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Nearly 60 years ago, a largely forgotten, cross-continental peace march brought together two of the greatest tragedies of World War II: the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Holocaust.

As detailed in Ran Zwigenberg’s “Hiroshima: The Origins of Global Memory Culture,” in January 1962, a procession of young student activists, peace activists and Buddhist monks, set off from Hiroshima on a march all the way to Auschwitz, the site of one of the most notorious concentration camps.

Gyotsu Sato, an Imperial Japanese Army veteran and leader of the march, declared his desire to “deepen the connection between these two places of utmost suffering and tragedy in World War II.” Before setting off on their journey, the marchers visited the A-Bomb hospital and met with hibakusha representatives. Then they received 3,000 paper cranes, crafted in honor of the celebrated hibakusha girl Sadako Sasaki, to scatter along the way from Hiroshima to Poland.

Traveling mostly by land, they arrived in Auschwitz a year later on a bitter cold and snowy day. After processing the final mile from the city to the site of the death camp, the organizers declared: “We Japanese, as both aggressors and victims of the war, should have a special duty in calling for world peace. … We, who went through the bomb and Occupation, but at the same time must reflect on the sin of aggression that we committed. … Thus we decided to set up this march to tell as many people as possible about the horrors of Hiroshima and Auschwitz.”

This remarkable march in the name of peace came into being through the unlikely intertwining of the story of two young girls’ who lives were torn apart by the war: Sadako Sasaki and Anne Frank.

For half a century, “The Diary of Anne Frank” was required reading in elementary schools throughout Japan. Anne’s life, as told through her own words, is one of the main reasons the history of the Holocaust continues to resonate powerfully in Japan. Meanwhile, the early death of Sadako, and the thousands of origami cranes she left behind, serves as a lasting symbol of Hiroshima’s loss and resilience. The lives of Sadako and Anne share thematic and real-life parallels that continue to instruct us in 2020 about the conflicted legacy of the war in Japan.

At 8:15 a.m. on Aug. 6, Sadako was 2 years old. Two minutes earlier, Hiroshima’s emergency announcer received notice of three enemy planes heading west.

But before he could finish the announcement, the enriched uranium gun-type fission bomb dubbed “Little Boy” detonated in midair, a blinding light flashed and the horror began. Up to 80,000 people were killed instantly or severely wounded, steel-framed buildings melted and a shock wave of sound and radioactive fireballs leveled almost everything in sight. The city of Hiroshima has said that burns, radiation sickness and cancer resulted in 237,000 more deaths in the ensuing days, months and years.

Sadako’s home was a little more than a mile from the center of the blast, and as her mother carried her away from the fire, they were caught in the “black rain” of nuclear fallout. Ten years later, she was a healthy, athletic girl, but in November 1954, she suddenly fell ill. Within a few months she was diagnosed with leukemia and doctors knew that she had a year to live at most.

When the hospital she was admitted into received a gift of colorful paper cranes, Sadako was inspired to fold her own. She made a 1,000 at the hospital within a month, and hundreds more before she passed away on Oct. 25, 1955.

“What I learned from Sadako was that from a heart that values love and compassion, we can be in perfect empathy with one another, respecting and understanding one another deeply,” says Masahiro Sasaki, Sadako’s older brother, in an interview for a new book in English that tells Sadako’s story, “The Complete Story of Sadako Sasaki and the Thousand Paper Cranes.”

In remembrance: People float lanterns on a river in Hiroshima on Aug. 6 to mark the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombing of that city. | KYODO
In remembrance: People float lanterns on a river in Hiroshima on Aug. 6 to mark the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombing of that city. | KYODO

Remembering the Holocaust

On the surface, Anne and Sadako, while very different on the surface, both had promising lives torn apart by war. Anne was born in Germany, but her family moved to Amsterdam when she was 4 years old to escape the Nazis. She grew up with a restricted childhood — unable to visit parks, cinemas or non-Jewish shops as a Jew — before going into hiding for good in 1942. When Sadako turned to origami, Anne turned to her notebooks, writing diary entries, short stories and even began a novel.

