“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies,
but the silence of our friends” (Martin Luther King)
We posted this photograph on our Facebook a few days ago,
with the following hastily written, badly punctuated caption:
Ordinary people. The courage to say no.
The photo was taken in Hamburg in 1936, during the
celebrations for the launch of a ship. In the crowd, one
person refuses to raise his arm to give the Nazi salute.
The man was August Landmesser. He had already been
in trouble with the authorities, having been sentenced to
two years hard labour for marrying a Jewish woman.
We know little else about August Landmesser, except that
he had two children. By pure chance, one of his children
recognized her father in this photo when it was published
in a German newspaper in 1991. How proud she must
have been in that moment.If you’re among the 112,000 people who “liked” the post, or the
40,000 who have shared, I guess you know that story already.
At the beginning of this week, our Facebook page numbered
three hundred friends, brought together in effervescent community
over a period of nine months. In the past few days, this number
has increased fifteen fold.
Welcome to all! And thank you to August Landmesser for guiding
so many of you here.
Where social networks have led, the traditional media have now
followed. In the past two days, the story of August Landmesser
has been published in various newspapers worldwide. Today, the
photo made the homepage of France’s leading web portal.
When our then nascent English translation of
Haruki Murakami’s Catalunya Prize speech was referenced by
his US publishers’ Facebook, we experienced similar reaction.
But on that occasion, the furore lasted just a few hours, while
this time the buzz has continued over several days.
A couple of friends have asked why I chose to publish this
photograph at all on our Facebook page. Senrinomichi after
all is dedicated to supporting victims of the triple disaster
in Japan. What is the relation?
The reason is simple. When I saw the photo, it instantly
struck a chord with so many of my evolving reflections
about the situation in Japan post March 11.
In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami,
countless media articles were devoted to the visible victims
of a natural terror. We created Senrinomichi with the intention
of doing what we could to support these people.
Little by little, we came to realize that there were many
more victims than we had originally imagined. In addition
to those who had lost so much that was precious in that
evil wave, there were also countless people who had
been spared the ravages of the tsunami, but had become
victims of an invisible man-made terror – radioactivity.
Because this terror was invisible, for economic reasons –
and perhaps also because it was man-made – people
found it convenient to turn a blind eye.
Abandoned people. These two words encapsulate my
thoughts about the situation in Fukushima today.
Eleven months after the Fukushima Daiichi accident,
the silence that surrounds these people is extraordinary.
I can understand the silence from the people themselves.
Those who lost their families, friends, houses, properties,
communities and the very foundations of their lives. I am
in awe of those in the impacted areas who find the strength,
not only to fight their personal demons and struggles, but
also to speak out on behalf of others. People such as the
Fukushima Mothers. They are truly extraordinary people.
What I struggle to understand is the silence of others.
Those in other parts of Japan and other parts of the world,
who seem happy to accept the
official reassurances that the nuclear accident is now over,
and that two and two makes five. Sleepwalking.
I really don’t mean this critically; I just need to understand
the silence. I think it is only through understanding the silence,
that we can sublimate the experience, and help break the silence.
And so, since October, I have been writing a series of articles
that seek to make sense of this silence. All started with the
terrible, dead-man walking recital of Robert Oppenheimer,
chief architect of the Manhattan Project, which gave birth to
the Little Boy that would destroy Hiroshima. From there,
my meanderings have begun to crisscross other continents
and decades in an unfinished series of postcards from a mystery train.
(Now I see the face of the conductor in that train…. The face
I never saw clearly while I was writing…)
When I look at the photograph of August Landmesser, I see
a man who refused to participate in the collective gesture,
and thereby chose not to be silent. His action should serve
as an example to us all.
I’m sure that in the crowd that day, there were many more
who would have wished not to be silent, but who did not
find the courage. In Germany in 1936, I would doubtless
have been among their number.
Seventy-six years later, it is easy to be critical of all those
who are seen saluting. But that is far too easy a reaction.
It is more instructive to look in the mirror and ask “What
would I do?”
Seventy-six years later, I cannot know how I would behave
in Japan today. But I see people – some famous people,
many “ordinary” people – who have chosen to break the
silence, and they have my gratitude and my utmost respect.
Given the extraordinary, solitary nature of August Landmesser’s
gesture, some people have expressed surprise that I chose
to entitle the Facebook post “ordinary people”. Indeed this
was a minor error. I should instead have called it “regular
people”, in honour of Professor Tatsuhiko Kodama,
Nature Magazine’s Man of the Year;
the man who told the Japanese Parliament in a decidedly un-Japanese
moment of anger “You don’t know what you’re doing”.
When told by others that he had behaved like a hero,
Professor Kodama downplayed his actions, referring to
himself as a “regular person”.
I cannot know, but I suspect August Landmesser would
have said much the same thing about his gesture.
Seventy-six years have passed since that photograph was
taken. The final act of the war – begun three years later
by the absent dictator the German shipyard workers were
saluting in that photograph – was the nuclear destruction
of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The following
message is inscribed on the Hiroshima Memorial to the
victims of the atomic bomb.
“Let all the souls here rest in peace, for we shall not
repeat the evil”
The nuclear attacks killed more than two hundred thousand
people in their immediate aftermath. In the months and
years that followed, countless others died agonizing deaths
from the effects of radiation poisoning. In Japan, the people
who survived the bombing were known as Hibakusha.
Such people were often subject to severe discrimination
from those who believed the consequences of radiation
sickness to be contagious or hereditary…. Abandoned people.
Twenty years after the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki,
Robert Oppenheimer was asked about the reaction of those
who were present in the US war rooms when Little Boy
was dropped on Hiroshima. Oppenheimer replied, with
these haunting, terrible words, upon which we should all reflect:
A few people laughed. A few people cried. Most people remained silent.
To show our friendship and respect to the abandoned people of Japan,
please let us not repeat the evil,
please let us not remain silent….