Between Hiroshima and Jerusalem
There was only a giant inferno with no beginning or end—devastation as far as the eye could see—but on the opposite side of the world an idealistic young man strove for peace.
On the wall in back of me as I sit at my desk hangs a black-and-white photograph of my father. In his late thirties or early forties, neatly attired in business suit and tie, he’s kneeling down with one forearm draped casually over one raised knee, and is engaged in a friendly, if one-sided, exchange with the other participant in this photo opportunity—a lion.
Norman Cousins, editor of the Saturday Review, leans forward eagerly. Mildly majestic, reclining lazily, the lion looks off stage right with an air of aristocratic detachment. He is not a stuffed animal. Though somewhat past his prime, it doesn’t seem impossible that at any moment he could spring up to bite or maul the nicely-dressed man at his side.
My father regards him intently with a gentle smile.
It’s the late 1950’s or early 1960’s. Man and animal are pictured outside the palace gate of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, with whom my father, on behalf of the American government, is conducting negotiations. The lion, Daddy would later explain, was serving as palace guard.
The particular situation he’d gotten himself into may have been unusual, but the basic scenario was par for the course: In this case, it was the gap between two species he was hoping to bridge. Usually it was between humans that he sought to find common ground.
It is there always, the common ground between any two individuals, any two nations—that was his faith.
August in Connecticut is leafy and humid, and August in Jerusalem, where I live now, is a hilltop of stone cooled by evening winds. But in Hiroshima Peace Park in 2003, the sweltering morning of August 6 brought to mind the radioactive fires that had once incinerated people on that spot.
When the clock struck ten after eight, paper fans throughout the vast audience ceased their incessant fluttering and a hush bloomed over the city. On countless rows of folding chairs beneath the baking sun, thousands of Japanese bent their heads as one to remember those who had died in the Bomb, and to pray it should never be used in the world again.
We were attending Japan’s 58th-anniversary ceremony to mark the dropping of the Bomb. A few days before in a nearby corner of Peace Park, two of my sisters and I had represented our family at the unveiling of a monument to our father’s memory. Affecting reverent expressions, we gazed down admiringly—like good Japanese daughters—on the sculpted portrait emerging slightly from the marble slab. If you looked from a certain angle, it did have Daddy’s forehead, and from another—almost—his nose. But it didn’t have his smile.
When Koko Tanimoto was a child in Hiroshima and I a child in Connecticut, the two of us had never met. But our fathers shared a dream.
It was the writer Pearl S. Buck who brought them together in 1949, two idealistic young men from opposite sides of a divided world. Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto, a survivor of the Bomb, was operating a sewing workshop for 25 young women maimed in the explosion. Norman Cousins was a private citizen trying to come to terms with his beloved country’s abhorrent distinction as the one that had introduced humankind to nuclear war.
Reverend Tanimoto had asked Mrs. Buck if she could gather a group of Americans who would help support his workshop; she said she was too old and tired now. But there was a young American writer, the editor of a national magazine, who would probably help him raise funds and drum up publicity.
A few weeks later, on the first of many visits to the charred and ruined city, it was obvious to my father that the sewing workshop functioned primarily as a haven. The women—most of whom were still girls, hardly older than his eldest daughter, Andrea, 16—had lost face both figuratively and literally. The thousands who had perished instantly in the explosion, or who had died in its wake from radiation sickness, could be reverently memorialized. But these young women, with their deformed bodies, their faces obliterated in many cases beyond recognition by keloids, served as ignominious emblems of Japan’s inadmissible disgrace: Japan had been defeated in a war for which it was responsible.
The workshop hid the young women from their compatriots’ uncompassionate eyes.
Reverend Tanimoto and my father decided to create the Hiroshima Maiden Project, and they dreamed of sending these women—one of whom would later become my unofficially adopted sister—to the United States for plastic surgery. Contributions were solicited fromSaturday Review readers. The response was greater than anticipated.
At 8:10 on that August morning in 1945, Mrs. Tanimoto had just picked up her crying 8-month-old baby girl from the tatami mat where she’d been crawling when the world lit up strangely with a searing, dazzling flash brighter than the sun. There was an ear-splitting roar, the ground trembled violently and in the next instant, struck by a shock wave, the house collapsed on top of them.
The young mother fled in search of her husband, baby in arms, and was lost instantly in a hellish, blazing nightmare landscape. Burned bodies, living and dead, lay everywhere, and as far as the eye could see an inconceivable ocean of raging, glowing fire was consuming the sky. There was no sky, no ground, only a giant inferno with no beginning or end, populated by staggering, wandering, ghost-like figures with melted eyeballs hanging from their sockets and burned skin hanging from outstretched arms.
Reverend Tanimoto had awakened early that morning to help a friend on the outskirts of the city. Now, as he fought his way through the firestorm in search of his wife and child, dying people reached out constantly, pleading for water, and each time he could not refrain from stopping to bow, and apologize, “I am sorry. I cannot help you” before pressing on.