Eventually, the German and Dutch police raided Anne’s hiding place, and her family was taken to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland. On the same day, 371 of their fellow prisoners were sent to the gas chambers. Anne and her sister, Margot, were eventually transferred to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp were they reportedly died of typhus. Just seven months later, Anne’s father was the only member of the family to survive.

In postwar Japan, the story of Anne Frank became a narrative as well-known as Sadako Sasaki’s. The first Japanese translation of Anne Frank’s diary was published in 1952 and instantly became a staple of the reading catalog for young girls and boys, and continues to be taught in some elementary schools today. Awareness of both the local trauma of Hiroshima and the distant horrors of the Holocaust sprung up side-by-side in the 1950s, with Japan’s new, pacifist Constitution serving as a guiding force.

“The success of (‘The Diary of Anne Frank’) was largely because of its universal message and because it touched on the wartime personal experience of hopelessness of many Japanese youth, and their growing sense of victimhood,” says Rotem Kowner, a professor of Asian studies at the University of Haifa.

“This literature is written by young girl, in the first-person perspective, so it’s easy to read for young people,” says Ariko Kato, a professor at the Nagoya University of Foreign Studies and fellow at the Mandel Center of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “For young people, it’s excellent educational material to allow young students to think about what happened with children during the Holocaust.”

Both Anne and Sadako’s stories became powerful symbols — and importantly, symbols that were accessible to children — of the devastation of war. They have continued to hold great sway in the Japanese cultural psyche. “The Diary of Anne Frank” even became an original Japanese animated film in 1995, and books and movies about Sadako Sasaki continue to be created in Japan.

One of the most influential advocates of Anne’s story is Kyoto-born Christian priest Makoto Otsuka. He met Anne’s father, Otto Frank, when he traveled to Israel to perform with a church choir, and delivered Frank dozens of letters written by Japanese people. He went on to found the Holocaust Education Center in Fukuyama, Hiroshima Prefecture, in 1995. Otsuka says that the purpose of his museum is to “offer a prayer for peace.”

“Because of the enormous tragedies of the 20th century that happened here in Japan, Hiroshima seemed like the fitting place to offer this prayer,” Otsuka says. “We are trying to teach about the dignity and majesty of being human.”

Fukuyama’s Holocaust Education Center is a beautiful, modern building filled with hundreds of artifacts from Anne’s house and concentration camps. It features a 2,000-year history of the Jewish people and a comprehensive exhibit on the Holocaust, which features a large, half-shattered wall built out of real bricks from a Polish ghetto. The museum focuses on helping children understand the Holocaust, with a special children’s room, interactive elements, exhibitions of poems written by children in the ghetto and, of course, an emphasis on Anne.

The Auschwitz Peace Museum in Shirakawa, Fukushima Prefecture, is another privately funded institution educating Japanese about the Holocaust. Similar to the museum in Fukuyama, it heavily features Anne and emphasizes the lives of innocent children that were lost.

And Sadako just might be the most prominent Japanese symbol for the innocent children lost to war. Just as Anne’s story is frequently told in Japan’s Holocaust museums, Sadako’s story has frequently appeared in exhibits at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, and the Children’s Peace Monument was erected to commemorate her and the thousands of child victims of the atomic bombings.

When asked what he wants to achieve by telling Sadako’s story, Masahiro Sasaki replied: “I hope children will be able to think about the reasons why there are always wars, conflicts, fightings, terrorism, etc. in the world. I hope they can find the answers to why people do such things. I hope children will grow up thoughtful (like Sadako) and global so that they can appreciate and respect any differences in nationality, culture or religion.”

A tribute to Sadako: The Children's Peace Monument in Hiroshima commemorates Sadako Sasaki and the thousands of child victims of the atomic bombing. | GETTY IMAGES
A tribute to Sadako: The Children’s Peace Monument in Hiroshima commemorates Sadako Sasaki and the thousands of child victims of the atomic bombing. | GETTY IMAGES

Facing up to history

The stories of Anne and Sadako are typically emphasized for their purity and universality. They make teaching the history of World War II and the Holocaust simple and emotional. However, the deeper questions raised by these histories aren’t always easy to address. The Shirakawa Holocaust memorial museum in particular associates the Holocaust with other war crimes, holding multiple special exhibitions over the years on Hiroshima and Nagasaki: the Nanking Massacre, where Imperial Japanese soldiers killed hundreds of thousands of people over the course of a few weeks, the use of poisonous gas in China by the Japanese army and humans rights violations by the Israeli military in the Gaza Strip.

