A polar explorer, Tatra Mountains climber (‘taternik’), and geologist. Participant of the first Polish polar expedition to Bear Island and creator of the Polish Polar Station – which now bears his name – on Spitsbergen.
– He was an outstanding scholar who made a significant contribution to Polish geology – recalled Stanisław Siedlecki’s friend, Prof. Ryszard W. Schramm. – And there would probably be no Polish polar expeditions as they are today without him.
Stanisław Siedlecki was born on 17 September 1912 in Cracow. His father, Michał, a professor of zoology at the Jagiellonian University and a traveller, died in 1940 in the German camp of Sachsenhausen, as one of the victims of the Sonderaktion Krakau – a Hitlerite action conducted on 6 November 1939, which led to imprisonment of 183 professors and assistants of the Jagiellonian University.
Stanisław started his Tatra activities quite early: in 1930, he became a member of the Polish Tatra Society. He climbed, among others, with Stanisław Motyka, Stefan Bernadzikiewicz and Jan Sawicki. And it was then that he got his nickname ‘Siaś’, which eventually stuck to him forever.
In 1933, Siaś was one of the 13 founding members of the Polish High-Mountain Club of the Tatra Society. A year earlier, as a freshman in mathematics and physics at the Jagiellonian University, he was part of a three-man expedition that spent 13 months on Bear Island as part of the Second International Polar Year. In this way, a key figure of Polish polar expeditions was born. The expedition to Bear Island made Siedlecki to change his field of study – geology opened up much greater possibilities for polar expeditions. He was also fascinated by the idea of organizing an expedition to Spitsbergen. This idea was realized in 1934, with the support of Stefan Bernadzikiewicz, a member of the Board of the High-Mountain Club of the Warsaw Branch of the Polish Tatra Society, who became the head of the expedition; and Prof. Antoni Bolesław Dobrowolski, a participant of the first Antarctic wintering on the ship ‘Belgica’. Dobrowolski required that the expedition would have a serious scientific program. The expedition operated in the western part of Torell Land (now Wedel Jarlsberg Land). Participants developed maps of the area covering about 300 km², introducing a number of Polish placenames. They conducted geological surveys of an area of about 750 km². They climbed 25 peaks, including 22 virgin summits. The expedition provided abundant photographic and film documentation.
In 1936, Stanisław Siedlecki, Stefan Bernadzikiewicz and Konstanty Narkiewicz-Jodko made the first traverse of Spitsbergen from 7 July to 1 September. They had crossed about 850 km.
– It was a unique project in the history of mountaineering and polar expeditions, much better known and appreciated abroad than in Poland. The expedition was relying on its own resources, without any communication and support, through complicated and difficult terrain, mostly without maps at all, the muddle of glaciers and unknown mountains – emphasized Ryszard W. Schramm. It was not until 44 years later that this traverse was repeated in completely different logistical and climatic conditions.
In 1937, Siedlecki participated in the first Polish scientific expedition to Greenland. It operated in the Artesiorfik.
He survived the Nazi occupation in Cracow. In 1944 he obtained a MA from the secret University of Warsaw. He initiated and organized the ‘Waga Action’ – securing the Tatra mountain huts near Waga Pass, by Morskie Oko lake and in Roztoka valley during the passage of the front in the summer of 1944.
Siedlecki’s Taternic activity flourished with new strength after World War II. He set out new paths. In 1947, he initiated, organized and directed the first post-war departure of Polish climbers to the Alps.
– Despite almost a ten-year break, prior acquaintance with the Alps by only three members of a ten-man team and highly outdated equipment, the trip was successful, bringing closer the resurging Polish mountaineering to the world – said Ryszard W. Schramm.
Since 1946, Stanisław Siedlecki had entered the path of scientific career. He was an assistant in the Department of Geology of the Jagiellonian University (in the years 1946-1951), worked in the Cracow Laboratory of the Earth Museum (Krakowska Pracownia Muzeum Ziemi; in the years 1951-1953), in the Upper Silesian Branch of Geological Institute (in the years 1953-1956), in the Department of Geological Sciences of the Polish Academy of Sciences (since 1956). He received his PhD in 1949 and an associate professorate in 1954.
