Japan, Poland mark centennial of Polish orphans’ rescue from Siberia

    Tokyo and Warsaw have commemorated the centennial of Japan’s rescue of hundreds of Polish orphans from Siberia, saying the humanitarian act continues to carry significance as Poland is hosting about 1 million displaced people from war-hit Ukraine.

    Hirobumi Niki, a Japanese lawmaker who belongs to the Japan-Poland Parliamentary Friendship Association, called for increased coordination between the two countries, which share the experience of supporting war-displaced people including children, in bringing an end to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

    “It is extremely important that Japan and Poland step up efforts to prevent war, which creates tragedies like generating orphans, and maintain peace in partnership with other countries,” Niki, a House of Representatives member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, said during a ceremony on Thursday at the Polish Embassy in Tokyo.

    Polish Ambassador to Japan Pawel Milewski said, “With the world witnessing Russia’s brutal acts in Ukraine, Warsaw and Tokyo must promote the relationship of goodwill we have fostered for over 100 years based on humanitarianism.”

    Niki also attended a similar event in Warsaw on Sept. 26 with the participation of Agata Kornhauser-Duda, wife of Polish President Andrzej Duda, and descendants of the orphans. The events, initially scheduled for 2020, were postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

    Following a request by a Polish organization launched in 1919 in Vladivostok in the Russian Far East, the Japanese Red Cross Society conducted rescue and relief missions from 1920 to 1922 for a total of 765 Polish children who lost their families in the chaos in Siberia due to the 1917 Russian Revolution and an ensuing civil war.

    Russian authorities had sent a large number of people from what is now Poland to Siberia, including participants in uprisings against Russian rule and those recruited for railway construction, with many of them suffering hunger, poverty and disease.

    After being transported to Japan via Tsuruga Port in Fukui Prefecture, the children rested in facilities in Tokyo and Osaka, before returning home via the United States or Britain.

    In the first transport mission from Vladivostok, a total of 375 orphans traveled to Tokyo in five groups from 1920 to 1921 and stayed at a children’s home run by the Fukudenkai social welfare corporation in what is now the capital’s Shibuya Ward.

    Fukudenkai, founded in 1876, was chosen because the home, located next to what is now the Japanese Red Cross Medical Center, had a playground and other facilities for children, according to Aoi Murakami, a member of a research group on the history of the facility.

    “The Japanese Red Cross Society was in charge of relief activities of the Polish children and Fukudenkai offered free accommodation,” she said in an interview. “The children stayed for up to a few months and regained strength before leaving for Seattle by ship.”

    While in Tokyo, the orphans visited the Ueno Zoological Gardens and the Nikko Toshogu shrine in Tochigi Prefecture, and took a cruise on the Tama River in western Tokyo. They also attended Sunday Masses at the Catholic Azabu Church, according to Murakami.

    In the second transport mission, a total of 390 orphans traveled from Vladivostok to Osaka in three groups in 1922. They stayed in the city for up to a month before departing for London via the Suez Canal.

    Upon leaving Kobe Port near Osaka, the Polish children and those seeing them off “had tears in their eyes as they bade farewell,” Murakami said, citing historical documents and daily logs of the Japanese Red Cross Society.

    “We will never forget this noble act by Japan,” said Beata Daszynska-Muzyczka, president of the Polish development bank BGK, on the sidelines of the Polish Embassy event in Tokyo. “This demonstrates the bond of empathy, solidarity and aid between our two countries.”

    Besides commemorating the success of the humanitarian mission some 100 years ago, Murakami said she wants Tokyo and Warsaw to strongly push those involved in war and conflicts in Ukraine, Gaza and other battlegrounds to end their hostilities.

    “War and conflicts are major causes of generating orphans,” she said. “I want Russia and other parties to learn from the fates of Polish children in Siberia.”

    By Nadeem Faisal Baiga