In remembering Hiroshima, one girl’s heartbreak reaches across language and culture

    This statue of Sadako Sasaki

    This statue of Sadako Sasaki

    As President Obama visits Hiroshima, a Philadelphia writer remembers an inspirational experience tutoring adults with the true story of a Japanese girl’s prayer for peace in the aftermath of the atomic bomb.

    I have never visited Japan. Neither had the adults sitting around a table with me last month when together we were transported there.

    The six of us meet weekly at Community Learning Center (CLC) in Philadelphia. They come for free help with reading and writing, and I am their tutor for the morning. Together we’ve read aloud stories with some tough words, with characters whose names are Spanish, Polish, or Ethiopian. When I handed them our new book, “Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes” by Eleanor Coerr, they groaned thumbing through it.

    Can’t we just read something with names we can say?

    I understood. They work hard every week deciphering syllables, sounding out words and understanding what makes a sentence a sentence. Many ultimately want a GED — high school equivalency degree — so they might get a better job, help their children with homework, or simply write better so they can take notes at meetings or church.

    Holding the small coral-colored book, I pointed out that it wasn’t too long — just over 60 pages — and that it was based on the true story of Sadako, born in Hiroshima in 1943. With the help of a student’s phone, we found an audio voice that we listened to over and over saying, Sah – dah – ko, Sah – dah – ko, Sah – dah– ko. We practiced a bit and then plunged in.

    After reading two chapters, we finished for the day. I had a feeling they liked the story, but unfamiliar words and names were a challenge — the family’s surname Sasaki, Sadako’s best friend Chizuko, her siblings Mitsue, Masahiro, and Eiji. Before the next week’s session, I made a list of several names and words in the book — in the left column, I wrote the word and in the right, the word broken up by syllable. Would this help, I wondered? I made copies for all of us.

    The following week we began Chapter 3, first reviewing the syllable sheet. As usual, we went around the table, each student taking a turn reading passages out loud. Sometimes I help students with an unfamiliar word or name, sometimes they help each other. It’s a balance between keeping the story going and giving each person the chance to sound out words. As the story unfolds, Sadako, a lively and fun 12-year-old, is healthy and strong, a born runner. Her family is up early in August 1954, scrambling to get out the door to Hiroshima Peace Park for an annual commemoration for victims of the atom bomb dropped by the United States in 1945 during World War II (when Sadako was two years old).

    As the story continues, Sadako runs faster and farther in school relay races, enjoying her growing fame, until she begins feeling dizzy. She tells no one until she can hide it no longer. Eventually, she is hospitalized with “atom bomb disease,” what families called the leukemia that struck many children after 1945.

    To cheer her up in the hospital, Sadako’s friend Chizuko folds a piece of paper into a beautiful, golden paper crane. “If a sick person folds 1,000 paper cranes, the gods will grant her wish and make her healthy again,” she tells Sadako.

    Sadako is a fighter. Full of hope and determined to fold 1,000 cranes so she can get well and go home, she folds more than 600 over the course of weeks. Her brother hangs them from her hospital room ceiling.

    As we took turns reading along, I began noticing a shift among students. They were lost in the story — reading it, not the words.

    One dabbed at her eyes as Sadako’s parents worried they would lose her. Another, who had arrived tired, his head down and book propped on the table for support, sat up straight, holding the book in front of him.

    During one happy scene, Sadako bounces back and goes home for a holiday meal with her family. She then returns to the hospital, exhausted, and makes her 644th crane. It is her last.

    Toward the middle of October, Sadako lost track of days and nights. Once, when she was awake, she saw her mother crying. “Don’t cry,” she begged. “Please don’t cry.” Sadako wanted to say more, but her mouth and tongue wouldn’t move. A tear slid down her cheek. She had brought her mother so much grief. And all Sadako could do now was make paper cranes and hope for a miracle.

    As Coerr tells the story, Sadako’s school class folds the remaining 356 cranes so that Sadako can be buried with 1,000. At the story’s close, I had planned to read the epilogue describing how the author was inspired to write Sadako’s story. But I was crying and couldn’t read more than a sentence.

    A student sitting next to me stepped in and began reading. Another quietly helped him when needed. Finally I was able to read again. Afterward, I thanked them both for helping me out. I marveled at how far we had traveled — with Sadako and with each other. For a long moment, we had switched places and leaned on each other.

    Sadako’s story had been one of heartbreak, but our experience of reading it together was one of promise. We had more stories to read together and perhaps with more work, a chance to keep re-writing our own.

    A statue of Sadako was unveiled in 1958 in Hiroshima Peace Park, where President Obama will visit this week — the first sitting U.S. president to ever visit Hiroshima. With outstretched hands, she holds a golden crane. Engraved on the base are these words:

    This is our cry,this is our prayer;peace in the world.

    For more information about the classes and services offered at CLC, or to volunteer, visit them online.

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