Whether or not America did enough for Jews during the Second World War has long been debated. But even those who say the United States did far too little concede that had the United States not entered the war and won, Jews might have been killed in far higher numbers than the already atrociously high six million.
But what few still consider in this debate is the deadly consequences of America’s war effort. Hoping to rectify that is a quietly devastating exhibit at the International Center of Photography of long-suppressed photographs of the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima.
Titled “Hiroshima: Ground Zero 1945,” the exhibit fills a gaping hole in our collective memory, displaying dozens of original photographs taken by the American military barely two months after the first atomic bomb was dropped on Aug. 6. Roughly 140,000 Japanese civilians were killed, half of them instantly.
“I wanted to show how clinical they were,” said Erin Barnett, an assistant curator at the ICP who organized the exhibit. She was referring to the chilly stoicism of the government photographers whose sole purpose was to document the kinds of buildings that could survive a nuclear blast.
As a result, there are no images of people, only the skeletal remains of buildings. To be sure, a handful of spectral human traces remain: the tattered shirt of a boy hung over a chair, for instance, or the imprint of shoes on a bridge.
“The body basically evaporated,” Barnett said in an interview at the exhibit, pointing to the image of the footprints. “Other than that, there really aren’t any corporeal suggestions” in the rest of the exhibit.
The Holocaust is occasionally referenced in the show’s catalog. But Barnett said that the Hiroshima images begged for comparisons to Holocaust photographs; other contributors to the exhibit were equally piqued by the parallels, as well as the limits for comparison.
“We have a lot of photographs of the concentration camps, but for Hiroshima, this is basically it,” said Adam Harrison Levy, a journalist and contributor to the catalog, who tracked down the classified photographs, abandoned for years, to a diner owner in Massachusetts.
But he added: “I think there’s a huge difference between these photographs and Holocaust photographs.” The main difference, he said, is the historical legacy of the photographs taken from each event.
The Nazis ordered the meticulous documentation of the concentration camps, and very shortly after their defeat, more than one million photographs were being circulated in the United States. The American press, the public and government were committed to exposing Nazi crimes, in no small part to justify the war effort.
But as for the American bombing of Japan, the U.S. government ruthlessly suppressed all information. Within a month of the Japanese surrender — exactly a week after the bombing of Nagasaki, on Aug. 9, which killed another 80,000 — the United States issued a formal edict in Japan outlawing any images from being published of the bombed cities. “Nothing shall be printed which might, directly or by inference, disturb public tranquility,” the law in part stated.
The only image that Americans back home did see was the indelible — but highly impersonal — photograph of the mushroom cloud. “Awesome in its way, with its bulbous head and towering stem,” Levy writes in his catalog essay, “it is nonetheless an abstract image freed from human agency and human consequence. This lack of visual evidence of the atom bomb’s effect has helped us to deny its devastating impact.”
The photographs at the exhibit were once-classified government images taken between October and November in 1945. President Harry Truman ordered 150 military personnel to document the bomb’s impact in order to learn how to prevent similar destruction in case of a nuclear attack on America.
More than 700 photographs were taken of architectural damage alone — schools, churches, beer halls, office buildings and homes — of which 60 are now on view. But if their long suppression has prevented the bombing of Japan from entering the American conscience the way the Holocaust has, Levy said that, in other ways, the Hiroshima photographs invite Holocaust parallels.
The key to the discovery is in the shared experience of simply looking at the two sets of pictures. Though the act can be wearying, looking at Holocaust and Hiroshima photographs is ultimately a necessary defense against the will to forget, he said. “The Nazis wanted to erase an entire culture and existence of a people,” Levy wrote in a follow-up e-mail. “So to look at photographs of the Holocaust — even those taken by Nazis — is to fight against this idea of erasure.”
“In a similar way,” he went on, “to look at the photographs of Hiroshima in this exhibition is also to fill in a hole in our collective memory. Although the photographs can’t bring the victims back to life, they can (hopefully) lead us to engage with a past … that previously was almost entirely invisible.”
And yet, attempting to compare the events themselves — the Holocaust to Hiroshima — can be morally problematic.
Alan Tansman, a professor of East Asian studies at the University of California, Berkeley, teaches a course comparing the two tragedies, and has written about it as well. He said in an interview that whenever he gives a public lecture comparing the two, an older Jewish listener almost inevitably raises the objection: How dare you cast doubt on the American war effort? It if weren’t for the Americans, all Jews would be dead.
“I understand that,” Tansman said, but he disagrees too: “We don’t want to consider the moral ambiguities of the war to end the Holocaust.”
He made it clear that he was not inviting a moral equivalency between the two events, and highlighted critical differences between them. The Jews were exclusively victims, he said, targeted by a regime they never waged war against.
The Japanese, however, had attacked America, which, if not sanctioning the death of hundreds of thousands of innocents, at least might justify an armed response. “The difference is that the Japanese could never say they were just victims,” he said.
He added that the Japanese themselves were divided about their own government’s policies during the war. Few welcomed atomic bombs being dropped on their cities, but many were happy to see the end of Emperor Hirohito’s rule and were willing to look past the bombing for the sake of rebuilding.
In addition, for at least a decade after the war ended, the Japanese lived under U.S. occupation and had a vested interest in suppressing their own traumas to appease the Americans. “There was very little anger or blame directed at the United States at first,” he said, noting another important difference with Jewish reactions to the Germans.
And still, Tansman argues that studying the two events together outweighs the risks. In an essay about teaching Hiroshima and the Holocaust together, he looked inward for the reason why it was necessary.
As a Jew whose relatives were killed in the Holocaust, he noticed how he almost intuitively touched on his own peoples’ tragedy in order to understand another’s. Conversely, facing someone else’s trauma might awaken us to the suffering we block out because our own becomes too personal, too unbearable.
“The suffering of my own people had supplied me with the empathy needed to understand Hiroshima,” Tansman wrote, “while Hiroshima provided the filter I needed to study the suffering of my own people.”
Barnett, the exhibit’s curator, seems to come to that conclusion too. When asked if it was even appropriate to compare the two events — the Holocaust, and Japan’s nuclear holocaust — she said simply: “Definitely.”
“Hiroshima: Ground Zero 1945” runs at the International Center of Photography, located at 1133 Sixth Ave. and 43rd Street, through Aug. 28. Call (212) 857-0045 for more information.