—adapted from remarks delivered by Dr. Brita Lundberg, in Newton Centre, MA, on August 6th, 2020
In the mid-1980s, when I became a member of Physicians for Social Responsibility while a medical student in Madison, Wisconsin, the bombing of Hiroshima was a living memory for my parents. Now we are living through an epidemic, another world-altering crisis that will live on in our collective memories for years to come. Let us hope that by remembering what was wrought by the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki 75 years ago today, we will be reminded that nuclear weapons—like pandemics—are a threat to public health.
Memorializing the bombing of civilians at Hiroshima is to recognize the human side of loss. I have two vivid memories of such communal recollections: the first is the Peace Lantern float in La Crosse, WI; the second, a Longwood symphony concert sponsored by GB PSR last fall to honor Hiroshima survivor Setsuko Thurlow.
The annual commemorative lantern float on the Mississippi River was started by Dr. Cameron Gundersen, a founding member of the La Crosse chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility. His goal was to raise public awareness of nuclear weapons as a threat to public health. I can still remember the hundreds of lit paper lanterns taking off in the dusk across the Mississippi. I know now, but didn’t know then, that the lantern float grew out of an ancient Japanese tradition. The boats, or Shōrōbune (精霊船)”, meaning “boat for the spirit”, are thought to ferry the spirits of loved ones and provide spiritual healing. The lights were thought to guide the spirits of loved ones so they didn’t get lost.
The lantern float was started in 1946 in Japan by friends and relatives of those killed in the bombings at Hiroshima; they were started both to commemorate those who died and as a message of peace to the world, sent off in the hope that such a devastating event would never happen again. By tradition, the peace lanterns are made by children in one country and exchanged with peace lanterns made by children in another.
A second beautiful testament to the ability of humans to overcome horrific loss and prevail despite it lies in the words of Hiroshima survivor, or “hibakusha,” Setsuko Thurlow. Last fall, speaking to the musicians at Longwood Symphony at a concert in her honor, she spoke of the way music can heal, by comforting and inspiring the soul. She described how two years after the bombing of Hiroshima, she and her classmates practiced Handel’s Messiah for months in a building newly erected in the middle of the bombed out city. The emotion of her words was reflected in the power of the music: after hearing her, the Longwood symphony orchestra musicians played so beautifully –more beautifully than I have ever heard them play before.
Of course, Setsuko could have told a different story–a story she has told elsewhere–she could have described that dark morning on August 6, 1945:
“Although it happened in the morning, it was dark, dark as twilight. And as our eyes got used to recognize things, those dark moving objects happened to be human beings. It was like a procession of ghosts. I say “ghosts” because they simply did not look like human beings. They were covered with blood and dirt, and they were burned and blackened and swollen. Their skin and flesh were hanging, and parts of the bodies were missing. Some were carrying their own eyeballs. And they collapsed onto the ground… we learned how to step over the dead bodies, and escaped.”
For bearing witness to the suffering she and other survivors experienced, and for repudiating policies that continue to put humans at risk of radiation exposure due to the development and deployment of these dangerous weapons, Setsuko then thanked us.
At Longwood symphony last year, she said:
“Thank you, members of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility for your inspirational global leadership. Thank you to everyone who has gathered here tonight. Your gift will inspire and strengthen us to continue on with our task of making our world free of nuclear weapons for future generations.”
In this time of great need for public health, it is frustrating to think that we have so many funds that could be diverted from weapons into saving lives during this pandemic. Much like Setsuko did, we have been—metaphorically—stepping over so many bodies lost to COVID-19 here in Massachusetts. Like those who lost their lives to the bombings at Nagasaki and Hiroshima, theirs were preventable deaths.
Policy decisions save lives. Nuclear weapons destroy them. The choice is clear.