While states party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) were supposed to be meeting in New York in April, youngsters from around the world were due to be participating in the annual March of the Living in Poland. Both were canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The former is dedicated to making sure another Hiroshima never takes place; the latter, another Holocaust.
While the two cannot be compared, both face challenges of how they are being remembered more than 70 years on.
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, established to memorialize the victims of the world’s first atomic bomb on August 6, 1945, advocates for a world free of nuclear weapons. This March commemorated the 50th anniversary of the NPT and yet there are still more than 10,000 nuclear warheads on earth.
The international environment has deteriorated, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on the Iranian nuclear program is in deep trouble and no progress has been made in persuading North Korea to forgo or even cap its nuclear arsenal.
Holocaust revisionism in on the rise. A recent European survey found that one in five Europeans believe Jews exploit Holocaust victimhood for their own needs and more than a third agreed with the assertion that “During World War II, people from our nation suffered as much as Jews.”
Tadashi Matsumoto was 14 years old when the Japanese city of Hiroshima was turned into shadows. At 8:15:17 am local time on 6 August 1945, he was at the Mitsubishi factory in Kanon-machi, 1.7 kilometers away from the hypocenter.
“I was a bit late for work because my train had been delayed,” he remembers. “No one could imagine an enemy plane would be in the beautiful cloudless sky. The air-raid alert had been cleared. Suddenly I felt something thud and saw a blueish white flash running. I wondered what had happened, and looked at the direction of downtown. There were two burning suns above the city. I was so scared that I rushed into a shelter nearby. At that moment, a tremendous roaring sound was heard and then silence followed. I anxiously crept out of the shelter. What I saw was the frameworks of a five-story building. People outside were bleeding with shards of glass all over their bodies.”
Matsumoto lifts his shirt to show me the scorched skin underneath. His mother is still listed as missing more than seventy years on. Her body was never recovered. We are sitting on the Aioi bridge, an unusual T-shaped three-way structure. The original bridge, constructed in 1932, was the target for the uranium bomb known as “Little Boy” in 1945 because its shape was easily recognizable from the air. But the bomb missed by 240 meters and instead detonated over a hospital. Within 43 seconds more than 70 000 people were dead and another 70 000 were left suffering from fatal radiation related injuries.
Not far from where Matsumoto and I are sitting, was the entrance to the Hiroshima branch of Sumitomo Bank. It’s believed that 42-year-old Mitsuno Ochi was waiting on its footsteps to withdraw interest on a deposit she’d made. The fire ball at ground zero reached her within a second with a surface temperature of 5,000 degrees Celsius.
Ochi’s outline is etched over the two steps she’d been sitting on where a black shadow immortalizes her on the stones.
Thousands fled for the rivers, believing the cool waters would help them. Matsumoto’s brother, Masaru, was one them. He was found in a makeshift hospital hours later. Eyewitnesses say he kept whispering in a weak voice that his older brother would come rescue him.
“Even now, I feel sorrowful because I was the closest to him,” says Matsumoto.
“For more than 70 years, I have felt sorry that I am alive and I have felt guilty as a survivor that I escaped without saving any lives. I thought for a long time that I was not qualified to tell my experiences.”
More than 90% of the population of central Hiroshima perished. Of the city’s 200 doctors, only 20 were left alive or capable of working.
But despite the devastating effects, Japan didn’t offer unconditional surrender as the United States had hoped. Two days later, Soviet forces invaded Japanese-occupied Manchuria, violating an earlier non-aggression pact signed with Japan.
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial guide, Hideyuki Ikeda, tells me this was the reason for Japan’s surrender.
“Contrary to what you’re told in the West,” he insists, “the war ended because Russia broke its treaty with Japan and not because of the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They were only two cities. The last hope for the Japanese government was that the Soviet Union might actually agree to negotiate a peace with the United States as a neutral party. But once the Soviets invaded Manchuria, it was clear that was not going to happen.”
What’s more, Ikeda disputes that the attack on Hiroshima was in revenge for the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor three-and-a-half-years earlier.
“The Americans did not bomb Hiroshima because of Pearl Harbor. They bombed because it was an enclosed area and they could monitor the effects of the bomb. Pearl Harbor was a military target but in Hiroshima, it was civilians who were killed.”