The memory of turning away from those dying people would torment him for the rest of his life.
At some point during my 10 days in Hiroshima, it occurred to me to ask Koko something that as a child I could not ask. It would have been that cruel.
I said, “Koko, Japan started the war with the attack on Pearl Harbor. And also, as a Jew…”
“I know. You are going to say that we brought the war on ourselves. And that the Japanese emperor supported Nazi Germany.”
“Sarah,” she said, “I want to tell you a story.
“One time I was talking to a group of Americans about the Bomb and about the need for nuclear disarmament, and afterward when everyone else had left the hall, a man approached me. He looked down at me—he was very tall—and said ‘I was at Pearl Harbor.’
“I just stood there. Neither of us could speak. We understood each other.”
It was our last night in Hiroshima. At a Vietnamese restaurant, Andrea and I were dining with the dozen or so people who had organized our father’s memorial service and made our trip possible.
Midway through the evening, stirred by thoughts of my parents—how happy they would have been to see us all in Hiroshima together—something I’d hidden kept welling up inside me. At the first available lull, I gathered my courage and declared, “Before leaving Hiroshima, I feel I’d like to be honest with you about something.
“I feel I should tell you that even though I was brought up by my father and of course…” I was stammering, “…deeply respect everything you’re doing…. I have to say that when it comes to Islamic terrorism, the world is dealing with a whole new situation. My father was only just starting to be familiar with it.”
Andrea, at the far end of the table, stiffened visibly. I averted my eyes.
“You know I live in Israel. And in Israel, we’ve learned how not to make peace with Arab neighbors. We tried very, very hard with Oslo and it cost us many lives and terrible injuries and suffering. There are thousands of orphans and people who’ve lost their children.”
“On both sides.” This from my sister.
“Yes. On both sides. But even if many Arabs want peace, the majority believe that non-Muslims are infidels and that murdering them is not a punishable offense.
“So, what I’m saying is…I’m glad Israel has the Bomb.”
The heads stopped nodding.
“Because if not for that, our Arab neighbors would have attacked us again, as they have in every war we’ve had.” All was quiet.
Andrea broke the silence. “That’s what every country says that won’t agree to nuclear disarmament. Self-defense is always the rationale.”
“This is different. The Islamic threat is different. They don’t want peace in the world the same way Japan wants peace or Americans want peace.”
“That’s a stereotype. It’s racist.”
“Excuse me. Your one and only experience with Arab terrorism was September 11 and you’re already forgetting….”
“I am not forgetting. I’ve just arrived at different conclusions.”
“That’s because your life’s not affected.”
“That’s not true! Daddy would be dismayed by what you’re saying. I think he’d… ”
“I think he’d want me to live. And for his grandchildren to live.”
So there we were at the farewell dinner, treating our hosts to a public flare-up of our own little cold war. But it was years ago that my sisters and I had discovered the unsung virtues of denial and self-censorship when it comes to irreconcilable world views within a nuclear Jewish family. In honor of Hiroshima—and our parents—we’d reverted to Oriental-style repression by the time dessert came around. In this city, even a false peace was better than none.
It was 1982 and I was in the back seat of my parents’ rented car. As my father wedged his way into the left-hand lane turning onto Rehov Sderot Herzl, my mother, in the passenger seat up front, turned around to confide in a low voice: “And you know what Arafat said?”
Their visit to Israel, as usual, was doubling for my father as a diplomatic mission of one sort or another—of which he would speak only vaguely, if at all. My mother had just finished explaining where Daddy disappeared to so suddenly last night. The “government”—it stirs me now to realize that this must have been during Menahem Begin’s tenure—had flown my father by helicopter on a secret mission to meet with Yasser Arafat somewhere in Lebanon, in a hidden underground bunker. The goal, she had just finished saying, was to convince Arafat that a cessation of terrorist incursions into Israel would be in his people’s best interest.
“Fat chance!” I muttered, thinking acidly: Arafat doesn’t care what’s in his people’s best interest. It was my assumption (which I would one day realize was mistaken) that I knew better than my naive humanitarian father about the Arab proclivity for deception. To whatever extent possible in that pre-9/11 era, my father understood quite well whom he was dealing with.
The vivid mental movie I retain from my mother’s account—there’s no longer any way to check its veracity—goes like this:
My father is whisked dramatically under cover of darkness to Arafat’s secret hideaway. With one heavily armed guard at his rear, and another leading the way, my father steps cautiously along a dark underground tunnel. An opening. The dank cave air and then, bingo! The brute himself. The two discuss whatever they’re supposed to discuss, then Daddy pops the question that he puts often to those with whom he conducts negotiations. “Who are your heroes, Chairman Arafat?”
And you know what Arafat said, my mother asked.
No. (And I don’t want to know.)
“He told Daddy that his hero is Abraham Lincoln.”
I had an impulse to smash through the window or at least leap out into traffic, but there was a little child on either side and an infant in my arms. “Abraham Lincoln!”
