Wednesday, November 2, 2011

If the light of a thousand suns blazed forth together (Bhag. 11:12)

There is a time of the year when the spirits of the dead come back to Japan in order to visit their living relatives, the Buddhist festival called O-Bon. It’s a time for Japan to reconnect with its roots: offices and plants close, most people travel back to their hometowns to visit with relatives, tend to the ancestral graves and offer food and drinks at gravesite or on the family altars at home. Together with these more intimate commemorations, in many places communal celebrations are held, involving traditional dances and music performances. Yesterday (August 17th, 2011), the last day of O-Bon, I was in Hiroshima and found my way to the Peace Memorial Park, which stands on the ground where the bomb was dropped.
When you approach the Park what welcomes you is a big fieldstone that bears engraved on it two kanji, 慰霊 (irei, appeasing the spirits of the dead), a plain memorial that any other time would have gone unnoticed. What caught my eye were several water and tea bottles lined up in front of it: some half-empty, some with their cap still on, some uncapped. Others visitors had placed them there next to a few memorial wooden sticks and they were clearly a colorful and spontaneous offer to the dead. Along with many other visitors I was following a map, courtesy of Hiroshima Tourist Bureau, dotted with numbers marking different spots. The Peace Memorial Park was too big and too many other numbers were marked on my map for me to dwell on this simple memorial for long. Just enough to decode the characters, take a few pictures, move on to the next number. I was moving from one point to the next, like in a puzzle of “connect the dots,” but I could not see the picture because the pain was too big to be grasped by a single heart.
At every spot in the Park you read numbers so large your mind cannot relate to them. I silently said El male in front of the Cenotaph that contains the list of names of the almost 240.000 victims of the bomb, but their sheer number did not make their pain real; the thousands of colorful origami cranes in the Children’s Peace Monument had me wonder about the effectiveness of a vain hope; the turtle of the memorial to the 35.000 victims of Korean origin, evoked images of celestial turtles and hexagrams, nothing more. But it all hit home in the Peace Memorial Museum. There you cannot hide any more behind figures with too many zeroes.
After a physics lesson on how an atomic bomb works you’re taken by hand along a route where you have to confront the suffering and the horrors that the A-bomb caused in individual lives. A corridor reproducing what the color of the sky was, what the streets looked like after the bomb dropped, and then a gory diorama with mannequins in tattered clothes, faces blackened by the ashes of the fire, and their flesh, melting or peeling off, hanging from their limbs. But these are still fake. 
Items with name, age, personal stories of the former owners make it all real. What was this girl carrying in her lunch box that morning? Did this girl ever finish sewing a Western style shirt, as per her class notes? How painful must have been for this woman to have the pattern of her kimono branded forever in her flesh by the heat? Where did this mother find water for her thirsty, dying son? Where did all the other survivors find water to quell their perched bodies? What it feels when your face melts in the heat? What does a 3 year old understand when his tricycle is suddenly burning under him? 6000-7000 degrees C, again I can’t fathom past 45C… I pushed myself to walk through the entire exhibit, all of it, without skipping, rushing or quitting; I forced my eyes to stare at the pictures, only witnesses to suffering men and women; I wished those I love will never have to experience an agony such as this. Through a veil of tears I read the brief accounts about those people, about deaths and their connection with the objects now on display, carefully reading also the names of each individual, hoping this simple gesture could serve as some sort of memorial service for them.
In the hot air outside the building thoughts about what I had just absorbed started mixing with thoughts about Israel and my friends there who live with the ticking threat of an Iranian atomic bomb. I couldn’t hold back the tears anymore.
Later on, before leaving the park I bought two bottles of tea. One for the big memorial fieldstone.

2 comments:

RLP said...

This was very moving. It is hard to comprehend a tragedy where the numbers are so large. As a child, living among so many Ashkenazie Jews in NYC, the Holocaust was always "living" among us. But I was born well after the war--and was somewhat emotionally removed. I remember, however, neighbors with numbers on their arms and how I'd blanche when I saw them--but still, the event was so far removed from a middle-class neighborhood in Brooklyn.

Then, in Jan. 2011, I went to Amsterdam with my daughter. I walked through the Ann Frank Museum. And there were pictures of Jews being rounded up and marched down streets--streets I now recognized--that I, myself, had walked down in Amsterdam. Streets right outside the Museum. I looked hard at the faces in the pictures--not just the victims, but the neighbors watching, clearly in horror, and resignation. The faces of the young Nazi soldiers that were absolutely blank. The Jews looked more confused than scared. But that immediate horror that I could never feel just overwhelmed me and I burst into tears.

What man does to man--it's simply inexplicable.

A_Realist said...

Before you cry for the Japanese, review how they treated people in the countries they occupied during the war. Ask the Chinese. Ask the Koreans. Ask the POWs. Ask the comfort women.

Two thermonuclear devices and a democratizing occupation were the best thing that ever happened to the Japanese.