“We can’t just close our eyes to history,” says Mari Obuchi, the museum director. “When people look at our exhibits we want them to make connections to things that happened here in Japan. We need to take a firm stance and use what happened in Auschwitz to understand the world.”

On the other hand, Otsuka says the point of his Hiroshima museum isn’t to reflect on Japan’s own war crimes. “We simply reflect on the horror of the war,” he says.

Japanese writing and teaching about the Holocaust frequently makes the comparison between people such as Anne and people like Sadako.

“It is the war that killed Anne,” Yoshifumi Oishi writes in a passage in a 2001 picture book about Anne Frank. “It is the human society that produced Hitler and the Nazis. And it is beyond our comprehension how humans could do such cruel and brutal things to their fellow humans. During World War II, throughout the whole world, more than 40 million people lost their lives. Of these, about 30 million were nonmilitary and ordinary citizens. More than 2 million Japanese died because of the war as well.”

This perspective blames human society “beyond comprehension” for the death of Anne, the death of 6 million Jews, the horrific violence that took place in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and all of the other atrocities that took place during wartime. And while Holocaust memorials in Japan focus on teaching children about the horrors of war, they cannot ignore Japan’s own memory of wartime victimhood and perpetration.

Akiko Hashimoto, a professor of sociology at Portland State University and author of “The Long Defeat: Cultural Trauma, Memory and Identity in Japan,” classifies three types of narratives present in Japan’s war memories: heroic narratives about the stories of fallen national heroes, perpetrator narratives of a “dark descent into hell” and victim narratives that promote empathy and identification with tragic victims in defeat. The acceptance and widespread exhibition of the stories of Anne Frank and Sadako Sasaki clearly fits into the third bucket, a discourse of suffering and antimilitarism.

“This narrative also tends to divert attention, in this case from the suffering of the others that the Japanese victimized in Asia,” Hashimoto says. “I realize that common Western criticism accuses Japan of leaving war history unexamined. In my view, however, Japan’s history problem is not about national amnesia but a stalemate in a fierce, multivocal struggle over national legacy and the meaning of being Japanese.”

Kato explains that a 30-year lawsuit brought about by historian Saburo Ienaga eventually reversed censorship of the Nanking Massacre in Japanese textbooks in 1997. But a growing movement in the 1990s, led by the Japan Society for History Textbook Reform, sought to deny the crimes committed by Japanese armies, and has been successful at striking references to wartime sex slaves and forced suicides from textbooks.

“The Holocaust was introduced as a genocide during World War II, which we Japanese should know about, along with other massacres of civilians at Hiroshima-Nagasaki and Nanking,” Kato says. “However, due to the revisionist movement in Japan, Nanking has been deleted from the triangle.”

Both Sadako and Anne have had an outsized role in Japan’s path toward reflecting on and grappling with the history of World War II. Both girls came to resonate deeply in the Japanese consciousness through numerous books and media. Their stories are so beloved because they spark immediate empathy, and are easily translated into simple themes: the terrors of war, the universality of suffering, and the importance of love, kindness and resilience.

This year marked 75 years after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While the COVID-19 pandemic made it difficult for the general public to honor the anniversary, it remains well worth it to take a trip to one of Japan’s multiple Holocaust museums alongside a trip to the Holocaust Peace Memorial Museum when conditions improve. These memorials provide the opportunity to reflect on the intense interweaving of stories of human suffering. More importantly, they remind us not to rest at but move beyond the too-easy conclusion that we are all innocent victims of war.

“The story of Anne Frank is not nearly as well-read as in past generations,” Obuchi says. “We really want young people to come here and participate in understanding history. It’s easy to turn our eyes away from scary things, but that is something we cannot afford to do.”

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