It’s a view shared by many Japanese.
“To throw an atomic bomb on civilians was absolutely unnecessary especially when Japan was losing the war and ready to surrender,” believes Nobuki Sugihara, the youngest and only surviving child of Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat who served as vice-consul for the Japanese empire in Kaunas, Lithuania during World War II. Sugihara risked his job and the lives of his family to issue transit visas for about six thousand Jews so that they could travel through Japanese territory while fleeing Europe. He is the only Japanese national to have been honored by Israel’s Yad Vashem memorial as one of the Righteous Among the Nations.
“My father’s history should be only truth and this truth is amazing enough without any fiction needing to be added to the story,” says Nobuki Sugihara.
“My father never threw Japanese government’s transit visa stamps or any documents out of a train while leaving Kaunas. He issued two or three transit visas at the platform of the rail station. The stamp was returned to Japanese Embassy in Berlin after he left.”
The story about Jewish crowds coming to say farewell to the Sugihara family at the railway station and reportedly shouting that they will never forget them, never happened according to Sugihara. The station was closed and heavily guarded by Soviet soldiers who prevented anyone from entering.
“My mother Yukiko did not help him decide to issue visas, it was his own decision. He did not involve his family. He took all as his responsibility as it was against the instruction from the minister of foreign affairs of Japan. He said, ‘I felt pity on refugees, because they had nowhere else to go.’”
Sugihara feels strongly about what he calls over-the-top fictionalization of his father’s action. They were heroic enough – without needing to exaggerate. His father, however, never acknowledged that he was a hero.
“Growing up he did not mention anything and a child would not think much about the past,” he says.
“I learned for the first time that there were 30-40 survivors when we had a planting ceremony by Japanese donors in Beit Shemesh in 1985. I wrote to my father about the ceremony and mentioned that I was so proud of him. He was already bedded in critical condition but he cried from happiness according to my mother. It was the first time he acknowledged what he had done,” says Sughira, who is 71 years old and lives in Belgium. He came to Jerusalem in 1968 to study and lived in Israel for a further 13 years working in the diamond trade.
“My father was a very warm person. I remember well that he used to make breakfast for me and him every morning. He toasted a white slice of bread and put butter as thin as possible on it. After breakfast he taught me mathematics and English for school so that I could follow. He took me for a walk every Saturday to a beach near where we were living. He liked to play with me in our garden while he was cleaning the fallen leaves.”
This year has been earmarked “The Year of Chiune Sugihara” in Lithuania to mark the 80th anniversary of Sugihara’s work in Kaunas and the 120th anniversary of his birth. A postage stamp, “Visas for Life”, is in the making.
The Japanese, says Sugihara, don’t know much about the Holocaust or Jewish history. About Hiroshima, “yes, it is a kind of Holocaust they feel. Some feel guilty about Japan’s role in World War Two and some blame the Americans who cut oil supply to Japan so that they had to go get oil supplies in South Asian countries.”
Fumiko Ishioka, director of the Tokyo Holocaust Education Resource Center, agrees.
“For many in Japan, the Holocaust is an event that happened in a far-away place. And simply most Japanese people have never met Jewish people,” she says.
Ishioka is trying to change that. After completing her masters’ degree in development studies in England, she got involved with a small group of friends who were starting an educational nonprofit organization teaching about the importance of life and human rights. It was the first time she met Holocaust survivors who inspired her and made her want to learn more.
“The more I learned about it, the more I realized that the Holocaust raises very important questions about human nature and makes you question how you can become a better person.”
She wrote to the Auschwitz museum asking if they could loan her a few artifacts to use to teach children. Among the items they sent her in March 2000 was a small brown, slightly tattered suitcase, clearly marked as the property of Hana Brady, a young orphan. Only years later did Ishioka learn she’d been given a replica of the original which had been sent to England as part of a touring exhibition of Auschwitz artifacts in 1984.
The items were burned in a warehouse fire that police suspect was arson. With the original gone, the Auschwitz museum had a suitcase replicated because they were short of items left behind by children. Nowhere in the Auschwitz paperwork to Ishioka did they mention this. The museum has since apologized for the omission.
“I still remember the day when I received the suitcase,” smile Ishioka. “I was excited but I didn’t know how I could use this one object to tell the story of the Holocaust.”
