By Cara Jepsen
Hideko Tamura Snider was ten years old when the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945. She was reading outside. “Without any warning, an immensely blinding flash crossed my eyes, riveting my attention,” she writes in her 1996 memoir, One Sunny Day: A Child’s Memories of Hiroshima. “Instantly, I saw a huge band of white light plummeting past the trees and the stone lanterns to the ground, with a swift swishing sound like a massive gushing waterfall….
Almost simultaneously, a thunderous, deafening explosion jolted the air with an immediate violent quake, shaking the very foundation of the earth and everything that stood on it. The end of the world must have come, I thought to myself.”
Following her mother’s instructions about what to do in a fire, Snider ran toward the Ota River. “Soon, more injured people were moving together in a silent march in the general direction of the outer limits of the city,” she writes. “Their bloodstained clothes were torn or singed black. Some were even bare. I did not know where all of these people were coming from. I tried to look for people I recognized so I could flee with them. There were no familiar faces.”
Snider hitched a ride to the countryside, where she was eventually reunited with her father and other family members. Her mother had died in the blast. She had been working with community mobilization forces to tear down houses vacated by fleeing residents, so as to hinder the spread of fires in the event of incendiary bomb attacks. The day before the bomb fell, at Snider’s urging, her mother had retrieved her from the austere country school where she and her classmates had been sent for their safety. Her mother had wanted to stay overnight but instead returned with Snider to the city. If they’d stayed overnight in the village, Snider thought, her mother’s life would have been spared. For years afterward Snider blamed herself for being “childish and selfish” and causing her mother’s death.
Snider also lost a favorite cousin and her best friend in the attack. She became seriously ill with a rash, jaundice, and fevers for many months. “Slowly I became a silent child asking for nothing and expecting very little.”
The guilt was overwhelming. As her grandmother once said, “They made it sound like we who survived are bad people.” As a teenager Snider considered suicide, and she has suffered from anxiety attacks and visions of death accompanied by headaches and nausea for most of her life. But she kept her pain to herself until 1994, when she wrote about her experiences for her children. “It’s too long of a story to tell in one sitting,” she says. “It’s not the kind of thing you like to talk about. Overall I think Asian culture isn’t geared toward venting every day about something that is so powerfully difficult. I think we consider it a virtue not to be so emoting.”
That early version of her story, which ended just before she left Japan in 1952, appeared in a 1996 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; a short time later she was contacted by an editor at the Chicago publishing house Open Court. “They said they would be interested in publishing it if I wrote the rest of the story,” she says.
So Snider wrote about coming to the U.S. to study at the nearly all-black Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina, and her first experience with segregated toilets (“I didn’t seem to belong to either group, so I would use either facility, feeling very self-conscious that I might be stopped at any moment and questioned about my presence”). She also describes “fighting fatigue, mental terrors, and the persistent language barriers.” She came to the University of Chicago for a graduate program in social work, living at the U. of C.’s International House, the first place in the U.S. where she “didn’t feel foreign.” She married here in 1968.
The book signaled a coming to terms with the disaster. “When I was younger all I wanted to do was forget,” she says, adding that she was also suppressing the very real fear that she could fall ill and die at any time (her uncle and a fellow student from Hiroshima both developed cancer). “No one knew when their time would be up,” she writes. As a student she had called off an engagement to a classmate at the U. of C. with whom she was deeply in love and she didn’t understand why until much later. “Neither of us had heard about post-traumatic stress disorder,” she writes. The two were reunited and married in 1995.
Since the early 1990s, Snider has counseled cancer patients undergoing radiation therapy at the University of Chicago Hospitals. Her office is not far from Henry Moore’s sculpture Nuclear Energy, which she says intimidates her. “Radiation is not to be taken lightly,” she says. “But it can be a life-extending and life-enhancing agent. I feel very fortunate to be employed by people who believe in the good use of radiation.”
Last year Snider and her children traveled to Japan and visited the Hiroshima Peace Museum for the first time. “There was a long panoramic screen, and in the center there was one of the planes moving very slowly, millisecond by millisecond. It was carrying an atomic bomb, and I wanted to put my hand in it. I wanted to stop it, because I was thinking about how innocent we were down there, not knowing what was going to take place in one second. I remembered all that was lost–the contrast of the second before and the second after came back to me so vividly, and I couldn’t stop crying after that.”
She also cried when they visited the village school where her mother had picked her up. “I didn’t want my daughter to see me crying and sad, so I said, ‘Let me take your picture on the stone steps,'” she says. “I saw this young woman through the lens and she smiled very broadly, and there was this happy young life standing there. I can’t explain how or why it happened logically, but suddenly my grief was gone. It changed when I saw that nice healthy body standing and smiling. There was a new life there. It connected to me–hope for a good life that’s uncontaminated by nuclear invasion.”
Though still not comfortable discussing her past, Snider says it’s worth it if it means people will remember what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and understand what will happen if nuclear arms are used again. She hopes to establish a national Hiroshima Day as “a day of peace and nuclear awareness.” This Sunday at 5 she’ll discuss her experience at the International House.
“I wish that this would be part of the educational curriculum,” she says. “When I spoke at some of the high schools, the children said it was wonderful to see a real person explain what this means in real life, because they only see it in the textbooks as statistics. In a relatively short time, all of the survivors will be gone. The question is, Is the new millennium going to be one in which we will grow to be very aware, or will we continue to become more ignorant?”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.