Theres Preißler


01 March 2024

Port Tsuruga - when museums become places of connection

The Port of Humanity Tsuruga Museum in the port town of Tsuruga (Japan) tells the history of Polish orphans and Jewish refugees who were granted sanctuary by Japan at the beginning of the 20th century. Voice actress Gali Sadeh, who is an Israeli jew, voiced the Hebrew version of the audio guide for the museum. In an interview she told us about the strong sense of connection she felt while reading the script, a sense of connection Jewish people from all over can feel when hearing the story of Tsuruga.

The story of Port Tsuruga

Due to World War I and the Russian Revolution about 150,000-200,000 Polish refugees were in Siberia being forced into hard labor in the bitter cold. Many died leaving behind their children in horrific conditions. To save those orphans, in 1919 the Polish Rescue Committee asked the Japanese government for help after the US cut off their support. They assured their assistance by instructing the Japanese Red Cross Society who took only 17 days to launch into action.

Tsuruga Port of Humanity Museum in Tsuruga (Japan)
Tsuruga Port of Humanity Museum in Tsuruga (Japan)

Japanese troops were sent to Siberia to bring the Polish orphans to Tsuruga where they were taken good care of and sent on to Tokyo or Osaka. Altogether 763 Polish orphans made landfall in Tsuruga across eight voyages. When they were repatriated in 1920-1921 the Polish children waved the Polish as well as the Japanese flag singing the Japanese anthem. Even many years later they continued to show their appreciation to Japan.

In 1939, due to World War II conditions got worse for Jews in Europe who had to flee to save their lives. The only route possible for many was Japan via Siberia to reach their final destination. In 1940 a crowd of Jewish refugees asked the Japanese Consulate in Kaunas (Lithuania) for Japanese transit visas. After initial problems, the vice consul was able to issue 2,139 visas, which were often called “Visas for Life”, as they most likely saved the lives of many Jewish refugees. In Tsuruga they were welcomed with open arms before they continued their journey to the United States, Canada, Australia, South America or Shanghai.

I could have been Japanese

This story of Port Tsuruga is told by voice professional Gali Sadeh, who voiced the Hebrew version of the Nubart audio guide for the Tsuruga Museum. She felt very moved while voicing the script, finishing it in only one night, as she could strongly relate.

“My family left Poland between WW1 to WW2 to South America and from there many years after to Israel. I could have been a descendant of Polish refugees that ended up in Japan. It’s remarkable to think about it. That could have been my history. I could have been Japanese.”

Gali’s family fled to Argentina from Lithuania, her great grandfather was the head of a synagogue and town there. However, some of her family members were never found, documentation doesn’t exist. So there is room for imagination and the possibility that some of them arrived at Tsuruga.

“I really bonded with the script. Usually as a voice artist you just pronounce and give a message to the world, whatever they give you. Not any other time I connected with it so strongly. This was a project that blew my mind.”

Not only did she enjoy voicing the script because of her family’s history but also because the production process was really well organized and went smoothly. Moreover, she has a strong connection to Japan as she lived there for 6 months and wishes to return.

Gali feels happy that the Port of Humanity exhibition has the potential to change the reputation of Japan, a country which is considered as closed and not hospitable by many. The history of Port Tsuruga proves that this is not (entirely) true. The Jewish and Polish refugees were welcomed with open arms, many lives were saved.

The voice artist is convinced that her excitement about the Port Tsuruga exhibition can be felt through the audio guide. “They can hear it because it talks to me. The voice doesn’t lie. It was very moving. Only the thought that my family could have been there.”

Feeling at home away from home

While this exhibition is interesting for everyone, it has a very special meaning to Jews who come all the way from Israel to visit it. “Every jew has a piece of history of being chased and being a refugee, and not having a home. We are all refugees since the beginning of time. Everyone who is Jewish can connect to what the Port of Humanity exhibition is displaying.”

While Jewish people in Israel learn a lot about Holocaust and the well-known part of history, many don’t know about Tsuruga. It’s an additional piece of valuable information that can add to their understanding of Jewish migration and sense of identity.

When Jews visit the museum they feel surprised. “On the other side of the world, listening in Hebrew about a museum that’s talking about their heritage, their families, their history, it’s amazing, it’s heartwarming. What they can learn is that everything is possible, that one stubborn man can make a change in the world, and can save a lot of lives.”

But it’s not only the story of Port Tsuruga that allows Jewish people to connect, it’s also Gali’s voice which is quite famous in Israel as she is the voice artist for many commercials on the radio and TV. Entering a museum and listening to a voice that you already know makes you feel at home, even if you are far away.

Nubart's audio guide card for Tsuruga Port of Humanity Museum
Nubart's audio guide card for Tsuruga's Port of Humanity Museum