Extraordinary tale of Polish orphans saved from Siberia by Japan in 1920 subject of new documentary
Anna ‘Andzia’ Wrońska, was just two years old when she was taken from an orphanage in Siberia in 1920 and boarded onto a ship bound for Japan.
One of several hundred orphans of Polish families exiled under Russian partitions, she and the others were eventually evacuated and returned to Poland as part of an incredible rescue operation involving the Japanese Red Cross, the Japanese Empress and later Ignacy Jan Paderewski.
Now, 100 years on, Andzia’s story is the subject of a new documentary, ‘Andzia, the history of one journey’.
Chronicling the extraordinary story of the nearly 900 Polish orphans rescued from Siberia, the documentary tells of how they were taken to Japan, nursed back to health and ultimately safely returned to Poland via America, the Suez Canal or Russia between 1920-1922.
Paweł Bajerlein president of the Krotochwile Association (Stowarzyszenie Krotochwile), the cultural organisation producing the film, discovered the story after looking into his own family history and was immediately captivated.
He told TFN: “I had been looking up my family tree and found that I was a distant relation of Andzia’s son Karol Siwiński. That’s how I found out about Andzia’s story and the diary she wrote.
“I had never heard of the Japanese rescue of Polish orphans from Siberia and immediately spoke to my colleagues and we decided we needed to bring Andzia’s and the orphans’ story to the world.”
Before their rescue, the orphans were living amid poverty and diseased orphanages in Siberia.
Against the backdrop of the ongoing Polish-Bolshevik war, which would only end in 1921, their fate in 1920 looked bleak and would likely have been so if not for the tireless campaigns of Polish teacher and social activist Anna Bielkiewicz.
Bielkiewicz was the daughter of a Polish exile to Siberia who was one of the designers of the Trans-Siberian railway.
In 1919, together with doctor Józef Jakóbkiewicz, she set up the Polish Emergency Committee for Children of the Far East and the pair appealed to different countries for help to save the Polish orphans, a plea initially declined by several countries, including China.
Eventually, after a successful trip to Japan to try to persuade the Japanese Minister of Defence, Bielkiewicz received approval and assurances of assistance for the evacuation of the Polish orphans from the Japanese Red Cross and the first group of orphans arrived at the port of Tsuruga in 1920.
Once in Japan, the children were taken to the Fukudenkai orphanage in Tokyo where they were cared for by nurses and guardians and made to feel at home through organised trips, sightseeing excursions and games with Japanese children.
Everything was done to make them feel at home and return them to strength before an onward journey to Poland could be organised.
As the youngest orphan, Andzia came to be a symbol of the children’s story and she received considerable attention in Japanese media coverage of the children’s arrival, for example a picture was circulated of her being fed by Senator S. Sakamoto, the Vice President of the Japanese Red Cross.
Such was the interest in the Polish orphans in Japanese society, that they were even personally visited by Empress Sadako, who was witnessed breaking protocol to stroke Andzia’s head.
Andzia eventually made it back to Poland via the USA, where archival materials can also be found documenting the children’s arrival and several month stay in Seattle and Chicago before they embarked on the last leg of their journey to Poland.
While in America, the children were also supported by influential patrons, this time receiving the help of Polish pianist and politician Ignacy Jan Paderewski and his wife Helena.
Andzia was eventually adopted by a childless married couple in 1922. She would never again visit Japan, but she would later document her story in a retrospective diary which she wrote at the age of around 40.
The story of the extraordinary Japanese naval rescue of Polish orphans, though not new, was forgotten for many years until another chance encounter in 2010, when, while out on a run in Tokyo, Polish Amabassador to Japan, Jadwiga Rodowicz-Czechowska coincidentally discovered the Fukudenkai building.
Already familiar with the orphans’ story and surprised to discover the building, she contacted Fukudenkai and triggered a renewed cooperation between Fukudenkai and Poland.
Since 2019, the Social Welfare Corporation Fukudenkai has run the siberianchildren.pl webpage where the names of all of the Polish orphans rescued by Japan are listed and where information can be found about events and initiatives run by the organisation to commemorate the story in both Japan and Poland.
The organisation has also published an appeal for contact from descendants of the orphans, all of whom have now passed away.
Ceremonies to commemorate the centenary of the children’s arrival in Japan had also been planned for September and November 2021, but have been put off til 2022 due to the pandemic.
Since discovering the story, the Krotochwile Association have been collecting and assembling materials for the premiere of ‘Andzia, the history of one journey’, planned for premiere in June 2021.
The film will feature archival materials from Fukudenkai, the Polish Museum of America in Chicago and interviews with amongst others, the director of Fukudenkai Takaaki Ota, Andzia’s son Karol Siwiński and Jadwiga Rodowicz-Czechowska, Polish ambassador to Japan between 2008-2012.
There will also be an interview with Teruo Matsumoto, a 79 year old Japanese man who has lived in Poland for several decades and has spent many years researching the orphans’ story and created a substantial archive and who, together with Professor Wiesław Theiss, wrote a book about the story entitled ‘Siberian children’.
Paweł Bajerlein coordinator of the project and president at Krotochwile Association said: “We have just finished the first set of interviews, and will be starting recording the next ones, but we are continually fundraising for the production of the film and the production of the associated educational materials, including a book, which we would like to make available to all schools.
“We believe this unbelievable story must be told to younger generations!”
To find out more about the film and support Krotochwile Association click here.