See You in the Land of Cherry Blossoms

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See You in the Land of Cherry Blossoms
Author: Shinobu Suga
Specifications: ISBN  978-4396635084
497 pages
13.3 x 19.4 cm / 5.3 x 7.7 in (WxH)
Category: Fiction
Publisher: Shodensha Inc.
Tokyo, 2016
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Sandwiched between the great powers of Germany and Russia, Poland has twice been wiped off the map in the course of history. This historical novel traces, through the eyes of a Japanese observer, the country’s ordeals during the Second World War. The main narrative spans roughly from the Nazi German invasion of Poland in September 1939 through the Warsaw Uprising under German occupation in August 1944.

The central character is Makoto Tanakura, a foreign-service employee sent to be a clerk in the Japanese embassy in Warsaw in September 1938. His mother is Japanese, but his father is a Russian botanist forced into exile by the communist revolution, and by his looks no one would guess he is anything but Slavic in origin.

Tanakura has an accidental prior connection with Poland. In the aftermath of the Russian revolution, a large number of Polish orphans were being held in Siberia, and Japan offered to take in about 800 of them. In 1920, when Tanakura was 9, an orphan boy named Kamil mistakenly wandered into his home, and in the brief hours he was there, they had gotten on so well that they revealed important personal secrets to each other. When the orphans were eventually repatriated back to their own country, they established a mutual support and cultural exchange organization called the Far Eastern Youth Association.

By the time Tanakura gets to Warsaw, Japan has formed an alliance with Germany. The Japanese embassy in Warsaw is reaching out to FEYA in the guise of promoting friendship between Japan and Poland while using the connection to secretly take measure of developments in the Soviet bloc. In August 1939, rumors fly that Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union have signed a secret nonaggression pact in which they agree to divide Poland into spheres of influence. On September 1, Germany invades Poland, marking the beginning of World War II. Later that same month, Soviet forces cross the country’s eastern border.

The story traces the progress of the war mainly by following four characters: Tanakura; Kamil, who has acquired U.S. citizenship, goes by the name of Raymond Parker, and works as a newspaper correspondent; a woman named Majena, one of the Siberian orphans, who now works at the Japanese embassy in Warsaw; and Yann Friedman, a Jewish gossip-magazine photographer whom Tanakura meets in the train on his way to Warsaw.

German troops surround Warsaw, and in less than a month the city falls and Poland surrenders. FEYA becomes a resistance organization, Majena offers logistical support, and Tanakura secretly lends assistance as well. Historically, some 40 percent of Warsaw’s population were Jews, making it the largest Jewish community in Europe at the time. It was known as a city without a ghetto. Even here it becomes increasingly clear that the Nazis’ plan is to exterminate the Jews.

In the spring of 1940, the Nazis begin constructing a wall to demarcate a new ghetto, and all Jews are ultimately forced to live in the cramped portion of the city it encloses. Soon some of the Jews are being sent to the newly constructed concentration camp at Auschwitz. Meanwhile, in the eastern sphere controlled by the USSR, large numbers of residents are forcibly resettled to Central Asia and Siberia. In what came to be known after the war as the Katyn Massacre, the Soviet secret police slaughter more than 20,000 military officers and others imprisoned during the Soviet invasion of the year before.

In November 1940, Tanakura is ordered to evacuate with the last of the embassy staff and is reassigned to the Japanese legation in Sofia, Bulgaria. He makes contact with Polish exiles and offers help to the resistance. When he returns to Warsaw in August 1944, he willingly takes up arms against German troops in the coordinated uprising launched by the resistance. Sadly, Majena dies in the fighting, but it is at this point that Takakura meets Parker and recognizes him as none other than Kamil. Yann also joins in the battle as a noncommissioned officer. He is captured by the Soviets, but escapes, then is captured by the Gestapo and sent to Auschwitz, where he escapes again and is miraculously reunited with Tanakura.

Because the Polish government in exile in London is pulling the strings behind the Warsaw Uprising, the USSR takes a hands-off approach instead of offering support. The fierce German counterattack results in Warsaw being completely destroyed. A commander in the resistance tells Yann to escort Tanakura and Kamil out of the country. On the way they run into some German troops. Tanakura acts as a decoy and surrenders to the troops, letting Yann and Kamil escape so that Kamil can get the story of the battle out to the world. As they part, the three men promise to someday meet again under the cherry blossoms in Japan.

After the war, all of Poland falls into the Soviet sphere of influence. Yann’s whereabouts are unknown. Tanakura is presumed to have been killed by the Germans, and a death certificate is sent to his family along with his favorite fountain pen. Kamil writes a series of articles, and in 1953 visits Tokyo, where he goes to see Tanakura’s father.

National and ethnic identity are an important underlying theme throughout. Yann is a Polish Jew of German extraction. Kamil is an orphan who left his native Poland behind to be raised by American foster parents and become a U.S. citizen. Both have been through any number of experiences that could have killed them. Torn between Russia and Japan, Tanakura grows up agonizing over his identity, then finds himself fighting passionately for Poland, a country with which his connection is purely accidental.

This is a deeply moving work portraying the lives of people who never stop affirming their humanity even under the harshest conditions of war.