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Finding hope and resilience in Hiroshima, Japan

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Editor’s note: Michael Otterman, a former Bellmore Herald intern and free-lance writer, who grew up in Merrick, recently traveled to Hiroshima, Japan, where he hosted a seminar for educators from across the Middle East about the dangers of nuclear war. Herald Life Senior Editor Scott Brinton profiled Otterman’s effort in the July 21-27 issue, in the story, “War and peace: searching for a nuclear-free world.” That story can be found at bit.ly/29TH8fU. Below is Otterman’s account of his historic trip.

Standing under the sweltering August sun, I envisioned a similar sphere of heat and light suspended not in the distant heavens, but only 1,800 feet above. Together with a group of Middle Eastern and North African schoolteachers, I was in Hiroshima, Japan, standing at the hypocenter, or ground zero, of the world’s first atomic bomb used in war.

At 8:15 a.m. on Aug. 6, 1945, the United States detonated “Little Boy” above the city’s Shima Hospital, sending a blast of radiation, fierce wind and searing 7,000-degree heat across the city. Roof tiles bubbled, glass and steel melted and fused, and all 80 of the Shima Hospital’s medical staff and patients died instantly alongside 70,000 others in the bomb’s path. Another 70,000 women, men and children died from radiation sickness and catastrophic injuries in the months to come.

What can we learn today by visiting Hiroshima, touring sites like the Shima Hospital hypocenter and meeting survivors of the deadly nuclear attack? This was the question confronting the 12 Middle Eastern and North African teachers taking part in the recent Oleander Initiative, a week-long nuclear nonproliferation education program sponsored by the Bernard & Sandra Otterman Foundation. The fact that a city so utterly devastated –– about 70 percent of Hiroshima’s buildings were destroyed –– was rebuilt into the vibrant cosmopolitan city that it is today reflects a potent lesson about the power of resilience, a lesson that deeply resonated among Oleander participants.

Among the nuclear survivors, or hibakusha, whom we met was a former student of Honkawa Elementary School. Located about 1,200 feet from ground zero, Honkawa lost about 400 students and more than 10 teachers to the bomb. Like the other survivors we met, when this hibakusha told his story of loss and survival, he did not express anger or hatred for the U.S. Instead, he stressed the solidarity among Hiroshima residents in the blast’s wake.

Amid display cases of fire-singed school uniforms and melted glass bottles recovered from the school grounds, he explained how the school was used as a first aid station before it reopened as a place of learning on Feb. 23, 1946 –– about six months after the blast. When it rained, classes were canceled because water seeped in through large ceiling cracks and empty window frames. Desks and chairs were fashioned out of rubble, he recalled, topped with wood fragments.

For the hibakusha whom we met, the only way to live through the aftermath was to rise above the ashes, envision a more peaceful future and work towards it. This ethos drove Hiroshima’s post-war revitalization and reconstruction, and Oleander teachers will now share this example of resilience with their students. One teacher will host a speech-writing contest on this theme. Another will stage a theatrical performance in her school to highlight survivor testimony. In this way, Hiroshima’s lessons will spread from teachers to students across the Middle East, North Africa and beyond.

For more information about the Oleander Initiative, visit www.otterman.org.