It hits me suddenly. I start to gasp. I am trying to breath, but I can’t stop gasping, and I’m getting dizzy. I sit down on a bench and the tears start to roll. I make myself breathe– in, two, three, four, hold, two, three, four, out, two, three… It takes a few minutes of square breathing before I can let go of my concentration and breathe normally. But the tears are still flowing.
No, this is not another post about my broken heart. I am sitting on a bench beside the Genbaku Dome-Mae, the Atomic Bomb Dome, in Hiroshima.
I didn’t expect this. I have been to the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, the 9-11 Memorial in New York. And I was moved at those places, of course. New York was personal; I worked in investments and I’d been in the World Trade Center in the 80s several times on business, and if I hadn’t changed careers there would have been a small chance that I might have been in those buildings when they fell. So as I scanned the plaques on the parapets of the memorial pool I had to stop reading, as I knew that I would see the names of people I had known. I cried, eventually, thinking about them. And the monument was interesting, solemn, even beautiful at places.
The Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem was also both beautiful and horrifying. The Children’s Hall and the Eternal Flame were within peaceful gardens that calmed as I walked between. But the main galleries built up and built up, and I had to leave before I saw it all. Another woman and I held hands as we cried, past the exit, with the amazing building framing the view of the old city of Jerusalem. When I think of it now, the impact of that memorial built up slowly, like the anti-semitism and actions that built for years before the Holocaust.
My reaction to the Hiroshima Memorial was as sudden and unannounced as the event it commemorates. I was walking around the dome, and at the main sign, a Japanese woman was collecting names on a petition against nuclear weapons. I signed it. And then the thought of this happening again, or perhaps the thought of this woman spending her days holding out a petition to strangers to try to stop this from happening again, crossed my mind, and I couldn’t breathe. Everything I’d read and seen about this horrendous event rushed back into my mind and heart.
Later I went through the National Peace Memorial Hall to the Atomic Bomb Victims. Particularly visceral were the display and video dedicated to the 600 students from a girls’ high school who died. They were by the river clearing rubble as their war work. Many died almost instantly. Some lived just long enough for their parents to find them. Others lived for several weeks of agony.
I taught for 15 years in a girls’ high school.
I visited the Children’s Memorial and the thousands of paper cranes around it. I saw the Cenotaph and the Eternal Flame. I walked through the gardens and the Museum. I felt sick, and so sad that this had happened. And I was angry as well; angry that it had happened and angry that there are still nuclear weapons in the world, and people who have not ruled out using them.
My friend couldn’t bring herself to come to Hiroshima, and there were others who couldn’t understand why I would want to go. I know many people feel they can’t contemplate the incomprehensible. But I felt a responsibility to see it, and to witness the stories. When faced with terrible things, I cannot pretend they don’t exist, or try to put them out of my mind.
Even though it was hard, I’m glad I went. I’m glad I was brave enough.