Commemorating the Profound Horror of Nuclear Weapons
Even after more than half a century, Kazuo Soda can still hear the screams, the agonized cries of people in the last throes of death.
"I still see a lot of black-scorched bodies lying on the roads and in the ruins," Soda told the crowd at the Buddhist Peace Pagoda in Vienna Aug. 9, the anniversary of the day the atomic bomb was dropped by the United States on Nagasaki at the close of World War II. "At 11.02 am," he said at the moving candlelight ceremony along the Danube River near Freudenau Harbor, "the city was instantly changed into pandemonium."
Soda was fifteen years old when the bomb fell, and is one of the 243,692 officially registered Japanese Hibakusha, ‘explosion-affected people,’ the survivors of the two atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.
The ceremony, which began at sunset, was opened by Rev. Gyosei Masunaga, the monk entrusted with care of the Pagoda and the adjunct Buddhist temple. The audience of about 100 had come to witness the outdoor event, held in front of the Pagoda steps. Candles were set in wooden paper lanterns with beautiful hand-made decorations and placed on the steps of the building. As the fragile, white haired 77-year-old entered the carpeted stage area, the sun had almost completely set, setting off his profile in the warm candle light behind him.
"I was exposed to A-bomb radiation at my home 2.5 kilometers away from the blast center," Soda said with a soft voice over a loudspeaker. "If I had been outdoors, I would have burnt to death by the heat wave." Thousands of school children died on the playgrounds. Soda, like almost all boys and girls older than thirteen, had been forced to leave school to work in the munitions industry, and was off-duty at the time. His brother died five months afterwards from the effects of radiation, and his parents five years later.
A former Secondary School teacher and peace activist, Soda was awarded the prestigious Aachen Peace Prize in 2001. He has a long-standing connection to Vienna, having attended earlier commemorative ceremonies here as well.
As Soda spoke of his own radiation sickness, one could sense the constant pain he has undergone ever since, including a serious cancer operation 10 years ago, which made the strength of his presence and his testimony particularly moving.
Nagasaki had been chosen as a target by the U.S. because of its strategic importance as weapons manufacturing by Mitsubishi. Although the bomb, called the ‘Fat Man’, was dropped near the main munitions factories and away from the residential areas, more than 70,000 people were killed out of a population of 200,000.
Night had fallen, and the gathering was fully lit by the candles. Eyes sparkling, Soda was clearly moved as the candles were dropped one by one into a branch of the Danube, still except for the occasional sound of a motor boat passing by in the main channel, the candles gently rocking in the small waves.
An earlier ceremony commemorating the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagaskai had been held the day before to the UNO City, organized by the United Nations Information Service and the NGO Committee on Peace in Vienna, in collaboration with Yuko Gulda, wife of late Austrian pianist Friedrich Gulda.
The event, entitled Genbaku No Hi (Atomic Bomb Day), included a series of short speeches, and a compelling performance of Japanese dancer and choreographer Kazuko Kurosaki outside in the fountain of square.
Gulda stressed the importance of not forgetting "the profound horror, the terrifying facts of nuclear weapons," expressing the hope of establishing Aug. 8 as a permanent, international commemoration day protesting against nuclear weapons. While the audience of about 180 was listening attentively – most were seated but many were standing nearby – those who let their thoughts drift noticed the odd movements of a dancer outside, dressed all in white, walking slowly, blindfolded hauling little pieces of rock attached to a rope, struggling under a nearly unbearable burden.
"In case of nuclear explosions there is no medical help," said Dr. Klaus Renoldner, chairman of the NGO Committee on Peace and himself a trained physician. "Everything is destroyed, there are no emergency services, no facilities in the area. Either we succeed in abolishing nuclear weapons, or nuclear weapons destroy mankind."
As we left the building to watch the dancer Kurosaki, the horror and pain took sharper form in the movement. And while the officials rang the Peace Bell on the UN grounds – a gift of the Japanese government, Kurosaki moved slowly through the large pool of the large fountain, and then suddenly, collapsed into the water while the last sound of the bell ebbed away.