Children's gifts redeemed 'legacy of devastation'

Children's gifts redeemed 'legacy of devastation'

Japanese ambassador attends D.C. church to commemorate gift exchange with children of Hiroshima after atomic blast.

Shizumi Kodomo Dance Troupe performs at All Souls DC

The Shizumi Kodomo Dance Troupe performs Sunday, April 5, 2009, at a special service at All Souls Church, Unitarian, in Washington, D.C., celebrating the opening of an exhibit of drawings sent by the children of Hiroshima in 1948 to the children of All Souls thanking them for the gift of school supplies. (© Gary Penn)

Gary Penn


On the morning of August 6, 1945, 400 students of the Honkawa Elementary School in Hiroshima, Japan, sat at desks to begin their school day. As the children settled down for their morning lessons, the American B-29 bomber, Enola Gay, flew overhead and dropped an atomic bomb. The blast produced the iconic mushroom cloud over the city and incinerated the school children and 80,000 other residents instantly.

Fourteen months later in Washington, D.C., two American admirals in full regalia posed with a smiling, elegantly dressed woman about to cut into an elaborate angel-food cake. Swirls of angel-food puffs towered over the cake to create a giant mushroom-cloud pastry, the centerpiece of a celebration of the atomic-bomb task force.

The Rev. A. Powell Davies, minister of All Souls Church, Unitarian, in Washington, D.C., saw the newspaper photo and was outraged by its insensitivity. He preached an invective that garnered publicity around the world. His sermon also inspired the children of his Washington church to reach out to the surviving children of Hiroshima. The All Souls children collected half a ton of school supplies—paper, paint, crayons, paper clips, and paste—and shipped them off to the children who had returned to the bombed-out hulk of Honkawa Elementary.

The Japanese children showed their gratitude by sending in return 48 watercolor paintings to the children of All Souls. Their inspiring and hopeful artworks have been restored by All Souls, and on April 5 they went on display at the church during the city’s spring Cherry Blossom Festival.

Ichiro Fujisaki, the Japanese Ambassador to the United States, attended the church’s Sunday service and ceremony and viewed the revered paintings, which will travel this summer to the UUA’s General Assembly before making their first trip to Japan next year in an exhibit at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.

From his pulpit at All Souls, which he served from 1944 to 1957, Davies was an outspoken critic of Communism, McCarthyism, and segregation. His sermon denouncing the mushroom cloud cake made its way into Japanese newspapers, where it was read by church member Howard Bell, an official with Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s provisional government. Bell wrote to Davies, telling him of the plight of the Japanese children who had returned to Hiroshima.

Most of Honkawa Elementary’s 1,200 students had been evacuated from the city before the bombing. By 1947, children had returned to the skeletal remains of the reinforced concrete school, huddling together on benches in the unheated building. But they had no school supplies to aid their efforts “to learn democracy,” and Bell asked if Davies could help.

Davies presented the plight of the Japanese children in a February 1947 sermon called “In Reply to a Letter from Japan.” The children organized a supply drive, collecting boxes of materials. And Davies’ assistant Jane Pfeiffer found a way to ship them to Japan just before Christmas that year. The supplies were distributed to two Hiroshima elementary schools and an orphanage. “It was the first civilian package to be received at MacArthur’s headquarters,” recalls Pfeiffer, who worked for Davies from 1945 to 1957. At age 88, she lives in Washington with her husband Paul Pfeiffer, who helped undertake restoration work on the Hiroshima paintings.

Several months after the shipment of school supplies, a return package arrived in Washington addressed to the children of All Souls. Inside were several Japanese comic books, two rag dolls, 75 thank-you letters from the children of Fukuromachi School of Hiroshima, a thank you letter from the Ninoshima Orphanage, and a book of 48 watercolor and crayon drawings by the children of Honkawa Elementary.

For many Japanese, the art of the Hibakusha, or survivors of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is sacred. For many years, Japanese tourists have knocked on the doors of All Souls asking, “Is this the church with the Hiroshima children’s drawings?”

In his April 5, 2009, sermon about the restored children’s paintings, the Rev. Robert M. Hardies, senior minister at All Souls, explained that most Hibakusha art is by adults and depicts gruesome, apocalyptic images of bombed-out Japan. The children’s drawings couldn’t be more different. “They are vibrant, colorful depictions of life abundant,” Hardies said: bright kites, children playing baseball, a classroom of smiling students, cherry trees in bloom.

For many years, the Hiroshima drawings languished in the All Souls’ safe collecting dust next to the communion silver. In 2005, then-church administrator Mel Hardy formed a group to restore and frame the paintings. Paul Pfeiffer served on the committee, and had also served as chair of the A. Powell Davies Committee, which works to advance Davies’s legacy.

The restoration project has cost about $15,000, and was funded by the A. Powell Davies Committee and the Beckner–All Souls Advancement Fund, according to the Rev. Louise Green, minister of social justice at All Souls. In addition to restoring the original paintings, the fund paid for the creation of enhanced reproductions, which are now on display in the church’s Pierce Hall. The originals are in museum storage.

“There’s no sign of violence in these paintings,” said Pfeiffer, a Navy veteran who served as a communications officer in the Pacific Theater during World War II. “It’s loving stuff. Kid stuff. The beauty of these paintings is it was kid to kid.”

After the box of paintings and thank you notes arrived, the All Souls children undertook a second collection, and sent their Japanese friends baseball bats, mitts, and balls, along with ping-pong and tennis equipment.

Documentary filmmaker Bryan Reichardt is chronicling the story of the All Souls children and the Hiroshima paintings. In Pictures from a Hiroshima Schoolyard, he is interviewing 17 of the children who made the drawings, now in their 70s and living in Japan. And he plans to follow the exhibit when it travels to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in 2010.

Reichardt filmed the April 5 All Souls service attended by the Japanese ambassador. The service included performances by the All Souls Tulsa, Okla., Youth Choir and the Shizumi Kodomo Dance Troupe.

Along with the documentary filmmaker, Hardies will accompany the paintings to Japan. He sees a profound theological message in the story of the paintings. “After an unspeakable atrocity had taken place between two cultures, children decided to exchange crayons and drawings and restart what their parents had destroyed,” he said. “It was an effort by children to redeem the legacy of devastation that we have left them.”

The paintings, Hardies told his congregation, remind a new generation what Davies told his generation after World War II: “The world is now too dangerous for anything but truth and too small for anything but brotherhood.”