Granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, Christine Kingery from upstate New York experienced true compassion for the pain and grief of others while visiting Nagasaki on the 50th anniversary of the atomic bomb detonation.
My grandmother was born in northern Russia to a large family of fourteen siblings. She was sixteen years old when World War II broke out. Her first job was going onto the battlefields to dismantle bombs that hadn’t exploded.
She was captured by the Nazis when she was seventeen and taken to a “work camp” in Germany. They shaved off her waist-length hair and tortured her. Grandma never saw her parents and siblings again. Her mother died when Grandma was young. Her father was taken away to Siberia for political treason and never seen again, and most of her siblings died in the war.
My resourceful grandmother escaped the camp and worked for many months as a nurse in underground movements in Germany and Belgium. She was captured by the Nazis again and put into another concentration camp. This one was bigger. A death camp. There she met my grandfather, and the two escaped.
After the war, they had nowhere to go. They returned to a concentration camp in Stuttgart, which had been converted into a displacement camp. There my mother was born and raised. It took my grandparents eleven years to finally come to America.
When I was young, I heard many stories about the war. One day when I was eight, I said to my grandmother, “I hate the Germans for what they did to you! Don’t you just get so mad at them?”
I’ll never forget my grandmother’s response. She said in her broken English, “The Germans are my friends. When I escaped and had nowhere to go, the Germans gave me food, shelter, and clothes. They were my friends even in the camps. The Germans are the kindest people I know.”
Her answer shocked me, and it was my first introduction to the meaning of compassion.
A few years later, in high school, I had the chance to visit Japan. My host family took me to Nagasaki to the Atomic Bomb Museum and Peace Park. It was the fiftieth anniversary of the bombings. I was terrified, being so white skinned and so American!
I walked slowly through the crowded exhibits, looking at the black-and-white photographs. In every picture, in every Japanese victim’s face, I saw my grandmother’s reflection looking back at me. The experience was overwhelming, and I began to cry. I needed to get air, so I went outside.
There in Peace Park, beautiful, colorful origami cranes—thousands of them!—were draped over statues and trees. I sat on a bench and cried. I cried for the suffering of the Japanese people. I cried for the suffering of my own family in Europe during World War II. I cried for the suffering yet to be caused by wars sure to come.
An old Japanese lady saw me on the bench. She was about my grandmother’s age, and she spoke very little English. She sat next to me and put her wrinkled hands in mine. She said, “Peace starts right here. Peace starts with you and me. It starts today.”
She was right. I didn’t have to suffer personally in order to understand the pain of others. I believe that through compassion, peace can happen. It echoes from the heart of a single individual.
Christine Kingery is the director of marketing for an engineering firm in upstate New York. She enjoys working on public infrastructure projects because she believes parks, roads, and trails can positively enhance a community. In her free time, Ms. Kingery canoes with her cat and explores local history.
Produced by Dan Gediman for This I Believe, Inc.
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