The Times West Virginian

October 24, 2012

HERTZEL COLUMN: Szwed’s story one of hope

By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — Judging by the correspondence ever since West Virginia University was knocked silly for a second straight time on the football field, you would like that the world had been overcome by plague and pestilence.

It has hit so hard and come from so many directions, including out of the very same computer that this is being composed upon, that we were driven to find something that was inspiring to share with the world.

That led us to Carolyn Atkins’ twice-a-year “Student Athletes Speak Out” presentation, a public speaking class in which any number of WVU athletes offer inspirational messages. Considering the depths of depression this community and state have reached, this needed to be something more than just your tale of an athlete escaping poverty or a crime-laden area to make good.

The tale that qualified came, no less, from a woman’s soccer player, Caroline Szwed, and it was a tale that shows the reality that no matter how bad things may seem, there is always hope just on the other side of hopelessness.

Hers is a tale from another era, from the cold war, a heroic, uplifting tale featuring her father.

“With no money in his pocket, at the age of 26, he and three friends snuck onto container boat in France in search of freedom and a new life,” she explained.

Too often we all take our freedoms for granted, including that freedom you have to boo your home football team when it goes bad as well as cheer it when it is going good.

Freedom, though, has a price, and Caroline Szwed’s father, Marek Szwed, paid it, and she is now reaping the benefits.

Her father was born under communist rule in Poland.

“Although he hated the lifestyle, he was succumbing to it until two things happened,” Szwed explained. “First, my mom (Agata) had a baby boy, and my dad wanted a better life for his family.”

That wasn’t really the driving issue, though. This was:

“Second, my dad was breaking a rule one day when he was in church. He was praying,” she said. “The police entered, arrested him and took him to jail. My mother and grandmother had no idea where he was. This was particularly worrisome for them because some years earlier the same had happened to my grandfather.”

And when her grandmother went in search of her husband, she learned he’d been killed in jail.

“Obviously, those thoughts were going through her mind,” Szwed said.    Upon being released from jail, her father convinced his wife the family needed to leave Poland. He knew he’d never get permission from the government to leave, unless he could be an invited guest to another country.

He called his aunt in Germany, received a formal information, and was granted permission for a two-week trip. It was the first leg of a fantastic journey.

While there, they went to car-rental service and asked to borrow a car for a couple of days. Unable to rent one because they had no money, they convinced the agent to loan them the car “for a few hours.”

Off to France they went, hopeful no one would pull them over, knowing that were they caught escaping, there would be retribution to his family back home.

Upon reaching France, they tried to join the army but were denied, not being citizens. However, before it was learned they were not citizens, they were given transportation across the country and upon arrival at the destination tried to get a room at the Salvation Army, only to be denied again and warned that if they were not gone by the next day they would be turned in to the authorities.

They had seemed to reach the end of the line, only to learn that there were a number of container boats leaving that night.

 “Even though they had no idea where the boats were going, they knew that they had to get on one,” Szwed related. “It was nighttime when they snuck on. The four went to the basement of the boat and snuck into a compartment for two and had water up to their knees.”

And that’s where they stayed for four nights and three days with no food, no water, until they could take it no longer, chancing giving themselves up for sustenance.

“To their surprise, the captain of the boat was shocked yet very understanding,” Szwed related. “He worked out a deal with them. Even though there was a language barrier between them, they understood that they would be given food and water in return for hard work.”

They spent many weeks on the boat before arriving in Montreal, Canada, where they settled in.

“He didn’t speak the language, had no money, and nowhere to live,” she continued. “He was homeless for a few months, living at a park until he and his friends found jobs with an electronic company.”

Three years later, settled in, he sent for his wife and her brother and, a few years, later Caroline Szwed was born.

The lesson?

“I know that because of him and what he was able to achieve, impossible really is nothing.”

It is a lesson the West Virginia football team and fans can learn from, too.

Email Bob Hertzel at or follow him on Twitter@bhertzel