By Maria Rocha-Buschel
Students at the East Side Community High School got a rare opportunity on Monday to meet an atomic bomb survivor from Hiroshima thanks to the program, Hibakusha Stories, an initiative of Youth Arts New York.
The sophomores in Yolanda Betances global history class listened in the school’s auditorium as Shigeko Sasamori recounted her experience in Hiroshima on the day the atomic bomb was dropped on the city on August 6, 1945.
Sasamori was 13 years old at the time, sitting in a classroom with other kids her age, when she heard an airplane.
“That day was very hot and sunny and there was a beautiful blue sky,” she told the students. “I looked up and saw the airplane so I told my classmate next to me to look at it too, and as soon as I pointed up, I saw white things drop out of the plane and I was knocked unconscious.”
She didn’t know how long she was unconscious but the next thing she remembered was how pitch black it was outside. After she made it outside, everyone she saw had their clothes torn away and their skin was raw and pink, so badly burned that it was peeling off their bodies. She made her way to the river but couldn’t get in because there were so many dead bodies floating in the water.
Sasamori was so badly burned that her face was unrecognizable and her chin was fused to her chest. She was in an auditorium for five days and four nights and only survived because she repeated her name and address until a neighbor recognized what she was saying and brought her to her parents.
Ten years later, she was one of 25 women who were brought to The Mount Sinai Hospital in New York for reconstructive surgeries. Sasamori had 29 operations to free her chin and regain mobility in her neck.
The goal of Hibakusha Stories is to pass on the legacy of the atomic bombings in World War II to the current generation of high school students who don’t have much awareness of nuclear dangers. The students said that they appreciated hearing Sasamori’s firsthand account and presented her with flowers to show their gratitude.
“Your story touched my heart so much,” one student told her.
“Hibakusha” is the Japanese word used to describe the survivors and since many of them are advancing in age, there is a limited opportunity for them to pass on their first-hand account of the event. Sasamori’s visit to East Side Community High School was part of an interactive workshop that took place in New York City public schools in the last few weeks.
Betances’s class follows the Facing History and Ourselves curriculum and the students focus on examining human rights issues and how people respond to violence, studying the decision to drop the atomic bomb in addition to the Holocaust and other aspects of World War II.
One student asked Sasamori if she ever hated America as a result of the bomb and what it did to her.
“Some people were very angry at the United States but I never had any anger towards the American people,” she told the students. “Americans and the Japanese don’t have a separation. We’re all people. Of course there are differences, but we are all the same human beings and we all want to be happy.”