Polish Orphan Who Sowed Pro-Japan Seeds

In August 2020, at Poland’s capitol Warsaw, a memorial service was held for the 76th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising.

By Ryotaro Sakamoto

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Photo 1: Orphans rescued from Siberia (at Vladivostok)

In August 2020, at Poland’s capitol Warsaw, a memorial service was held for the 76th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising. One month later, a memorial service for a related event took place at the Kampinos Forest north of Warsaw. Children who attended were from the Poland Siberia Orphans Commemoration Elementary School I introduced in “Affection Towards Japan Passed On” in the November 2019 issue of the Seiron magazine.

To give a brief summary, Polish orphans in Siberia refer to approximately 800 Polish orphans rescued by the Japanese troops dispatched to Siberia in the 1920s.The year 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of this rescue. Elementary school children attended the memorial service, because many of the orphans who returned to Poland from Japan joined the Warsaw Uprising to defend their country as the Second World War erupted.

“We learned the importance of patriotism from Japan.” As the words of the orphans show, it was Japan, their second homeland, that gave them spiritual support on the battlefield. That history is still told among the Poles, and continues to strengthen ties with Japan.

In this article, I would like to look back on history and introduce a man that gave a great impact on the relationship between the two countries. His name is Jerzy Strzałkowski (1907-1991), one of the orphans rescued in Siberia. After returning safely to Poland, he continued to promote Japan actively across the country. After the war, he turned the hospitable Japanese treatment he received to needy children in Poland, and is praised as the father of thousand children.  

Orphaned at 12

Jerzy was born in Sultanovka near Kiev. Both his paternal and maternal grandfathers joined the January Uprising of 1863 against the rule of the Russian Empire, and were exiled to Siberia. Despite serving their term, they could not return to Poland, and waited for their chance in Ukraine. Jerzy’s parents were born in Ukraine, and after marriage, raised five children, including Jerzy, while farming.

A tragedy strikes the family in 1914. The Bolsheviks (left-wing faction led by Vladimir Lenin which later became the Communist Party) shot and killed Jerzy’s father just because he was a Pole. Amid the confusion after the Russian Revolution, 150,000 to 200,000 Poles in Russia are said to have been killed. Without the breadwinner, the family lost everything they had, and was deported to Kherson in south Ukraine.

After the transfer, with his siblings and mother infected by typhus, Jerzy was taken in by his uncle in Kiev. Along the way, Jerzy also got typhus infection. He survived, but his aunt, who took care of him, died from the disease. Jerzy heads to Kherson to return to his family, but a few days before arrival, he finds out the whole family returned to Poland.

Twelve-years old with no one to rely on, Jerzy was taken in by the Polish Emergency Committee. This was an organization established on September 16, 1919, to rescue Polish orphans in Siberia. After the major countries such as the U.K., the U.S. and France denied support, the committee turned to Japan as the last resort.

The Polish orphans received medical treatment and hearty care at the orphanage Fukudenkai in Shibuya, Tokyo. Many of them suffered from skin diseases and other ailments, and very few had shoes on their feet. Jerzy also received considerate care from the Japanese Red Cross nurses and recovered.

Jerzy Back in Poland

The following year, Jerzy returns to Poland and reunites with his family. Only about 30% of the Polish orphans were able to meet with their relatives back home like Jerzy. Many Poles living abroad had returned to Poland following its independence, and the country was in a state of turmoil. Poland was not fully prepared to receive the orphans, and Jerzy was placed in a facility in Wejherowo in the northern district where he lived with other children.

Józef Jakóbkiewicz (1892-1953), vice president of the Polish Emergency Committee, played the major role in educating the children at Wejherowo. At the facility, children learned Japanese history and culture, as well as the spirit of morality. With familiarity towards Japan, they named a yacht for their sports lesson “Sadako,” the name of Empress Teimei, and made yukata in their sewing class. 

After finishing secondary education at Wejherowo, Jerzy entered the Faculty of Psychology at the University of Warsaw in 1928. Two years later, he established the Far East Youth Association and became its chairman. The Youth Association’s activities focused on a deep understanding of Japan and spreading it across Poland.

Photo 2: Far East Youth Association senior members. Jerzy in center of back row.

“Echo Dalekiego Wschodu” (Far East Echo), a magazine issued by the Youth Association and distributed across Poland, included articles on Japanese history, culture, and martial arts, and a lesson column on the language. In the 25th issue (1923), the magazine states, “The Far East Youth Association wishes to play a social role as a bridge between Poland and Japan. To this end, we will spread information on Japan across Poland,” showing how committed the Youth Association was.  