No answer from up front.
“You must be kidding!”
“Daddy!” I felt like screaming. Perhaps I was. My mother glanced protectively at my father for signs of distress, the kind only a man’s daughter can inflict. “He just knows what to say to an American!”
My father, his profile only partly visible from where I sat, has uttered not a word. He was staring ahead at the road, gripping the steering wheel, his knuckles white with pressure. My mother, too, is now facing front, abashed, realizing her mistake.
“Ha! Abraham Lincoln! He’s just smart, the liar! He knows what you want to hear! You don’t believe it, do you? Daddy! Tell me!”
He turns abruptly into the Hilton parking lot.
Shortly after my return to Jerusalem, I got a phone call from Japan. A journalist from the Tokyo daily Chugoku Shimbun informed me that he was a delegate in a forthcoming peace mission to several countries in the Middle East. They would be holding discussions with various members of the Israeli and Palestinian governments and would appreciate any suggestions I might have to make the visit a success. In the weeks to come, as I mentally prepared the “spontaneous” speech I’d deliver about the situation we Jews in Israel are facing, e-mails from Tokyo showed up with some regularity.
Dear Ms.Sarahkit Cousuns Shapiro
The Hiroshima World Peace Mission is coming from Cairo 16 of Aiprl. They wolud like to meet you first day 16 of April at 12. I hope you would make it.
On April 15, I e-mailed to inquire where I should go for our meeting the next day. Three days later, an answer arrived.
Dear Sarah Shapio,
The delegation cannot make it the visit to Israel at this time. Since Japanese hostage-taking incidents in Iraq on April 8, huge concerns over the Middle East emerged out of the family members. We’ve decided not to visit there, which is absolutely a heartbreaking decision for us.
However, we hope that we can try it again in the future. We are continuously praying for a breakthrough in the Middle East.
Two years have passed. I await his reply.
It was 1973. My father, still in recovery from the strange affliction he’d written about in Anatomy of an Illness, could no longer handle the daily commute between Connecticut and New York, so my parents had rented an apartment on Thirty-fourth Street for his use during the week.
I was living there, too, and working in the Saturday Review’scirculation department. The highlight of my day came each morning. Before setting out together for the office, I’d accompany him to breakfast in a hotel across the street, and though I could not partake, having recently started eating kosher, I did enjoy the rare opportunity to be alone with him.
But there was one problem: the host.
She would be standing rigidly at attention when we arrived, treating all the customers to a dose of her sour disdain. About 60 years old, she sported an orange, hair-sprayed beehive, stable as a helmet, and eyeglasses with the flared wingspan of a Cadillac. She was exceedingly out of sync with the laid-back spirit of the times.
But the problem wasn’t the hairdo or the glasses. What bothered me was that during the brief interlude between our arrival and the 30-second parade to the first available table, this powerful mistress of ceremonies somehow managed to make me feel, as King David said, “like a worm.”
Don’t ask how she accomplished this. I recall only the sight of her formidable back as she strutted along before us and how I’d fumble along in her wake, trying to ignore the crackling electricity of her scorn.
But nothing worked. She was a force of nature, and just had to be endured, like difficult weather. (Her behavior didn’t escape my father’s notice, but he wasn’t one to take things personally.)
Midway through the summer, I left Manhattan for a four-week vacation, and on my return, my father and I set out as usual across Thirty-fourth Street for his sunny-side ups.
The host, already at her post when we arrived, declared, “Good morning, Mr. Cousins. How are you today?”
“Fine, thank you, Stella. How are you?” said my father. “How’s your son feeling?”
“Not himself yet but he’s getting there. This is your daughter?”
Stella and I were introduced. Her eyes, rimmed in blue eyeliner, were violet-colored. I was sure she recognized me—how could she not?—but neither of us acknowledged having had the pleasure of the other’s acquaintance. “This way, please.”
At our table, she pulled out a chair first for my father and then for me, gesturing graciously to each of us in turn. “The usual?” she asked.
He smiled. “That would be fine, Stella. Please.”
“Anything for you, dear?” she inquired. “You’re not a big breakfast person, are you? Coffee?”
I shook my head. “No thank you.”
“Tea?” I declined.
“Well,” said Stella, “enjoy your breakfast.” Then she marched off.
When she was out of earshot, I said, “Daddy! What happened to her?”
He leaned toward me, eyes twinkling with a boyish glee. “I just made up my mind,” he said quietly. “I’m going to make that woman my friend.”
My father’s life was testimony to the idea that if you pursue relentlessly what you share, if you resolve not to let anything stop you, even the most vehement hatred, the common ground between two people, two nations—or even a man and a lion—will be revealed to both of you eventually. H
Sarah Shapiro is the author most recently of A Gift Passed Along(Artscroll) and The Mother in Our Lives (Targum/Feldheim). This article is adapted from her book-in-progress about her father, Norman Cousins.