No more: Tears of shared nightmares

Survivors of the Hiroshima atomic bomb and Holocaust Survivors have an emotional meeting at Yad Vashem.

Hiroshima, Holocaust survivors 370 (photo credit: Melanie Lidman)
Hiroshima, Holocaust survivors 370
(photo credit: Melanie Lidman)
At 8:15 a.m. on Monday, August 6, 1945, Miyake Nobuo name was riding the train in Hiroshima. A diminutive 16-year-old, he was crammed into the aisle in the packed train and surrounded by so many people during the morning rush hour he couldn’t see outside.
Suddenly, the train shook.
There was a flash of blinding blue light, like hundreds of cameras going off next to his face. Miyake thought the electricity had short-circuited and the train was about to burst into flames. He was close to an exit and quickly jumped out.
Then a strong gust of wind blasted through the area, hurling people into the air and slamming them against the ground.
“I was sure I was hit by an explosion,” Miyake, now 83, remembered in Jerusalem last week, 67 years later. “I thought: I’m going to die. But somehow I was still breathing. I slowly opened my eyes. Everything was covered in black ash.”
Lost, confused and feeling utterly helpless, Miyake ran home in time to see an enormous fire advance from the center of the city closer and closer to his house. He grabbed his mother from the half-destroyed ruins of their home and the two ran back in the direction of the train station. “We passed people covered in burns. They looked like they weren’t human. They were moving strangely, creeping like inhuman creations, yelling, ‘It’s hot!’ and ‘I can’t breathe!’ People were throwing themselves into the river, into concrete wells... I thought we had arrived in hell.”
Unlike 140,000 others, Miyake had survived the initial blast. But the ordeal of surviving was just beginning.
World War II saw no shortage of nightmares. Around the world, death and destruction took place on a scale previously unimaginable. For years, victims and survivors have nursed their pain separately, quietly.
In Israel, it took decades for some Holocaust survivors to begin to tell their stories. In Japan, where the culture is more introspective, some survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs still have difficulty talking about those days. Cancer continues to claim victims every day.
“Shared pain is lessened, shared joy is increased.”
The old adage seemed especially fitting last Tuesday morning at Yad Vashem, when survivors of Hiroshima’s atomic bomb met with Holocaust survivors in an emotional meeting. Survivors shared their stories: the sinking feeling of fear, not knowing if family members had survived. The way a mother spent years running to the door at the slightest sound, convinced her oldest son had finally come home. A confused child or teenager running through deserted and destroyed streets, sobbing, trying to find someone or something familiar. Watching people lay down and die.
Miyake, Tsuchida Kazumi, Nagayama Iwao and Sugino Nobuko, all survivors of the atom bomb in Hiroshima, visited Israel for a week at the initiative of the Israeli Anti-Nuclear Movement, working in cooperation with the Japanese Peace Boat and the International Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons. They visited Yad Vashem and the Western Wall, and held anti-nuclear weapons events for the public in Haifa and Tel Aviv. They also protested in Jerusalem last week, holding signs at the Western Wall that said “Nuclear Abolition” in Japanese.
But the highlight of the trip was an emotional meeting with Holocaust survivors at Yad Vashem. Sharon Dolev, the director of the Israeli Movement Against Nuclear Weapons and the initiator of the tour, pointed out at the beginning of the meeting that both groups of survivors paid a personal price as civilians for events beyond their control. Though the circumstances were different for the Israeli and Japanese survivors, their coping mechanisms and struggles of survival were the same, she said.
“When I finally got to Israel, I decided to erase everything that was in the past,” said Pnina Kazir, a survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau who lived on just 230 calories a day in the death camp. “I was able to erase it for 50 years.”
At age 70, Kazir gave testimony for Yad Vashem, and her story came pouring out. “I finally understood how much energy I’d invested in not telling it,” she said.
Sugino told Kazir she understands exactly what it is like to finally unburden yourself and share your personal story. Only a year old at the time, all of her siblings were killed in the atomic bomb. Her older sister, six, suffered terrible burns in the initial explosion and her family watched her die for three terrible weeks. Her brother was close to the blast center and was most likely instantly incinerated. Sugino’s mother never recovered, and Sugino lived every day in the shadow of the bomb.
But telling her story around the world and advocating for an end to nuclear weapons has allowed her to share some of the pain, lessening it in the process.
The point of the Hiroshima survivors’ visit to Israel was to advocate for an end to nuclear weapons around the world. Their message echoed in Israel as the war drums beat with Iran over its possible nuclear warheads.
Nagayama said the most moving part of the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum was visiting a tree planted in honor of Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese vice consul who saved 6,000 Jews by issuing visas in Lithuania. Because Japan was allied with Germany, the country has never recognized his efforts and his story is not well–known in Japan, Nagayama said.
In Israel, the younger generations learn about the Holocaust and vow to “never forget.” “Yizkor – We will remember, we will never to forget the terrors of the Holocaust, never to forget the nightmares that can happen when extremism leads to genocide.” But Miyake said while remembering is important, the visitors’ call is “No more” – to ensure it never happens again. “No more Hiroshima, no more Nagasaki,” they vowed.
Miyake has visited Auschwitz and other concentration camps and met with Holocaust survivors in Washington.
“I really feel the connection, there is a common point of the inhumane actions people are capable of. The things we saw in the museum made a huge impression on me,” he said.
He understands that the Japanese were not blameless in WWII. “We killed and we were killed,” he said. “There were difficult things.” But those actions were taken by his government, not him, he said.
After a poignant but restrained retelling of many stories of survivors from both sides, Yaakov Gutterman, who survived the Holocaust in hiding as a Polish Catholic shepherd, could not hold back his emotions. “I know it’s not acceptable in Japanese culture to hug,” he said. “But it is so sad that after 2,000 years of civilization there could be things as terrible as Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As we’re sitting here in this room, the tragedy of Hiroshima affected you and the tragedy of the Holocaust affected us.”
And then the survivors left their chairs on each side of the room, gathered in the center and hugged one another and cried. Tears flowed for the tragedies they had lived through and the miracles of life that came afterwards. Tears flowed for the connection they had forged through cultures and countries by being victims of their terrible circumstances and still having the strength to share their stories. Tears flowed among the event organizers and the translators and even the few cynical journalists who had stayed until the end.
“We have a huge responsibility to make the world a better place,” Gutterman said before the outpouring of tears began. “I’m not so naïve to think that tomorrow they’ll throw all the atomic arms into the sea. But I think that we, sitting in this humble room, have the moral force and the moral right to say ‘No more.’”