Helped by financial support from the Japanese Embassy, the Far East Youth Association, led by Jerzy, expanded its scope of activities. Through screening of Japanese movies, reading of Japan-related books, organizing events on Japan, donation of over 900 types of related books and articles to schools and libraries, and radio programs, the Youth Association introduced Japan across the country, and developed pro-Japan sentiment in Poland.

There was a plan to revisit Japan in 1940. But the German invasion of Poland in 1939 reduced that dream to ashes.

Ties with the Japanese Embassy

From when he was still a student, Jerzy had worked at courts for minors and special needs schools while also running an orphanage for children like his past self. However, while operating an orphanage on the surface, he accumulated weapons and ammunitions behind the scenes for the defense of his homeland, and formed the Special Uprising Forces Jerzyki in October 1939. Jerzyki means the children of Jerzy, and besides the Far East Youth Association members, many orphans also joined the underground organization.  

Several times, German soldiers barged into the orphanage, the secret base of Jerzyki. Pointing guns at children, they begin searching inside the orphanage. But then, the doorbell rang and a gentleman in an unfamiliar outfit appeared. He was a personnel of the Japanese Embassy that had constantly supported the orphanage. He tells the soldiers the orphanage, orphans, and staff are under the protection of the Japanese Embassy, forbade any interference, and sent them away. Of course, Jerzyki must have planned with the Japanese Embassy beforehand.  

Japan also reached out when the situation at the orphanage became tough during the war. As Nazi Germany occupied Warsaw and requested the Japanese Embassy to close, the Embassy gave a key to Jerzy. It was for the storage inside the Embassy, containing enough food for the children to survive. Jerzy was also able to contact the Polish government-in-exile in London through the Japanese Embassy personnel.

Photo 3: Jerzy (second from right) with Japanese Embassy staff that secretly provided support

Jerzy always ranked high on the list of investigation targets in Warsaw under German occupation. In pursuit of Jerzy, the Nazis arrested the surrounding staff in succession. On account of harboring Jewish children, his lover Barbara was executed in public with orphans on the orphanage’s neighboring grounds. Because they taught Polish history, geography, and culture at the orphanage, many staff were shot dead on the streets. Some were even sent to Auschwitz.

But even though his aides were arrested, tortured, and executed one by one, none confessed Jerzy’s whereabouts. Every time an orphanage staff was arrested, someone else took over and continued to provide patriotic education to the children. Jerzy says he learned the importance of nurturing patriotism from Japan. Even in times of war, that determination remained a shared awareness within the orphanage.

Special Uprising Force Jerzyki had 15,000 insurgents across Poland and continued resistance against German forces in each region. They implemented over 122 railroad sabotage operations, and their activities ranged from destruction of fighter planes and German vehicles to underground publishing. Jerzyki only accepted 17 or older members, but there were many younger children who volunteered. Although Jerzy refused to take minors to the battlefield, many children accompanied by their own will. So great was their respect for Jerzy, and many were resolving for revenge against the Germans who killed their relatives before their eyes.

The Statue of the Little Insurgent now stands in the Old Town of Warsaw. It is a place where parents visit with their children, and tell them that freedom was gained through fighting and sacrifice.

Photo 4: Statue of the Little Insurgent in Warsaw honoring the Jerzyki

Jerzyki was a force that fought on to regain Poland’s independence. At the orphanage, Jerzy told stories of brave Japanese soldiers, and especially emphasized the Japanese people’s courage and loyalty to their country.

Fight Against Totalitarianism

Jerzy is also known for rescuing Jews when the entire family could get killed for harboring Jews. He felt Japan saved his and other orphans’ lives. With that life, he wanted to save others in similar circumstances. This desire led to action. Many times, he bore a hole in the wall of the ghetto where Jews were transported, and rescued those trapped inside. Jerzyki rescued over 800 Jews.

At the Warsaw Uprising, 550 Jerzyki members, including Jerzy, joined the fight to defend the Old Town, and 66 of them died in 20 days. Later, Jerzyki took on the role to collect weapons and ammunitions dropped by the Allies in the Kampinos Forest, and bring them back to the Old Town. Jerzy entered the forest with a troop of 125 members. Despite their success in collecting weapons, an overwhelming number of German troops surrounded them. He makes those 16 or under or have families withdraw and enters a fierce guerrilla warfare. However, the children came back to fight along with the insurgents, and many of them died before Jerzy’s eyes.

