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Physics professor discovers peace in the shadow of war

Professor Michonova-Alexova in Hiroshima
Professor Michonova-Alexova in Hiroshima

Associate Professor of Physics Dr. Ekaterina Michonova-Alexova, who has taught at Erskine College since 2007, traveled to Japan in August to attend a seminar for faculty, “Nuclear Weapons and Our Globalizing Century: A Multidisciplinary Challenge for the Christian Academy,” sponsored by the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU). 

In the course of the 10-day seminar, participants visited Nagasaki and Hiroshima, meeting with public officials, church leaders, educators and other private citizens. Their visits to the Japanese cities where the first nuclear weapons were used during World War II coincided with the cities’ annual commemoration events. Inside Erskine approached her with a few questions and here she speaks about her experience.

Would you please tell a little about your previous experience in Japan and what motivated you to attend the CCCU seminar there?

My family and I spent a year in Japan before relocating to the USA. I took a year off from the Institute of Biophysics at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, where I was employed as a research associate, to join my husband, who was a research fellow at RIKEN, a famous Research Institute of Chemistry and Physics near Tokyo. This was an exciting and enriching cultural experience. This is what motivates me to teach a Japanese Culture and Traditions class during the J-term here at Erskine College.

Five years later, I visited Japan for a second time as a Ph.D. student at Mount Sinai School of Medicine of NYU. This time the visit was much shorter—about two weeks. I was awarded a grant by the organizers of the Annual International Conference on Research in Computational Molecular Biology (RECOMB), which allowed me to travel to Japan and to present a poster on my dissertational research.

When CCCU announced the upcoming seminar on “Nuclear Weapons and Our Globalizing Century,” I thought that the topic was quite interesting and while I was still in the process of deciding, several colleagues sent me this information, saying that “my name was written all over it” and I should apply. The application process was competitive and involved writing several essays and getting recommendations. I was very fortunate to have been selected to participate.

At the Nagasaki Peace Ceremony at 11:02 a.m. on August 13, 2013—the exact moment when the atomic bomb was detonated over the city—a choir of hibakusha (survivors) sings in front of the city’s memorial.
At the Nagasaki Peace Ceremony at 11:02 a.m. on August 9, 2013—the exact moment when the atomic bomb was detonated over the city in 1945—a choir of hibakusha (survivors) sings in front of the city’s memorial.

How were the meetings with survivors and peace activists structured? Was it a large-lecture setting, a small group, or what?

The seminar itself was extremely intense. Along with my 23 colleagues from different Christian colleges across the USA and Canada, I attended the 68th Hiroshima and Nagasaki Peace Memorial Services on August 6th and on August 9th and met with about a dozen hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors). Each hibakusha meeting was arranged just for the participants of our seminar. We were very fortunate to have had among us Mr. Steven Leeper, a resident of both Hiroshima and Atlanta, who was the former Chairman of the Hiroshima Peace Culture Foundation. He was our interpreter of the atomic bomb survivor testimonies and also translated from Japanese to English for us at many occasions. The meetings with most peace activists were in similar settings, with the exception of one meeting, HANWA, which was of larger scale and included also talks by survivors from the Fukushima Nuclear Plant accident.

It is interesting to note that our group crossed paths with a group of American students going through a similar experience, led by American University history professor and author Peter Kuznick. Hearing the impressions of these students and their advice on how to tell the story about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to our own students was invaluable. We also crossed paths with the American film director and producer Oliver Stone, who teamed up with Kuznick to produce an HBO series and a book entitled The Untold History of the United States.

Had you already visited the peace memorials before you met with survivors and others? Please share your impressions of the memorials and the survivors, and perhaps elaborate on how your experience with one colored your experience with the other.

We met with most of the atomic bomb survivors after attending the Peace Ceremony. The first thing we did in Hiroshima was to go to the Peace Park and see the Memorial Museum. We were very fortunate to have Steve Leeper with us. He has worked for the Museum for over 20 years and knew everything about the impact of the bombing and the Peace Park. It was the day before the Peace Ceremony, which takes place annually at 8:15 a.m. on August 6, the exact time of the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945.

Each memorial that we saw in the Peace Park made its own powerful statement. One such memorial was the A-Bomb Mound, a grassy mound made from the ashes of 70,000 unknown victims of the bombing. This memorial so moved me that I can still see it as clearly as I did that day.

In the Museum we saw a lot of artifacts and actual photographs taken after the bombing. One of the first powerful visuals we saw was a model of the city of Hiroshima, beautiful and busy in its time, compared to the pile of destroyed buildings that it became after the bombing. The pictures I took are not enough to transfer the sentiment. You need to be there to feel it. Everyone ought to go.

Survivors of the atomic bomb (the hibakusha) we met gave their testimonies in Japanese and we heard the direct interpretation by Steve. One must realize that the people who are still living were children and teenagers 68 years ago, and all these people still feel the impact of the bomb.

Seiko Ikeda was fifteen when the atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima. Survivors of the bombings are known in Japan as "hibakusha."
Seiko Ikeda, pictured at left, was fifteen when the atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima.

The very first hibakusha we met was Seiko Ikeda, who was a fifteen-year-old girl in 1945. After the bombing, her clothes were burned and her wounds were so severe that she was completely unrecognizable. Her father treated her for about eight months, leaving behind his family so that he could take care of her. She considered suicide when she saw herself in the mirror, but the love of her father made her change her mind. After 15 plastic surgeries, she looks fine, even at 83, but she still sees the people begging for help that she wasn’t able to give. Everyone we met still carries the scars of the tragedy deep in their souls.

What were some of the insights you gained from visiting the memorials?

Visiting the memorials is many magnitudes more powerful than just knowing the story and reading about it. Even though I had studied in school and read a lot before visiting Hiroshima and Nagasaki, just crossing the distance puts you in the right mindset. The impact of the atomic bombs is beyond the imagination of anyone who has not been there. In our busy everyday lives we rarely stop to think about the importance of peace, but in fact it is the most important thing, without which no progress in any area is possible.

What were some of the most meaningful statements made by survivors or activists?

I heard no one blaming America for dropping the bomb. This was amazing to us and to the American students. Everyone was saying that it was the war to blame and that this experience teaches a lesson we humans have to learn. Peace and forgiveness was the spirit of the ceremonies in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Have you referred to your conference experiences in the classroom, or are there elements of the experience that you plan to use in the classroom?

There is not a day that I don’t think about this experience and how to transform it into something meaningful and share the experience with others, particularly my students.

For my students majoring in physics, I designed and dedicated part of their Physics Seminar class time this fall semester to the history of the physics of nuclear fission. My students and I went in depth into the moments of discovery, the history, and the political situations and circumstances that resulted in the creation of the atomic bombs. This was a great reading and writing experience, put together in a review article that two physics major students and I are planning to publish in a peer-reviewed physics journal focusing on the history of physics.

The entire group of CCCU professors who traveled to Japan in the summer of 2013.
CCCU professors who traveled to Japan in the summer of 2013

After visiting Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I have decided not to teach about the topics of energy or nuclear reactions without talking about the destructive impact and the suffering associated with them.

My General Physics students complete a writing assignment on nuclear energy and its safety. I want them to think critically and to be informed and knowledgeable.

I am also planning a future Peace Course in collaboration with a Christian college in Hiroshima, which will be offered every year either in the winter semester or in the summer semester. This idea has been approved by the dean and I am in the process of planning the next steps.


 This article was originally published in the Winter 2014 issue of Inside Erskine.

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