Fears of another terrorist attack are running high after a series of ruthless strikes in Western Europe and the United States over the past year, perpetrated with semiautomatic rifles and suicide vests.
The gravest threat to humanity, however, remains nuclear arms, according to Holocaust survivor Bernard Otterman, 79, formerly of Merrick. It has been so since World War II, he noted.
In 2007, Otterman, an engineering professor-turned-real estate developer, created the nonprofit Bernard & Sandra Otterman Foundation to seek world peace. Most recently, the foundation has worked to ensure that the scorched-earth brutality of atomic warfare –– which pulverized Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, during World War II’s waning days –– is never repeated.
“We are trying to drive home the horrors of a nuclear war,” said Otterman, of Old Westbury.
Through the foundation, he and his son, former Merokean Michael Otterman, 35, now of Manhattan, are raising awareness of the continued need for nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament agreements. It’s tough going, they acknowledged, when nations are hyper-focused on controlling maniacal ideologues bent on killing and maiming innocent civilians in all manner of public spaces.
Michael, a one-time Bellmore and Merrick Herald intern and reporter, earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University in 2003 and a master’s in peace and conflict studies from the University of Sydney, in Australia, in 2005. A published author and former nonprofit speech writer and publicist, he joined the Otterman family’s real-estate business in 2014, in part to help manage his parents’ foundation.
In conjunction with the University of the Middle East Project, the Otterman Foundation will send a dozen teachers from across the Middle East to Hiroshima from Aug. 2 to 9 to learn about the awesome power of –– and the risk to all humanity posed by –– nuclear arms, and it will continue to bring educators to either Hiroshima or Nagasaki each August over the next five to 10 years.
Dubbed the Middle East Oleander Initiative, the project will leverage what Michael calls “the power of place.” Sadness and revulsion, he said, overwhelm people when visiting former Nazi concentration camps, as he has done through his nonprofit work. Similarly, he said, one cannot help but feel deep sorrow at Hiroshima or Nagasaki, where death and destruction rained down from the irradiated sky.
Oleander Initiative participants will meet atomic bomb survivors and disarmament thinkers from around the globe. The educators will then incorporate the lessons they learn into their curricula at home, while also training colleagues about nuclear war’s myriad dangers. The project, Michael said, could reach half a million people across the Middle East.
“It’s up to the teacher to absorb what’s important to them, to create a lesson plan that is appropriate for their country,” Michael said.
When ‘death fell from the sky’
The Ottermans named the project for the oleander flower, which bloomed as a burst of fiery red hues in a small patch amid the radioactive ash of Hiroshima only months after it and Nagasaki were leveled on Aug. 6 and 9, 1945, respectively. The flower has come to symbolize both the devastation that an atomic bomb can wreak and the hope for a nuclear-free future.
The project’s launch will come only two months after President Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Hiroshima, which The New York Times called “the most potent symbol of the dawning of the nuclear age.”
“Seventy-one years ago, on a bright cloudless morning, death fell from the sky and the world changed,” Obama said at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, according to The Times.
The Otterman Foundation is focused on the Middle East, Bernard said, because he believes that a nuclear attack, if it were to happen again, would likely take place there because wars and sectarian conflicts have destabilized the region for decades.
Israel has long had nuclear weapons, though it does not acknowledge their existence. Iran built a nuclear stockpile, it has stated, for energy production, though many in the U.S. dispute the claim. In 2015, the Obama administration completed almost two years of negotiations on a 15-year international agreement to reduce Iran’s nuclear material by 98 percent. The nation, ruled by hard-line Islamic clerics, might very well pursue a nuclear weapon after that deal expires, Bernard said he fears.
So, he said, he hopes the Middle East Oleander Initiative will take off. “Hopefully, others will pick up the ball and run,” he said. “I like to do highly needed, unique and innovative programs.”
Hiroshima Mayor Kazumi Matsui is on board. “The goals of this project are exactly the same as the desires of the citizens of Hiroshima,” he said. “I hope that this idea will be cultivated, take root and blossom throughout the world.”
On Aug. 6, 1945, the American B-29 bomber Enola Gay climbed to 31,000 feet as it zeroed in on Hiroshima, a Japanese city of 300,000 with a critical military base. Once above Hiroshima, the bomber released the 9,700-pound “Little Boy” atomic bomb at 8:15 a.m., according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
Forty-three seconds later, the bomb exploded at an altitude of 1,900 feet, immediately killing 80,000 people and evaporating two-thirds of the city’s 90,000 buildings in a radioactive firestorm. The weapon, the first of only two atomic bombs dropped during war, exploded with the force of 12,500 tons of TNT, DOE records state.
Three days later, the U.S. released a second atomic bomb above Nagasaki, a city of 240,000. The “Fat Man” bomb exploded at 1,650 feet at 11:02 a.m., with a force of 21,000 tons of TNT, according to the DOE.
Japan surrendered on Aug. 14.
In all, 225,000 Japanese were killed in the attacks or died of radiation poisoning over the next six months. Bomb proponents have long argued that the U.S.’s use of such deadly force saved tens of thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands, of Allied and Japanese lives because it avoided an American-led invasion of Japan.
Bernard Otterman was all of 2 years old when World War II broke out in 1939. He and his parents were among the hundreds of Jews who were captured by Nazi forces and sent to forced-labor camps outside Radom, Poland.
Toward the war’s end, Bernard’s father was shipped to a labor camp in Germany. Bernard and his mother escaped as they were about to be sent to Auschwitz for “extermination.”
The Ottermans reunited after the war. They were among the few nuclear families to survive the Nazi death camps intact.
Bernard’s brother, Harry, was born in a displaced-persons camp in Munich in 1949. The family made their way to the United States in 1951. Bernard was 14 and spoke 500 words of English at the time.
He went on to earn a doctorate in engineering from the State University of New York at Stony Brook in 1968, and became chairman of Hofstra University’s engineering and computer science department in 1974.
With Harry, an accountant, Bernard took over his parents’ rental-property firm in 1979. Together they now run the Norcor Management Corporation, which owns and manages co-ops and condominiums across Queens.
Bernard and his wife of 47 years, Sandra, lived in Merrick from 1975 to 1993, before moving to Old Westbury. They maintain close ties to Merrick through their membership at Congregation Ohav Sholom.
They have three adult children –– Michelle, a grant manager at the University of Western Australia; Sharon, a religion reporter for The New York Times; and Michael, who is now with the family business. The Ottermans also have four grandchildren.
Bernard, a prolific writer, has worked through much of the psychic pain of the Holocaust by writing poetry, short stories and novels over the past two decades.