One month into the guerrilla war, Jerzy leaves the forest with other surviving members. But the Germans surround them, and many were shot dead on the spot. Since Jerzy had an ID of the Internal Troops Special Uprising Forces lieutenant, the Germans took him away. During the interrogation and military trial process, he escaped from the guards and survived.

In 1945, the war that killed 1,200 members of the Jerzyki Force ended. Yet Jerzy’s fight continued. One by one, the communist regime arrested the senior members of the Internal Troops under the Polish government-in-exile in London. Even non-senior members who fought for Poland’s independence received unfavorable treatment in society after the war, such as denied promotion or suddenly laid off at work. Jerzy was also arrested on August 1, 1945, and received the death sentence. But with the help of many supporters, and his respectful attitude within the prison, he was considered capable of rehabilitation, and miraculously released. 

The Heritage of Nation-Building Spirit

In 1959, Jerzy became the head of the Muranów district, where post-war rebuilding first began in Warsaw. The Polish government-in-exile in London intended to appoint Jerzy as the mayor of Warsaw, but he could only be a district head since the Communist Party took office.

Poland was in a terrible state after the war. At Muranów district where Jerzy was appointed, robberies and fights were daily affair, and the streets were filled with alcoholics and delinquent children. Despite such conditions, Jerzy pushed forward.

He established seven children’s centers in Muranów and created a safe environment for the children. He actively hired delinquent youth for construction work and gave them a place in the community. For the district’s afforestation project, he let the children plant trees and manage each tree.

In no time, about 20,000 trees were planted in the district, and the once dilapidated Muranów received awards many times as the rebuilding model district in Warsaw. Thirteen years after the war, the district’s population expanded to 20,000. According to Jerzy, the Muranów district development was also the embodiment of consideration for the young, diligence and commitment, and strong determination he learned in Japan.

In the Kampinos Forest where Jerzyki fought the guerrilla warfare, a memorial monument was built in 1957, though initially, it was a simple structure. The current cross memorial had to wait until 1984 for its placement approval, because the communist regime tried to hide traces of the Internal Troops’ activities as much as possible.

In 1983, Jerzy finally revisits Japan with the help of the journalist Teruo Matsumoto, who was doing research on the Polish orphans in Siberia. He visited the Japanese Red Cross and other places, and expressed gratitude representing the saved Polish orphans.

Photo 5: Jerzy finally revisits Japan

Jerzy died in May 1991. In Leszno, a city 30 km from Warsaw, there now stands Jerzy Strzałkowski Commemoration Special-Needs School. The school principal Krzysztof Radkowski loves Japan and has even written a book on Japanese martial arts. In Warsaw, there is a street named after Jerzy.

They show the significant mark Jerzy left in Poland. The children Jerzy took care of grew up and established Special Uprising Forces Jerzyki Memorial Association, and continue to pass on his message. Without exception, they are all pro-Japanese, which shows that the spirit of Jerzy lives on.

Photo 6: Jerzy’s portrait on the wall of Jerzy Strzałkowski Commemoration Special-Needs School

At the Jerzyki memorial monument in the Kampinos Forest north of Warsaw, where Jerzyki fought, a memorial service is held on the first Sunday every September. In 2020, Tsukasa Kawada ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary (then) attended from the Japanese Embassy in Poland, and both the Polish and Japanese flags were put up.   

Photo 7: Japanese flags put up at the Jerzy memorial service on September 6, 2020

In Poland, Japan is usually referred as the country of cherry blossoms. But in the ceremony speech, those concerned used the word “Empire of Japan” to express gratitude towards Japan that saved Jerzy, drawing tears to the eyes of the participants. I would like to conclude by introducing the words written on the monument.

“Dear Poland. We sacrificed our lives for our country and left our will to the next generation.”

Throughout his life, Jerzy never forgot the aid offered by Japanese predecessors to save the orphans from Siberia, with that in mind, fought for Poland’s nation-building. The seeds that he sowed—the Far East Youth Association and Jerzyki, grew larger with passing of time. They have become not only the cornerstone of how Poles view Japan today, but also the foundation of Poland’s pride and spirit to rebuild the country while fighting against the totalitarianism of Germany and the Soviet Union.

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Ryotaro Sakamoto
Born in Gifu Prefecture in 1986 and grew up in Nagano Prefecture. Established and became the vice principal of the Warsaw Japanese Language School in 2011 while studying at Collegium Civitas in Poland. Also serves Japanese Festival in Poland executive director and Poland Japanese Language Teacher’s Association executive director.

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