Poland was to participate in the 1957-1958 world science project: The International Geophysical Year, creating a science station on Spitsbergen.
– For all those who knew the problems of the North, there was no doubt that the manager would be Siedlecki – wrote Jerzy Piotrowski, his Tatra and polar companion – He could not have a competitor because of his polar, expeditionary, scientific and language skills, among others, a first-class Norwegian. He also had a great mountaineering experience and a great ease of establishing personal contacts.
– One day in 1955, a huge BMW motorcycle drove my way on Szewska Street in Cracow – says Maciej Kuczyński, a polar explorer, speleologist, long-time President of The Polish Chapter of the Explorers Club. – On the motorcycle sat an unknown man in incredibly thick glasses, with a dusky face, and my sister, Małgorzata, a novice taternik. – This is my brother, and this is Siaś! – she introduced us. – Maciej organizes expeditions to the Tatra caves. – Then – said Siaś – maybe you would like to organize an expedition to Spitsbergen? – I did not hesitate for a second. I felt a strong embrace of his large, hard, hand of a geologist and taternik. We worked together for several months, building a team and equipment for the establishment of a station in Hornsund. I saw every day how his competence and self-confidence resulting from a thorough knowledge of the subject, impress the party apparatchiks, constantly nosing in our endeavour. His eminent authority prevented the expedition from being put into the hands of trusted party members, which could end in disaster. Many times, in the evenings, after being called on the carpet in the Central Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party, he told me how, giving personal guarantees, he managed to defend yet another participant – from removal – who was not liked by authorities. During the preparations, in Sweden and Norway, he gave me a wonderful lesson in diplomacy and savoir vivre, both in embassies, in salons and in the homes of Scandinavian polar explorers. He was remembered everywhere from the pre-war expeditions and was received with respect and friendship. During the reconnaissance expedition, when in Hornsund we were looking for a place to set up a Polish base, I found out what it means to be a ‘blood and bone polar explorer’. This was Siaś on the ice and in the tundra, during the snowstorm, hurricane, and frost he felt and behaved at home. Not surprisingly, he brought up a whole generation of polar explorers who regarded him as their master.
Siedlecki therefore led a reconnaissance expedition in 1956, then the construction of the polar station of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Hornsund, which today bears his name. He led expeditions from 1957 to 1958 and beyond as part of the International Geophysical Cooperation in 1959, 1960 and 1962. From 1964 to 1965, he worked in Norway as a scholarship holder of the Norwegian Royal Scientific and Technical Council.
Contrary to his original intentions, he settled in Norway and until his retirement in 1980, worked at the Norwegian Geological Institute, conducting a geological reconnaissance of the Varanger Peninsula. In his home in Trondheim and in a summer cottage on a small fjord, which he gave the name ‘Wawel’ (after the Royal Castle in Cracow), he often hosted his Polish friends.
– We established the ‘Society of Old People of Don’ – recalled one of them, the writer Jan Józef Szczepański. – The program consisted of two points: the fight against communism and the breeding of rhododendrons.
Since 1978, Siedlecki participated in the annual meetings of the Polar Club in Poland. In 1980, he became a member of The Explorers Club. In the same year, he took part in the realization of his old idea: to travel all the way around Spitsbergen on small deckless boats. This expedition was organized by his long-time friend, Ryszard W. Schramm, admitted to The Explorers Club a year earlier. Siedlecki then approached his 68th birthday and had coronary artery disease. He wrote in a letter to Ryszard: ‘I am aware of the risks I am taking. I take all responsibility. So, if the efforts of the expedition would accelerate the end of my life, then this price of my participation in the expedition, in my opinion and my calculation, will not be either too high or paid prematurely. I’m prepared for it.’
