By Jake Rossen
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"I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds."
--Robert Oppenheimer quotes the Bhagavad-Gita after witnessing the first atomic explosion in the New Mexico desert in July, 1945.
It was the height of our nation's Cold War -induced nuclear fear--movies such as The Day Afterhelped make Ground Zero a household word, and Marj Wunder was concerned about what the world was coming to. Nightmares of nuclear annihilation plagued adults and children. Horrific images of bombs that could lay waste to nations and leave the earth poisoned and dying were imprinted on our collective subconscious. Now that her own children were leaving home, Marj Wunder felt she finally had time to do something.
"I'm not assertive or really an organizer type person," says Marj. But she did want to make a difference in whatever way she could. So in 1983 she went to a meeting in Minneapolis for people interested is commemorating the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. She felt a little nervous going to an unfamiliar neighborhood at night to meet with strangers, but it seemed important to attend. Especially since she had just learned that her husband was being sent on business to Hong Kong, and the two of them would have the opportunity to visit Japan.
The meeting was sponsored by Friends for a Non-Violent World, which was one of a coalition of groups that planned the yearly commemoration of the nuclear bombing of the two Japanese cities. In a previous meeting this ad hoc committee had prepared a wish list of possible materials and activities for the observance from August 69. One was that a small amount of dirt or some seeds could be brought back from Hiroshima to be used in a ceremonial tree-planting or in the dedication of an international children's peace garden. Marj felt she could help here.
Marj's impending trip also inspired her to start carrying around a notebook. She asked Minnesotans to write little messages to the people of Hiroshima. She didn't know what she was going to do with the book when she got to Japan, but she felt it was important for ordinary U.S. citizens to communicate with ordinary citizens of Japan.
Marj and her husband, Hal, got to Japan on the evening before Palm Sunday and attended a service at the Hiroshima Peace Cathedral the next day. After the service, a gentleman approached the Wunders and upon discovering their interest, offered to take them to an ancient rock garden near their hotel that was very close to the epicenter of the nuclear blast that leveled the city in 1945. The garden had been reconstructed and was full of blooming flowers. It made Marj think of Minneapolis, and her mission to bring back some part of Hiroshima for a commemorative garden back home.
That afternoon the Wunders visited the Peace Museum, an experience they found difficult and moving. They were the only Westerners. A large model in the center of the museum displayed the city before the bombing and indicated where the bomb went off above the city. The remaining exhibits displayed the results--unadorned, factual, and graphic.
More than 100,000 people ultimately lost their lives due to the Hiroshima uranium bomb alone. Many died in the initial explosion, which was hot enough to melt stone and sent out a shock wave that smashed the pillars of buildings into the earth like pegs and burned the outlines of vaporized people onto walls. Thousands of men, women, and children drowned in Hiroshima's rivers, trying to slake the unnatural thirst brought on by the radiation poisoning. Thousands more fled the city in a stupor of pain and disbelief, splintered glass and wood from their houses lodged in their flesh. They walked in silence, and held their arms out from their bodies zombie-like to avoid chaffing third-degree burns. Tens of thousands died with little anesthesia in makeshift outdoor clinics. In subsequent years thousands more would die from leukemia and other illnesses associated with radiation poisoning.
The day after this education on nuclear war, the Wunders went back to the Peace Park and Museum with the book filled with messages, poems, and art from Minnesotans. Marj still wasn't sure what to do with the book, so she went into an office and was eventually directed to an archivist at the Hiroshima Peace Culture Foundation.
The archivist was Miyoko Matsubara, and she was very interested in the book Marj brought from Minneapolis. Miyoko had been severely injured when the bomb was dropped in 1945. She had belonged to a brigade of junior high school students building fire breaks in the city in anticipation of an incendiary bombing. At the time, allied forces had been fire bombing Japanese cities with conventional weapons. While over 200,000 people lost their lives to the two nuclear bombs dropped on Japan, over one million men woman and children were burned to death in firestorms caused by "conventional" incendiary bombing. As it turned out, of course, Hiroshima received the nuclear bomb. Disproportionate numbers of school-aged children were killed by this blast due to their service on the firebreak brigades.
Miyoko Matsurbara escaped with her life, but had spent the first years after the war hating and fearing Americans. She gradually learned, however, that many in the U.S. were equally concerned about war and the potential for the suffering of innocents. Eventually, she spent time in the United States, where she made American friends and learned English. When she heard Marj Wunder's idea for a peace garden in Minneapolis, she immediately called an official in Hiroshima City Hall's International Affairs Office who called the director of the Peace Museum. Later that afternoon, Miyoko translated as best she could for Marj, the Museum Director, and his assistant.