Marcin Kroczak retraces the steps of his ancestor, exiled to Siberia

Jan Pacześny, Marcin' great-grandfather, surrounded by his students, at Wywłoczka, around 1938. © DR

Jan Pacześny, Marcin' great-grandfather, surrounded by his students, at Wywłoczka, around 1938. © DR

This summer, Marcin Kroczak – a first-year EPFL student of Polish origin, majoring in communication systems – hopes to embark on an “extraordinary journey.”

Last year, Marcin Kroczak spotted an unusual poster at the local high school in Nyon. The Lombard Odier Foundation was offering students a chance to win an “extraordinary journey.” Applicants had to choose a destination and make a convincing case about why they wanted to go there. Marcin, who is passionate about skiing and kitesurfing, wanted to apply but couldn’t decide which destination to select. In the end, his origins became the decisive factor. He thought it would be interesting to shed light on a gap in his family’s history and travel to the place where his great-grandfather had died. Towards the end of WW II, his great-grandfather was deported from Poland to Western Siberia by the Soviets. The Foundation’s selection panel liked Marcin’s idea and awarded him a CHF 5,500 grant last summer.

Marcin Kroczak. ©DR

The 19-year-old Bachelor’s student hopes to make his “extraordinary journey” this summer. “It’s still very abstract for me,” he says. He has started learning Russian and already has a list of books to take with him on the Trans-Siberian Railway. For the moment, his two-month expedition exists only on paper, separated by ski slopes, Lake Geneva, his studies and the pandemic-related uncertainty. “It’s hard to immerse yourself in a tragic story when you’re comfortably ensconced by the lake,” Marcin says. “It will seem real only once I’m actually there.”

Coming full circle

Marcin Kroczak, who grew up between two cultures, was for a long time “the Pole” in Switzerland and “the Szwajcar” in Poland. Although “this was not easy at times,” Marcin turned it to his advantage, searching for his roots during visits to Poland and on trips elsewhere in the world. But in the stories told by his relatives, particularly by his grandfather’s sisters who stayed behind in Poland, there was an unfinished chapter: that of his great-grandfather, who was arrested in front of his wife and children. Kroczak’s grandfather was three years old when his father was sent to a Soviet labor camp, never to return. “He was a respectable man, an elementary school teacher, involved in the Home Army (the resistance units that fought for the liberation and independence of Poland) [...] a kind, loving person who was deported by a totalitarian regime because of his political beliefs,” Marcin wrote in his application. “Retracing the steps of my great-grandfather and visiting the place he perished would be a way to bring this part of our family’s story to a close.”

For Marcin Kroczak, however, his idea is far from one-dimensional. Not only does he plan to complete an unfinished family history, he will also shape his own story. Travelling alone, especially in Siberia, will give him a unique opportunity to spend quality time with himself. The stakes are high: “Learning to live with oneself, alone but in good company, lays the foundations for a happy life.”

Planning, but not too much

Far from EPFL, perseverance will be Marcin’s guiding star during the hundreds of hours on trains that will take him from French-speaking Switzerland to Rezh, nearly 5,000 km east of the Urals. During his trip the unknown will play a role, with some elements deliberately left unplanned. Although the outbound journey is already mapped out – from Wrocław and Tomaszów Lubelski in Poland to Moscow, Yekaterinburg and ultimately Rezh – Marcin’s return trip is still up in the air. He is hesitating between a direct route home, a swing through Beijing, or some other itinerary yet to be established, which will depend on a number of factors. “Travelling is an adventure that cannot be planned,” he says. Something that is especially true in the time of COVID-19.