Shigeko Sasamori and Yasuaki Yamashita. Photo Credit: Robert Croonquist

Testimonies of Atomic Bomb Survivors Coming Soon to Chittenden County

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Thursday September 13, 2018

If you’re not a student of history, or if you didn’t live during the atomic era, you might not know that during the final stages of World War II, at least 129,000 people were killed when the United States detonated two nuclear bombs over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Aug. 6 and 9, 1945, respectively. That period of time following the detonation of the first nuclear bomb on July 16, 1945 during WWII is often taught in schools. You might say, “I think I learned something about those dates in history class, but beyond the shock of learning how many lost their lives, how does it affect me?”

Two survivors, Yasuaki Yamashita (Nagasaki bombing survivor) and Shigeko Sasamori (Hiroshima bombing survivor), whose memories of the unthinkable are as palpable as the moment the sky erupted with a blinding light, can explain better than anyone.

Vermonters won’t have to go far to hear firsthand accounts of the devastation, the losses, and the lasting suffering countless people continue to endure today. From Sept. 18 – 20, the Burlington branch of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), Hibakusha Stories, and Youth Arts New York are sponsoring events in the area entitled, “Hibakusha Stories: Testimonies of Atomic Bomb Survivors and Today’s Nuclear Weapons.” The Hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors) will be here in Chittenden County to speak to more than 2,500 high school and college students.

Because the Hibakusha are aging and won’t be with us much longer, Marguerite Adelman, Program Coordinator for WILPF, said she can’t underscore enough how essential the project’s timing is for the younger population. She encourages them to open their minds to “the parts of their education that is missing,” and to understand the lingering implications that reach far beyond “a single sentence in a textbook” about the dropping of the bombs.

SBHS Social Studies Curriculum Supervisor Ryan Navin agreed.

“To have the Hibakusha, immediate sources of such history, speak to students will be a powerful experience,” he said.

Though his students learn about WWII and engage in activities based on research about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Navin describes how the history of that time period is otherwise so far out of reach for them that “it might as well have happened in the 17th century.”

South Burlington resident Dr. John Reuwer, a retired emergency room physician who has studied the medical effects of nuclear weapons since the Reagan era, describes the Hibakusha Stories as the largest nuclear weapons education project in the area in more than 30 years. Reuwer, who also serves on the Security Committee of Physicians for Social Responsibility, pointed out that nuclear disarmament is very much the “existential topic of our time,” and his research could not be more eye-popping: Since the height of the Cold War, the U.S. and Russia have dismantled more than 50,000 nuclear warheads, but nearly 15,000 of those weapons still exist throughout the world. Of the currently nine armed countries, Russia and the U.S. hold the largest stockpiles, close to 7,000 each. One of those missiles alone, noted Reuwer, is many times larger than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and would cause worldwide famine and climate destruction, sending at least 5 million tons of soot into the atmosphere, and placing 2 billion people at risk of starvation worldwide. An all out nuclear war would kill hundreds of millions of people, and cause the plummeting of temperatures unheard of since the last ice age (which ended nearly 12,000 years ago).

Now for some good news: In July 2017, 122 nations adopted the United Nation’s Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. But with the number of nuclear-armed countries possibly ready to use the weapons at a moment’s notice, and the $1.2 trillion the U.S. will invest to enhance our nuclear arsenal, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has moved what they call the “Doomsday Clock” to two minutes before midnight, the closest it has been since the Cold War.

Hiroshima bombing survivor Sasamori remembers well the day her life-clock came to a stop. In the unimaginable yet true memoir she has shared with Hibakusha Stories, she recalls how the blast struck her down, leaving her unconscious. When she woke, she was covered with burns so severe she was unrecognizable. Her clock started up again when she and 399 other young Japanese women, known as the “Hiroshima Maidens,” were rescued by Saturday Review Editor Dr. Norman Cousins. It was Cousins who arranged funds for their medical care in the U.S. For Sasamori, this opened an entirely new life for her. In 1955, she traveled to New York, where she underwent one long skin graft surgery after another. It was in New York where she finally met Cousins, her adoptive father.

On an even more hopeful note, as Reuwer said, “We’re still here.”

All we have to do is embrace the mission of the Hibakusha Stories, he said.

“To pass the legacy of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to a new generation of high school and university students to empower them with the tools to build a world free of nuclear weapons,” Reuwer said.

Is the younger population ready for their first tool? Attend the Hibakusha program at UVM and at local schools. Tool number two: Harness the inspiration gained from the most earnest and urgent testimonies of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors. Tool number three: Speak out. Ask what Reuwer, Adelman, and others are asking: “City council, will you pass the resolution calling for the United States to ‘Pull Back from the Brink’ and prevent nuclear war?”

The “Hibakusha Stories: Testimonies of Atomic Bomb Survivors and Todays Nuclear Weapons” event is free and open to the public on Wednesday, Sept. 19 at UVM Davis Center’s Livak Ballroom, 520 Main St, Burlington from 7-9 p.m.


SOURCE: Melissa Cronin, Correspondent