Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Saga of Poland's "Siberian Children"

One of the few heartwarming stories to come out of the turmoil of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution is that of the Polish children rescued by the Japanese government and returned to their homeland in 1922. This story is one that is little-known outside of Poland, where the children are called the "Siberian Children".

In 1919, over 100,000 Poles were stranded in far-eastern Siberia due to the civil war raging in the West between the Bolsheviks and the Whites. These people had no way to make a livelihood and were ravaged by famine and illness. They were dying a slow, agonizing death in a foreign land.

The adults decided that if they were going to die in Siberia, fine. However, they did not want their children (many of whom were orphans) to suffer the same fate. So they formed a relief group and launched appeals to various European countries as well as the US to help transport some of these children out of Russia and back to Poland. All of these countries ignored their plea for help.

However, there was one country that listened and offered to help. That country was Japan. After one of the relief group's leaders arrived in Japan and asked the Japanese government for assistance, they agreed to help. The Japanese Red Cross would dispatch ships to Russia to evacuate the children. They would also provide medical assistance to the children, who had been ravaged with malnutrition and typhoid fever, until they were well-enough to start the journey to Poland.

In July, 1920, a Japanese Red Cross ship arrived in Vladivostok for the children. From July 1920-July 1922, 765 Polish children were saved. People from all over Japan provided assistance for the children including clothing and food donations. Some Japanese even made woolen sweaters for the children to take home to Poland, fearing that Poland would be a very cold place! The children stayed in Japan until they were healthy enough to travel.

In late August-September 1922, the Polish children left Japan to begin the long journey back to Poland. They were given a warm send-off by the Japanese, to whom the Polish children shouted "Arigatou! Sayonara!" ("Thank you! Goodbye") and sang the Japanese national anthem as the ship departed.

Over time, the Siberian Children stayed in close touch, but 17 years later, another devastating war would come to Poland and their story would be nearly forgotten in the aftermath of World War II and four and a half decades of communist rule, during which their story was censored by the authorities so as to not harm Polish-Soviet relations.

After communist rule ended in 1989, the public regained an interest in the saga of the Siberian Children and the Japanese embassy in Warsaw began hosting meetings with some of the surviving Siberian Children in 1993. However, at this point in time, the surviving children were well in their eighties and their numbers were dropping. In July 2002, Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko visited Poland and met with three of the surviving Siberian Children.

These children experience hardships that most children will never know, but thanks to the generosity of the Japanese people, the Siberian Children were able to go home. When disaster struck Japan in March 2011, the Polish people were able to return the favor.

- (Polish language site about the Siberian children. Includes pictures.)
- (Internet forum which includes an article written by former Japanese ambassador to Poland Prof. Nagao Hyodo.)


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