American grads head to Nagasaki to document A-bomb survivors, kin

by Seana K. Magee

Kyodo News

NEW YORK — Two recent college graduates are traveling to Nagasaki to interview atomic-bomb survivors and their relatives for a documentary they will produce about peace activism.

“We hope to, with the documentary, humanize the story and have interviews with the survivors — the hibakusha, as well as their children and grandchildren, and focus on peace activism as a result of the bombing,” Alex Sklyar said in New York before leaving for their six-week trip that started July 1.

As the 65th anniversary of the atomic bombings approaches, Sklyar and his partner, Carolina van der Mensbrugghe, are concerned that voices of the hibakusha are increasingly being lost as greater numbers of them die off.

With a dwindling pool of survivors, the torch is being passed to their younger relatives and peace activists who play crucial roles in keeping their memories alive.

The two Americans hope to be part of preservation efforts to make the experiences of hibakusha more accessible to those who can’t travel to Japan or don’t speak the language.

“We are focusing on the human stories and the stories of human recovery and human perseverance,” Sklyar said. “Our motives are strictly educational and motivational.”

The Ukrainian-American said the documentary they aim to distribute in the fall is to form a large portion of what they are calling the Nagasaki-America Peace Project.

They received $10,000 from the Davis Projects for Peace, funded by philanthropist Kathryn Davis and geared toward supporting college and university students’ pursuit of grassroots projects.

In addition to making their DVD available, the team intends to update their Web site in real time, keeping up a text and video blog. While in Japan they planned to engage American college and high school students in an interactive dialogue to promote peace.

Sklyar, who graduated in May from Colgate University in upstate New York with a double major in Japanese and humanities, first interacted with an atomic-bomb survivor in summer 2008.

The 22-year-old recalled being brought to tears along with his classmates by her “touching and heart-wrenching” recollections of Hiroshima.

After completing his summer language program, he studied in Japan, visiting Hiroshima and Nagasaki that fall.

During visits to the cities’ peace parks, a friend voiced concern that few of their classmates understand that part of history. Later he formed the Colgate Global Citizens for Peace along with van der Mensbrugghe and another student to raise awareness about nuclear nonproliferation.

While working together to organize events, the two later hit on the idea of combining their talents to produce a documentary with an eye on Nagasaki, rather than Hiroshima, because they felt it was the “forgotten city.”

Van der Mensbrugghe, 22, who grew up near Washington, spent last summer working at the Nagasaki Foundation for the Promotion of Peace, where she became acquainted with the city’s many colorful survivors and activists.

Interacting with hibakusha before and after they made presentations to schoolchildren, she watched them joke around with positive attitudes despite having endured a lifetime of physical pain and wartime scars.

“This project is a way for me to give back to the hibakusha and to the foundation,” she explained, adding it was also a culmination of her lifelong interest in Japan that began as a child growing up in Bethesda, Md.

Building on their different, yet complementary skills, Sklyar will act as interpreter, translator and ethnographer, while van der Mensbrugghe, an aspiring filmmaker, will work behind the camera.

“The perseverance, humility and humor of the hibakusha can serve as an inspiration to us all,” van der Mensbrugghe wrote on their Web site. “This project was inspired in the hopes of sharing, to the extent capable, this city’s passionate group of individuals.”

By capturing their individual stories visually, she hopes to open people’s minds to their experiences, while also introducing them to another culture and working toward world peace.

Although they are targeting American students and educators to share the human dimension of the war, with the hope of inspiring them to take on their own peace projects, the Colgate alumni are also interested in highlighting the city’s unique culture and history.

Prior to gaining notoriety in 1945, Nagasaki, they emphasized, had a rich and thriving history. The international port was open to foreign traders when the rest of the country was largely shut off, and it had a sizable Christian population.

They planned to remain in Nagasaki through Aug. 12 and incorporate imagery from the Aug. 9 peace ceremonies into their final product.

Following completion of filming and editing, van der Mensbrugghe said, she will set off for Madrid in September to begin work as an English teacher.

In the long term, however, she is interested in pursuing a master’s in film directing, so her Nagasaki experience could ultimately prove invaluable in her future plans.

Sklyar will follow another track. In Yokohama he will brush up on his language skills over the next year. In the future he has his eye set on obtaining a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology and drawing from his personal interests and life experiences.

Speaking six languages, he often acts as a bridge between people and is at ease in that role.

Fostering cross-cultural communications and international understanding, he explained, has been at the “heart of” what he has been doing since high school.

With a seemingly insatiable appetite for learning, he also advocates nurturing compassion to better understand cultures so world peace can become an attainable goal.

“I think that’s the bottom line for peace,” he said. “You gain compassion by talking with other people, listening to other people, sharing experiences, and that’s what I hope to do with the Nagasaki-America Peace Project.”