John Hersey's Hiroshima

8:31:00 AM

"They still wonder why they lived when so many others died. Each of them counts many small items of chance or volition—a step taken in time, a decision to go indoors, catching one street-car instead of the next—that spared him. And now each knows that in the act of survival he lived a dozen lives and saw more death than he ever thought he would see."

If you're looking for an unforgettable historical reading experience, I highly recommend John Hersey's Hiroshima. It was originally a magazine article published in The New Yorker a year after the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. It was the first and only piece that took up an entire issue of the magazine. I believe the book came into publication decades after, when the final chapter was written after Hersey's return to Japan on account of what happened to the people whose stories he told.

Hiroshima presents this shaking event in history through the eyes of six survivors: a German Jesuit priest, a widowed seamstress, two doctors (one owned a private hospital, the other worked for Red Cross), a Methodist minister and a young woman who worked in a factory. Each account described what the characters were doing moments before the explosion, how close they were to the center of it, their situations right after the blast and their efforts to reach safety. This piece of new journalism also showed some interesting Japanese traits that were especially highlighted when the Prime Minister announced the end of war (signifying Japan's loss) and how the people of Hiroshima tried to recover from the tragedy.

It was almost impossible not to feel anything with the way it was written. It was cutting. It was piercing. It was humbling. It was moving. In some ways, scary. It just didn't feel real. It was real. It happened. It's part of history.

"On some undressed bodies, the burns had made patterns—of undershirt straps and suspenders and, on the skin of some women (since white repelled the heat from the bomb and dark clothes absorbed it and conducted it to the skin), the shape of flowers they had had on their kimonos. Many, although injured themselves, supported relatives who were worse off. Almost all had their heads bowed, looked straight ahead, were silent and showed no expression whatsoever."

I read a review that pointed out how "dramatized" the article was. But the reader should take note that first, the writer employed a 60s-70s style called New Journalism, which mixes literary techniques with news writing and journalism. In other words: that was the point, man! And second, I cannot imagine the experience of a survivor to be any less "dramatic". I admit the emotional views were a bit overboard, but I guess it could only help one to embrace history as reality and not just an academic requirement to pass.

You can read the article from The New Yorker's online archive here.

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