Red Snow - A Young Pole's Epic Search for his Family in Stalinist Russia

Red Snow - Telesfor Sobierajski

At the end of February 1940 Telesfor Sobierajski travelled by train from his school in Pinsk back to his family home in eastern Poland. He found his home occupied by strangers and his parents and siblings gone. They had been deported by the Soviets and sent into exile in Siberia.

During the night of 10 February 1940 the Soviet NKVD had banged on his parents' door, told them to gather their belongings and at gunpoint had escorted them to a train of cattle trucks. All over eastern Poland on this bitterly cold night thousands of Polish families were rounded up and sent into the depths of Russia. Most of them would never see Poland again.

Invasion of Poland

Telesfor Sobierajski grew up in a small hamlet in the Pripet Marshes in eastern Poland. After the 1st world war and the defeat of Soviet Russia by Poland in 1920 the Polish government gave land to young Poles in the newly acquired eastern territories. Telesfor's father was one of those settlers who established himself as a farmer.

In September 1939 Telesfor was nearly 14 when Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Seventeen days later the Soviet Union attacked Poland from the east. The Nazis and Soviets divided Poland between them. Germany occupied the west and the Soviets the east.

Journey into Exile

After Telesfor's return to his home he went to stay with his nearby Aunt and Uncle. There he was visited by a military man and told he would be taken to a police station in Wysock. From there he was taken by train 250 miles to Rowne and handed over to the NKVD. He was placed in a synagogue together with others who were part of families.

In March the Red Army loaded them all onto cattle trucks and the train headed east towards Kiev. Over a week later the train passed through Moscow before heading toward Gorky and eventually after two weeks arrived at their destination a work camp called Lesopunkt 5.

We queued for our meals, which was always soup and some bread...on rare occasions you could find a bit of meat which later I found out to be horse meat. (p. 37)

The camp inmates were able to write letters to Poland. Telesfor wrote to his aunt. He received a reply which told him his family were living in a place called Kotlas in the far north of Siberia. He immediately wrote to his parents. Autumn arrived and the camp authorities told Telesfor that he would be released to join his family in Kotlas.

Finding his Family

Telesfor set off with a handful of others and an unarmed soldier. They travelled by train to Archangel. Snow was falling when they arrived. After a number of days they were given a place on a steamboat heading south toward Kotlas. Telesfor found shelter amongst a pile of logs next to the ship's funnel which gave out heat.

A few days into the journey...snow was falling heavily and ice flows increased considerably...The speed of the boat had been reduced by continuous collisions with the ice and by manoeuvres to avoid it...we could see a small landing platform...we docked...and stopped. We had not even completed half the journey. (p. 51)

Telesfor and the others left the ship and found accommodation on an industrial estate. He was put to work in a warehouse. In spring they continued their journey. They were to walk from village to village. The villages were far apart and connected by roads in the forest. They eventually reached a railway station and continued their journey by train.

Telesfor fell very ill and found himself in some buildings. He was looked after by Polish families. His recovery was slow but he was eventually able to resume his journey to Kotlas by sledge. His travelling companion was a Russian who made the journey regularly. From Kotlas he continued to Vitunino internment camp where his family was said to be.

Reunited with his Family

Telesfor arrived at Vitunino in the morning. He asked someone where he could find the Sobierajski family and was directed up a hill, down the other side and it was the first hut. He walked into the hut and saw the familiar faces of his family.

My younger sister, Joanna, shouted my name, the unreal nightmarish scene was over. All eyes turned in disbelief. Sobbing uncontrollably, I lunged forwards into the open arms of my mother and father. We stood there close together, my parents crying as only parents can when their lost son is found...My mother would not let me go, keeping me close by her side, continuously praising God for my safe return and for answering her prayers. (p. 66-67)

Vitunino

The camp at Vitunino was deep in the Siberian forest on the banks of the River Viled. There was around 1,200 Polish people. They lived in wooden huts. Telesfor's father and his 16 year old sister worked in the forest as part of a gang felling trees. The temperature could drop as low as -50 C.

In the summer of 1941 the camp Commandant told the occupants of the camp that the long term future for them was here and that they should forget all about Poland as their country no longer existed. However, on 22 June 1941 Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union. The Soviets signed an agreement with the Polish-government-in-exile in London that Poles in the Soviet Union would be released from captivity and that a Polish Army would be formed in Russia.

The historic event we all prayed for was to us a miracle that changed the rest of our lives. I was not present at the meeting called by The Commandant, but the announcement went through the camp like lightning: we were free to leave the camp and may, if we wished, travel south, where a Polish Army was being formed. (p. 90)

The camp Commandant explained that he thought the Polish Army was being established somewhere in Uzbekistan. This was 2,000 miles from Vitunino. The Poles who chose to leave the camp would have to make their own way there.

Journey to Uzbekistan

Telesfor's family chose to leave the camp immediately. They built a raft intending to sail down the river to the nearest railway station at Kotlas. In september 1941 dozens of rafts set sail. After a few days they arrived in Kotlas. There they were able to hire two cattle trucks. These were attached to a goods train.

At various places the cattle trucks were detached from the train, left in a siding for an unspecified time and then re-attached to another train. At these stops the families would desperately search for food. In October 1941 they arrived in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, exhausted and starved.

There they found that thousands of Poles were converging on Tashkent looking for the Polish Army. The Soviets, to alleviate the congestion, dispersed the Poles by sending them to collective farms. Telesfor's family was taken through Samarkand and left on the banks of the Amur Darya river.

After a number of days they travelled by barge on the river, then by cart with oxen and camels to a small village. There they were to work in the fields picking cotton. In October 1941 they retraced their steps back to the river and travelled again by barges. They found themselves back where they had started on the banks of the Amur Darya river.

As days went by and no one took much interest in our plight, the situation became critical...lack of food made us desperate...Disaster was not far away for the hundreds of men, women and children living in appalling conditions on the banks of the Amur Darya River. Would the voyage across Russia so eagerly undertaken only a few months ago now end in tragedy? (p. 121-122)

Many days later Uzbeks arrived on the river bank with orders to collect the families and disperse them to collective farms. For Telesfor's family life on the collective farm was desperate: they were slowly starving. Shortly after Christmas 1941 Telesfor's father suggested to Telesfor that he should go to the nearest Polish Army base as this would give him his greatest chance of surviving.

Escape from the Soviet Union

Telesfor left his family and travelled to Guzar by train. On the station platform at Guzar he found soldiers dressed in the uniform of the Polish Army. They directed him to the Polish Army base. He was given a place in a tent along with twenty or so other Polish boys. The cold weather of January 1942 made their lives miserable. Telesfor became very ill with Typhus.

The Soviet leader Stalin had agreed with the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the Polish government-in-exile leader General Sikorksi that Polish Army units could leave the Soviet Union. In March 1942 Telesfor boarded a cargo ship at Krasnovodsk and crossed the Caspian sea to Persia.

Through that same gangway some 114,000 Polish men, women and children walked to freedom out of 1,500,000 Poles forcibly deported in 1940. The rest, even those who succeeded in reaching the south, were left behind. (p. 148)

Telesfor trained with Polish Army units in the Middle East. He sailed to Great Britain in 1944 and trained as an air gunner. He was reunited with his family in Britain after the war: all except his mother who he never saw again.

Red Snow - A Young Pole's Epic Search for his Family in Stalinist Russia

Author - Telesfor Sobierajski
ISBN - 0850525004
Publisher - Pen & Sword Books Ltd in 1996.
Book Availability - Amazon (UK) - Amazon (US) - Bookfinder.com

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This page was added on 10 June 2012.