Not long ago I was contacted by a lady living in our neighbourhood who was looking for someone to brush up her “rusty” German. She is in her early 80s, and despite her self-declared aversion to textbooks and grammar remarkably fluent.
Talking about her childhood over coffee and cake I learned that she was born in Osaka and relocated to Hiroshima when she was eight years old to live with her uncle. That was in 1945 when U.S. forces conducted bomb raids on many Japanese cities. On August 6, she had been at school when Little Boy detonated over the city of Hiroshima at 8.15 am. Luckily, her school was located in the outskirts, and while the building itself was destroyed, she survived unscathed.
Her uncle who was living just a few hundred metres from the current Atomic Bomb Dome, wasn't so lucky: his house was flattened and he and his family perished in the blast. She told me about another uncle, who worked at a bank in the city centre and who owed his survival to the fact that his desk was placed behind a thick wall of concrete. His superior, sitting just a few metres across the table, died in his chair after uttering a final "sayonara". Her uncle at the bank lived to become 95 years old.
What struck me the most was her description of the mushroom cloud that had been rising over the city: she and the other children were strangely fascinated by the spectacle and completely unaware of the tragedy that unfolded just a few kilometres away. She said she would never forget the mysterious skies over the city; shortly after the explosion, the settling ashes were dispersed by the wind. As it was a brilliantly warm and sunny day, she remembered the beautiful "glimmering skies" above the city, with the ashes reflecting the sunlight. When the first survivors from the blast zone began to arrive a few hours later, severely burned and - in her words - "walking like ghosts", with their arms stretched out, so that their scorched limbs would not touch their bodies, it dawned on everyone that something truly unprecedented and devastating must have happened. People started talking about a new "electrical bomb" that the Americans had detonated over the city.
It was the first time for me to talk to someone who had actually witnessed the events of August 6, 1945 in person, a "Zeitzeuge" ("contemporary witness" or "witness of the past" in German). Our conversation practice had turned into an impromptu interview. She was not reluctant at all to expand on her experiences, describing her impressions in a very undramatic and factual fashion, just the way she had perceived them as a child. She said that later on she felt a lot of gratitude towards the Americans who she remembered distributed "third-grade milk powder" to the starving population of Hiroshima in the wake of the attack.
I was smitten with her account and couldn't get her description of the beautiful "glimmering skies" out of my head. So many questions still...
Photo credit: Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum