War Stories

The chasm that divides experience from language is often very slowly crossed. Some 40 years ago Lisa Fittko and Akio Inoue, emigres employed by the same small Chicago import company, became friends. World War II had transformed both their lives, and neither was comfortable talking about it.

Fittko thought about a book for years before she began to write one. “I thought nobody was interested,” she told us. “To write a book is a lot of work, and you don’t want to do it if you have the feeling that nobody wants to hear about it. And for many years nobody did want to hear about it.”

But in 1985 a German publisher brought out Fittko’s Escape Through the Pyrenees to critical and popular acclaim. It’s the riveting account of a German Jew negotiating the chaos of Vichy France, lingering in that country at her peril to establish an escape route for other refugees through the mountains into Spain. An English translation was published by Northwestern University Press last year.

Akio Inoue told his story a time or two after he came to live in Chicago in 1960. “I noticed when I finish the story they’re kind of disappointed, because it is not really as dramatic as they had expected.” So he let it go.

Inoue believed that his story did not measure up, did not deliver the fireworks his new American acquaintances seemed to expect, because for the first eight hours after the atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima in 1945 he was lying unconscious in a doorway. When fathers tore at the rubble of their homes to rescue their screaming wives and children, only to be driven back by spreading flames, and when the black, radioactive rain fell on the city, Inoue was out cold. Later friends told him what he missed, but he refused to adorn his tale with anything he had not seen with his own eyes, and so he decided it was rather boring.

His friend Lisa Fittko never thought so. “I found his story–I don’t know how to say–fascinating is not the right word,” she told us. “I don’t even compare what he lived through with my story. What he experienced was so horrible it cannot be compared with anything.” She understands why Inoue would not be quick to polish such a tale, and she suspects it was their common diffidence that kept them friends.

Fittko, who is 82, has been politically engaged all her life. When Hitler came to power in 1933, she immediately joined the underground opposition. After fleeing Germany she opposed Nazism in Czechoslovakia, Holland, and France. Today she is a member of Sane/Freeze, which is a sponsor of a ceremony held each year in Hyde Park on the anniversary of Hiroshima. This year’s ceremony is next Thursday at 7 PM at the Henry Moore sculpture on Ellis Avenue between 56th and 57th streets. And at her request, Inoue will formally share his reminiscences for the first time.

“I finally asked him point-blank, will you do this for us and for mankind?” said Fittko. “He immediately said yes, I will. But he had never indicated before that he would like to tell anybody what happened to him. He’s not a political person. He doesn’t struggle for principle. He just very simply tells what happened to him.”

Today Inoue is a senior accounting analyst at Amoco. “I’m a pacifist but not an activist,” he explained. “I’m just giving the speech because of my friend. Lately I feel a little guilty being in Hiroshima when the bomb dropped. And then when I see people here who have a remote relationship with this 47-year-old experience, still they spend their day on Hiroshima peace. So I feel guilty. I should contribute in some way.”

Inoue showed us a draft of his remarks. The understatement is spellbinding. He was 16 that day, working in one of the factories to which high school students had been ordered. His sinuses were bothering him. Excused to see a doctor at the Red Cross hospital across town, Inoue happened to be walking through the doorway of that sturdy concrete building when the bomb exploded.

“When you face an extreme disaster, a valve in your mind automatically shuts off,” he writes. “After the shutoff you become a mere silhouette moving aimlessly in a dim dreamlike world, where there is no sadness nor happiness. Such was the state of my mind on that day. My story may reflect the dullness of my senses during the aftermath of the bomb. Nonetheless, I hope you will find something meaningful and worthwhile.”

Inoue recalls that it was only after his family moved away from Hiroshima that “my emotions started to come back.” These emotions were agonizing, but Inoue writes, “I have to stop my story at the point where my real pain started to be felt mentally and physically.”

Lamenting the lack of drama in his story, Inoue told us, “I feel the real suffering came after the first year of the atomic bomb, but that’s very, very delicate and personal, and it kind of takes a long time to tell.”

Do you want to tell it? we asked.

“Not to the public,” he said. He believes other people would not be able to see why this suffering had anything to do with the atomic explosion a year earlier, though the relationship is clear to him.

Quayle for President!

The Chicago Tribune made national news last Sunday by declaring “Dan Quayle should go.” “Quayle still is the object of national ridicule,” observed the lead editorial, which appeared under a MacNelly cartoon ridiculing Quayle.

The newspaper’s argument didn’t impress us. The editorial called Quayle “a loyal vice president and a competent one, just as he was a decent U.S. Senator before.” The alternatives the Tribune suggested–Jack Kemp, whom Bush can’t stand; James Baker, who’d have to set aside the quest for world peace for a job even lower than Bush campaign chairman; and General Colin Powell, who may or may not even be a Republican and whose dignity would be trashed if he allowed himself to be so blatantly exploited–merely reveal what an empty kettle the Republican Party has become.

And on the very next page of the Tribune Stephen Chapman could be found coming to Quayle’s defense. The occasion was Quayle’s celebrated interview with Larry King in which King asked: “What if your daughter grew up and had a problem, came to you with that problem all fathers fear? How would you deal with it?”

Quayle replied, “I would counsel her and talk to her and support her on whatever decision she made.”

King then asked, “And if that decision was abortion, you’d support her as a parent?”

And Quayle said, “I’d support my daughter. I’d hope that she wouldn’t make that decision.”

Chapman hates abortion, but he doesn’t see any evidence here that Quayle was being a hypocrite. “The first duty of a parent is to love–a duty that begins not when the child emerges into the world but when she is still in the womb, and ends only at the grave. Dan Quayle is not unfaithful to his daughter or the pro-life cause when he says his love for her transcends even abortion.”

We find harrowing the idea that love is a duty and that a woman who does not respond with love to a pregnancy she did not seek and does not welcome is simply not doing her duty. But like Chapman, we don’t think Quayle was hypocritical. He’s a young guy finally discovering what it’s like to think, and he may even turn out to have a knack for it. Until King asked about his daughter, Quayle probably never gave abortion a serious thought. Now he’s a step closer to understanding that you don’t ban choice by banning abortion. When he’s absorbed this, he can ask himself if a choice already circumscribed by morality, ethics, and religion should be further inhibited by law.

No quality is more attractive in a prospective president than the capacity for growth. We see it in Quayle, but no one pretends it’s troubled George Bush for decades. Bush rode his plane into the Pacific in World War II and as he bobbed up and down awaiting rescue contemplated the separation of church and state. Ever since this transcendent moment (which we’ll have to take his word for), his life has been one expediency after another.

Over the next four years do you prefer an earnest Dan Quayle thinking as best he can about the nation’s enormous domestic troubles or a jejune George Bush not thinking about them at all? Do you prefer Dan Quayle, who defends the unborn because he has a good heart, or George Bush, who defends the unborn because he’s counting on them to pay all the bills he’s run up? Do you prefer the ingenuous Quayle or the cynic who made him vice president in the first place?

Quayle has one further advantage, his wife. Marilyn Quayle is the spooky lady who could have said of her daughter, “She’ll have the baby,” and instead decreed, “She’ll take the child to term.” Dan Quayle is scandal-proof. If a supermarket tabloid turns up a Gennifer Flowers, no one will blame him.

Jeff Greenfield noted in the Sun-Times this week that “the problem with George Bush right now is not Dan Quayle. The problem with George Bush is George Bush.” He’s right as rain. But if Quayle withdraws, said Greenfield, Bush should allow the upcoming Republican convention to nominate whomever it chooses.

An open convention would be exciting, all right, but the vice presidency is not where openness should begin. An editorial page that wants to do more than ride the latest wave should tell Bush to release his own delegates so they can nominate for president somebody they can nominate enthusiastically. Does such a Republican exist? Ross Perot, maybe?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander Newberry.