HIAS to the Rescue

Mariasia and her daughters sailed from Russia to Japan in late 1917, perhaps aboard this Russian Volunteer Fleet steamship, the Simbirsk.

As conditions in Russia deteriorated throughout 1917, Yokohama, Japan — where emigrants congregated for the final leg of their trip to America — would become a flash point in the growing refugee crisis. Mariasia and her daughters would find themselves in the middle of this maelstrom when they arrived in the city late in the year.

One of the first reports about the situation in the Far East came in correspondence between two influential friends. Benjamin W. Fleisher, an American who served as publisher of local English-language newspaper the Japan Advertiser, wrote a letter to New York financier and philanthropist Jacob H. Schiff advising him that the small Jewish community in Yokohama was overwhelmed by the urgent needs of the emigrants who had become stranded there — mostly women and children — following the collapse of the monarchy, according to Mark Wischnitzer’s historical account of HIAS, “Visas to Freedom.”

Upon hearing of conditions in Yokohama, the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society stepped in right away to provide assistance. The Society requested an investigation by the U.S. State Department, which was conducted by the American consul general, George H. Seidmore, in Yokohama. Once the reports were confirmed, $3,000 was cabled to Fleisher through Schiff, “to meet the immediate needs of those refugees who, according to the report of the Department of State, were in danger of being exploited,” as stated in a Nov. 18, 1917, HIAS press release. The Society instructed Fleisher to use the funds to establish a temporary refugee shelter and committed to defray ongoing maintenance and housing costs.

The Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society also dispatched a special representative to address the problems in person. Calling it the “most important mission yet undertaken on behalf of Jewish wanderers,” the organization would send Samuel Mason, a director and former general manager of the Society, to the Far East on Nov. 18, 1917, with a mission to “extend prompt relief to the emigrants now stranded between Harbin, Manchuria, and Yokohama, Japan,” according to a press release. After planned stops that included HIAS branches in Seattle and San Francisco, he would set sail for Japan on Dec. 20, 1917.

In the meantime, Mariasia and her daughters were traveling in the opposite direction, from Russia to Japan. On their second attempt to cross the Sea of Japan in 1917, they would finally be successful. Sailing from Vladivostok onboard an Osaka Shosen Kaisha or Russian Volunteer Fleet steamship — as described in “Ships for Passengers Worldwide,” a comprehensive history of ocean mail and passenger liners, seagoing ferries and modern cruise shipping — the family likely arrived in Tsuruga, a port located on Japan’s western coast, on a Monday morning, as Mason noted in his Aug. 12, 1918, summary report, “Our Mission to the Far East.” They still had to travel, presumably by train, more than 200 miles across the country to get to Yokohama.

The paths of the two parties would cross — however briefly — when Mason arrived in Yokohama on New Year’s Day in 1918. By then, it’s likely the Naginskys had been in the city for weeks or possibly even months, as emigrants had to wait for visa approvals, money for their passage and ships heading to their destination with space available. What the HIAS special representative found at the refugee shelter, located in the old Royal Hotel at 87 Yamashita-cho, was alarming. “Arriving at Yokohama I found that steps had been taken to make some provision for the refugees,” Mason stated artfully in his summary report. “But it soon became evident that there would have to be radical changes if the well-being of the refugees was to be served.”

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