciocia and her husband soon fled 82 Little Horton Lane in an effort to avoid painful memories. Ciocia got rid of the phone. She explained to my mother that, after all, it had been a telephone which had summoned the beloved Borynski to sudden oblivion. But a book on Padre Pio, which had been a gift from Fr Borynski, was the treasure of the Becks’s new bookshelf.
It was not just Ciocia and her husband who remained devoted and disturbed. In 1962, nine years after Fr Borynski’s disappearance, a rumour circulated that a Soviet spy had confessed to murdering their priest and the Polish community wasted no time in responding. The Yorkshire Post reported: “Over 3,000 Poles and Ukrainians in Bradford will help police search Ilkley Moors, for the body of Polish Priest, Fr Borynski, if reports that he is secretly buried there are confirmed.”
As the news broke, Canon Henryk Czorny, senior Polish chaplain for West Yorkshire, told The Catholic Herald: “I was one of the last people to see Fr Borynski alive. I have always believed that he might have stumbled on a Soviet secret service ring in Bradford. Russian agents were known to be working in Bradford at the time of Fr Borynski’s disappearance.
“If Fr Borynski had found out who they were, they might have regarded him as too dangerous to have around. He may have known too much… but if they thought that they could intimidate us by removing the strongest pillar of the Polish community in Bradford they were wrong.”
The reports concerning the Soviet spy were soon dismissed as rumour but the desire in Poles to find their priest still burned.
It is unlikely that we will ever know who telephoned Fr Borynski on that fateful evening in July. But we do know that the priest claimed he had received a phone call earlier that day from his controversial predecessor, requesting that Fr Borynski paid him a visit.
Police records indicate that the Polish community had not warmed to Canon Bolesław Martynellis. Their discontent eventually resulted in Fr Borynski taking over his role, to the satisfaction of most but to the anger of others. Relations became bitter and strained as Martynellis refused to leave Bradford.
Canon Martynellis denied that he phoned Fr Borynski on the day he disappeared but admitted the priest had visited him.
After initial whispers of Communist conspiracies the media spotlight fell on Canon Martynellis approximately three weeks after Borynski’s disappearance. The canon made headlines because he was found collapsed in his study and on the desk beside him, using matchsticks to form the letters, his attackers had spelt Milcz Klecho, Polish words meaning “stay silent, priest.”
And yet police files cast doubt on whether Canon Martynellis was targeted and he later admitted that he may have imagined it.
When Canon Martynellis died of a heart attack in 1955, Bishop John Carmel Heenan of Leeds defended the priest during his Requiem Mass, dismissing “dark hints” in the media regarding Canon Martynellis and Fr Borynski as “absurd”.
Fifty years after the disappearance, former Det Chief Supt Bob Taylor, who worked on the Fr Borynski case, told the BBC that he believed Canon Martynellis was used by Communist agents in Bradford to set a trap for the beloved Fr Borynski.
He said: “I believe Canon Martynellis may have been told that this was the way to keep his old job and that he did not realise what he was getting involved in until it was too late.”
But police files document a number of conflicting theories and it seems impossible now that any of them can be categorically proven.
Letters were found from Fr Borynski’s little sister to Ciocia begging her not to write a word to Fr Borynski’s mother about his disappearance. She asked Ciocia to send Mrs Borynski, a kilo of of pepper, cocoa and some warm clothing in order to convince her that that her son was still alive: “He always sent a parcel for Christmas,” she wrote, and their mother was “in great despair”.
When Fr Borynski disappeared those who loved him had little choice but to rummage for some sort of ending even to the point of fantasy. When Canon Martynellis died, the Daily Herald declared: “He dies with his secret.”
One can never be sure what secrets died with either man – or, indeed, anyone connected with this unforgettable Polish priest.
We all know how Fr Borynski’s story began. But with the passage of time the ending remains unknown and buried ever deeper.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald, dated 26/7/13