Setsuko Thurlow Visits Berlin

August 28, 2015

By Maria Lohbeck, ICAN Germany

In late June, ICAN Germany hosted Setsuko Thurlow for one week in Berlin to share her experience of the bombing on Hiroshima.

The pupils of in the Berlin high school she visited only knew the stories about Hiroshima and Nagasaki from their history books. Recently, the 10th grade school class has spent some lessons on the Second World War, learning about what happened on 6th and 9th of August in 1945. Today’s lesson, however, is different: Setsuko Thurlow is present. She gives a personal account on what had happened to her on the day the nuclear bomb “Little Boy” was dropped on her hometown Hiroshima.

Setsuko was thirteen when she was exposed to the horrors of a nuclear detonation. That day, Setsuko and her classmates didn’t have regular courses in school. In times of war, it was not unusual to send the school children away to support the war-efforts in any way. Together with other girls from her class, she was sent to a military base to help decipher secret codes on the morning of the 6th August. A military leader was just giving the girls a pep talk to motivate them for work, when an incredibly bright light outside caught everyone’s attention. The next thing Setsuko remembers is that she was abruptly thrown into the air, and then she fell unconscious.

Setsuko was relatively lucky. While most of the other girls that were with her that day died, she survived and can still tell us about it. That day, someone helped her to free herself from the debris of the collapsed house and fortunately she was not heavily injured.

Moving to the United States for her studies, Setsuko decided to use her experience for political activism: today she can look back on centuries of peace and disarmament work, including a speech at the UN first committee.

Today Setsuko Thurlow is 84 years old, and she is a so-called Hibakusha: a survivor of the atomic bomb. She lives in Canada, but together with Kathleen Sullivan, a peace education campaigner and director of the association “Hibakusha Stories”, she accepted the invitation of ICAN Germany to spend a week in Berlin in June 2015.

The week was packed with events:

Setsuko and Kathleen carried out workshops with 15-17 years old school pupils. Kathleen and Setsuko have been holding those workshops together already for years now. While Kathleen starts off giving the children understanding of the reality of nuclear weapons (how many are there? Who possessed them? How strong is their destructive force?), Setsuko subsequently gives an account of her own personal experience. Hearing Setsuko’s story in such an intimate setting, many pupils were visibly touched and moved by her account. It was during these sessions that it became so obvious how hearing this personal story really has an impact on people’s thinking.

Setsuko also spoke in front of big audiences: the “core event” was a public lecture in the long-established “Urania”, a center for academic exchange with the public, where past speakers have included Albert Einstein and Max Frisch. In her lecture here Setsuko emphasized the connection of Germany and Japan, especially through German thinkers and intellectuals that have had great influence on Japanese society as well.

One of the highlights of Setsuko’s visit was her speech in front of mostly medical students in the university: after she had finished her talk, an almost 200-strong crowd showed Setsuko their appreciation with a standing ovation.

For a commemoration event, Setsuko also visited the official Hiroshima/Nagasaki memorial in Potsdam, close to Berlin. She was touched to speak on Hiroshima-Nagasaki square, especially because she had not learned of the existence of this new memorial before. Not long ago a German association, the “Hiroshima -Platz e.V.” successfully fought for the establishment of this memorial place.

At the end of the week we were all exhausted and content that things worked out so well. We are grateful that Setsuko and Kathleen accepted our invitation to Berlin and made the week such a success. We are looking forward to working with them in the future.

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