Ryszard Schramm’s son, Tomasz, who participated in this expedition, wrote: ‘Having Stanisław Siedlecki as our commander and companion was itself exciting. Indeed, he was a living monument to Polish polar exploration! And now we were with him together, and in this way somehow we also made history – and we were proud of it.’ Due to various difficulties, including severe weather conditions, this cruise was suspended. For health reasons, Siedlecki did not participate in the second part of the undertaking in 1983.
Siedlecki was very committed to the development of Polish polar exploration – from the first of his expeditions and the drafting, in 1936, of a memorial to the Ministry of Religious Denominations and Public Enlightenment regarding Poland’s ownership of its own research vessel adapted for navigating in the polar seas, to patronizing various projects of his younger successors from Poland, ruled by Communists.
– When submitting the visa forms, we were facing the requirement to provide a recommendation in Norway – recalled Adam Krawczyk, who organized the mountaineering expedition to Hornsund in 1973. – Without any contacts there, we came up with an idea that today still seems naive and cheeky to write to Stanisław Siedlecki in Trondheim. The professor not only agreed to use his name, but in anticipation of the arrival of the documents, he himself made a recommendation to the Norwegian authorities. Let us put ourselves in his situation: here is a group of young people unknown to him, whose true intentions, responsibility, honesty he knows nothing about, who want to use his name to ensure that they will not ask for asylum, will not work illegally, steal or spy. This trust and help shown to us to this day amazes and fills me with respect.
Jan Marcin Węsławski, a participant in the wintering expedition at Hornsund station in 1981-1982, recalled a critical moment on 13 December 1981 – the day when the authorities declared martial law in Poland:
– We had no doubt that we should ask him for advice and care. Being cut off from any news from Poland, we expected at any time the Russian invasion. We did not know what position the Norwegians would take towards us. After listening to a radio message from Warsaw, we went to write a letter to the Professor. The letter contained both our unequivocal political declaration and a number of specific questions – for example, the possibility of political asylum in Norway. When after a month came a letter from Trondheim, it turned out that Siedlecki on the same day wrote ‘To the crew of the Polish Polar Station in Hornsund’. He did not know us; he did not know who was on the expedition. Whether there are agents of The Office of Public Security, the military, or appointed by the party polar explorers. He felt responsible for the station and the people in it. He wrote a beautiful and wise letter, offering his help and experience. Siedlecki, known from the stories and polar legend, turned out to be the same in real life.
– We are all a bit moved, but also embarrassed. Here we are in historical encounter: we meet a man-legend of Polish polar research. The embarrassment passes quickly. The professor is a very nice person, interested in everything – the functioning of the station, our research programs. And he is a great storyteller – Krzysztof Opaliński, a polar explorer, recalled the meeting with Stanisław Siedlecki.
– He could spend hours recalling interesting, breath-taking memories of his expeditions to Spitsbergen and Greenland – ensured Prof. Krzysztof Birkenmajer.
– Probably the greatest, most valuable historical merit of Stanisław Siedlecki is to carry the Polish polar tradition through the abyss of World War II, to renew it and to educate a new generation of researchers – in the opinion of Maciej Kuczyński. – For years and today, too, everything that happens under the white and red flag near both poles – is because of him.
In 1991, Prof. Stanisław Siedlecki returned to Poland and settled in Łódź, where he died on 7 March 2002.
Tomasz Schramm, prof. dr hab. (FI ’1998 – The Explorers Club)
Monika Rogozińska (FI ’1993 – The Explorers Club)
Redakcja i przygotowanie do publikacji Róża Paszkowska
Siedlecki S., „Wśród polarnych pustyń Svalbardu” [In polar deserts of Svalbard], Warszawa-Lwów 1935.
Siedlecki S., „Dom pod biegunem” [The home at the pole], Warszawa 1964.
Schramm R. W. dir., „Pamiątkowa księga przyjaźni. Stanisław Siedlecki”, [Commemorative book of friendship – Stanislaw Siedlecki], published independently by R.W. Schramm (1992).