Rest in peace, for the error shall not be repeated.
This phrase is inscribed on the cenotaph at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, a somber yet beautiful place that shelters the souls of the victims of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima during World War II. Making sure that the error truly shall not be repeated—that no country uses nuclear weapons ever again—is the life’s work of Setsuko Thurlow, one of the bombing’s survivors.
Thurlow—née Nakamura—was 13 years old when the US military dropped an atomic bomb over her hometown of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. The determined teenager dug her way out of the rubble of a collapsed building, saw firsthand the devastating aftermath, and became an activist who staunchly fights for a world without nuclear weapons. She is the face of the Hibakusha, or “bomb-affected people,” the survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Thurlow speak at various events in New York. Several years ago, after one such event at Japan Society where Thurlow told her survival story in grisly detail to an audience of area high schoolers, I approached her and briefly told her that my mother, who is two years Thurlow’s junior, survived the Battle of Okinawa as an eleven-year-old but will not talk about it. Why, I asked Thurlow, was she able to discuss freely the horrors that she witnessed that day, but my mother could not? The Hibakusha replied that while it was extremely difficult at first to describe what happened, she knew that it was important to do so.
Her mission, her meaning in life, is to prevent what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki from happening again, and to do that, she had to explain the aftermath as an eyewitness. Otherwise, the students to whom she had just spoken would never know the true story and the true horror of war. Rest in peace, for the error shall not be repeated.
A Lifetime of Activism
While my mother is still reluctant to share her WWII experiences, Thurlow, at age 88, continues to speak around the world. Her raw emotion, her lack of sugarcoating, and her no-nonsense delivery have made her one of the most recognizable Hibakusha.
In commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima during World War II, OVID.tv, a new video-on-demand subscription service, is streaming The Vow from Hiroshima, a documentary that follows Thurlow’s lifetime of activism from that fateful day in 1945 to 72 years later in 2017, when she represented ICAN (International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons) in Oslo as the consortium of anti-nuke organizations was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
In addition to the events of August 6, 1945, through The Vow from Hiroshima, we learn about Thurlow’s upbringing and her marriage to Jim Thurlow, Canadian whom she met in Japan. The couple married in 1955 and eventually settled in Toronto. Jim Thurlow was Setsuko’s greatest champion, encouraging her to tell her story whenever and wherever she was asked.
The Vow from Hiroshima isn’t simply a documentary about the life of Setsuko Thurlow; it also it chronicles the friendship that developed between Setsuko and Mitchie Takeuchi, a New York-based filmmaker who is a Hiroshima native. Like Thurlow, Takeuchi’s mother survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Unlike Thurlow, she didn’t share her experiences, even with her own children. Takeuchi has spent much of her life uncovering the stories of her mother and her maternal grandfather, who was the head of the Red Cross Hospital in Hiroshima during WWII. The bond between Takeuchi and Thurlow is strong despite their age difference, and the younger Hiroshima native is also vocal in the fight to eliminate nuclear weapons.
How to Watch
To watch The Vow from Hiroshima you can start a free two-week trial with OVID.tv. and gain access to thousands of documentaries, independent films, and international selections that this new subscription video-on-demand service provides. After the trial period, subscriptions are just $6.99 per month or $69.99 per year. The service is available on multiple devices including iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, Android, Android TV, Roku, Fire TV, and web browsers. There is a healthy selection of Japanese titles to be found as well. For more information, please visit OVID.tv’s website.
When you sign up for your free trial, Setsuko Thurlow’s story should be at the top of your list. In addition to her stories and her journey to Oslo with Takeuchi, you’ll hear her stirring speeches, including the one she gave in support of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which was eventually passed on July 7, 2017.
Whenever I remember Hiroshima, the first image that comes to my mind is my four-year-old nephew, who was transformed into an unrecognizable, blackened, swollen, melted chunk of flesh who kept begging for water in a faint voice until his death released him from agony. This little boy’s image has come to represent in my mind all the innocent children in the world, threatened as they are at this very moment by nuclear weapons . . . Please do your job well and know that we hibakusha—survivors—have no doubt that this treaty can and will change the world.”
Excerpt from her speech at the UN on March 28, 2017
After the passage of the treaty, Thurlow remarked that she has been “waiting for this day for seven decades.” But the fight is still not over; it’s just beginning: At least 50 nations need to sign and ratify the treaty before it can take effect. Thurlow will forge ahead.
“Rest in peace, for the error shall not be repeated” is often translated as, “Let all the souls rest in peace here, for we shall not repeat the evil.” It is Setsuko Thurlow’s vow from Hiroshima that no one else on this planet will repeat the evil of nuclear weapons that she witnessed 75 years ago.
More on Thurlow
Read Motoko Rich’s profile of Thurlow in The New York Times.
Listen to Thurlow’s Nobel Peace Prize Lecture at Nobel Prize’s website.
Learn about ICAN and the organization’s mission.