Seeing the suitcase, schoolchildren were full of curiosity about the mysterious girl whose name was printed on it in big white letters, along with the word “Waisenkind,” German for orphan, and the date of her birth – May 16, 1931.
“I believe there is something about a kind of object like a suitcase. You are drawn to it, imagining what it had inside, who the owner was, and what journey it took… Japanese students wanted to know who Hana was. The empathy they showed is what we need in the world today.”
Prodded by their questions, Ishioka used records from the Terezin Ghetto Museum to locate Hana’s brother, George Brady, who had survived Terezin and Auschwitz and moved to Toronto, Canada.
Brady was stunned to receive Ishioka’s letter. As Hana’s older brother, he was the only member of their immediate family to survive. He spent two and a half years in Terezin before being transported to Auschwitz in September 1944. For him, the reappearance of the suitcase in Japan – 57 years after Hana’s death – was absolutely astonishing – and more than a little cathartic.
“It’s taken me a long time to get over my sister’s death because I felt responsible for her,” he once said. “She went to Auschwitz one month after me, and the older I got the more it bothered me.”
Brady sent Ishioka photographs of Hana, who was just 13 when she died, along with many details of her life. Born in Nove Mesto, Czechoslovakia, in 1931, she was deported to Theresienstadt in 1942 and died on arrival at Auschwitz in 1944.
“When I received the first letter from George I had a very mixed emotions,” remembers Ishioka.
“I had been looking for information on Hana, the owner of the suitcase, but when the picture of the beautiful girl spilled out of the envelope, I was not thinking about Hana anymore. I was thinking about George and the pain he must have had all these years after losing his beloved sister. In the letter he wrote that he had always felt responsible for protecting Hana. It was heartbreaking to try to imagine what he went through,” she says.
Brady later visited Japan and received a warm welcome from the schoolchildren who had adopted Hana as a symbolic representative of the one-and-a-half million children who died in the Holocaust.
For 18 years Ishioka and Brady traveled with Hana’s suitcase to schools across Canada, the US, Japan, the Czech Republic and elsewhere.
“George Brady is my hero,” smiles Ishioka. “He didn’t like me calling him a hero. At a place like Auschwitz you cannot be a hero. He was truly an honest person. I am forever thankful for his courage and generosity in sharing his most difficult memories and supporting my activities. I felt lucky when he said he had ‘adopted’ me.”
Brady passed away last year at the age of 90.
“George used to say if one of his wishes was granted, he’d wish his parents up in heaven could see his family,” says Ishioka. “His daughter Lara Hana is named after his sister. That was the biggest and happiest surprise at the end of the search.”
As much as Brady was dismayed to learn the suitcase was a replica, he was happy the museum went to the trouble of making a copy. “If they wouldn’t have done it, there would be no Hana’s story. It doesn’t change anything – whether the suitcase is replicated or not.”
Right now Hana’s suitcase is in Ishioka’s office as school visits have been canceled because of the coronavirus. To date she and her colleagues have visited more than 1,200 schools all over Japan, reaching more than 200,000 students.
“George’s message was always simple and powerful. We are all equal. We must respect and help each other. I literally saw those words sinking into the hearts of many young people whether it was at an all-black students’ high school in Cincinnati or at a school in a small Japanese town where nobody had ever met Jewish people. George’s honesty, charm and positive outlook on life in spite of what he’d gone through, resonated with many young people.”
How much do Japanese children know about the Second World War? “Not enough,” surmises Ishioka.
“The fact that Japan was a Nazi ally is well known and students learn about it. But many students do not learn enough about Japan’s role as an aggressor in Asia, though it depends on the individual teachers. Last year I took students on a study tour to Amsterdam. Many students didn’t know Japan was at war with the Netherlands. I took them to the resistance museum there and they learned about the Japanese occupation of the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) and about the fact that there were Dutch ‘comfort women’.”
Ishioka teaches one important distinction, though. For her, Hiroshima was an act of war, unlike the Holocaust.
“Some people can sympathize with Jewish people because of what Japan suffered after the bomb dropping. Some people just don’t want to see anything tragic, and they just want to close their eyes” she says. “Whereas others do not want to touch it [topic of Holocaust] at all because it might lead them into a conversation of Japan’s own war aggression.”