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From Hollywood to Hiroshima

Published: Oct. 9, 2020

Dear Editor,

Please share with your readers this review I have written of a book that just came out, Choosing Life. It is by a Friend from Bethesda Meeting, and I think Quakers would be very interested in it.

Choosing Life: My Father’s Journey in Film from Hollywood to Hiroshima

By Leslie A. Sussan (Author), Greg Mitchell (Foreword)

Leslie Sussan and I are both members of Bethesda (MD) Friends Meeting. Many, many years ago I was talking with Leslie about her book about her father, Herb Sussan. She was already frustrated about how long it was taking. I tried to encourage her by saying I would read the book as soon as it came out. Fortunately she is one of my Facebook friends so, when she announced that the book was available, I immediately bought it and read it.

Here is the official description of the book on Amazon:

In 1946, with the war over and Japan occupied, 2nd Lt. Herbert Sussan received a plum assignment. He would get to use his training as a cinematographer and join a Strategic Bombing Survey crew to record the results of the atomic bombings in Nagasaki and Hiroshima. From his first arrival in Nagasaki, he knew that something completely novel and appalling had happened and that he had to preserve a record of the results, especially the ongoing suffering of those affected by the bomb (known as hibakusha) even months later.

When the U.S. government decided that the gruesome footage would not be "of interest" to the American public and therefore classified it top secret, he spent decades arguing for its release. His last wish was that his ashes be scattered at ground zero in Hiroshima.

The author, his daughter, followed his footsteps in 1987, met survivors he had filmed more than 40 years before. And found that she met there a father she never really knew in life.

This book recounts Herbert Sussan's experiences (drawn directly from an oral history he left behind), his daughter's quest to understand what he saw in Japan, and the stories of some of the survivors with whose lives both father and daughter intersected. This nuclear legacy captures the ripples of the atomic bombing down through decades and generations.

The braided tale brings human scale and understanding to the horrors of nuclear war and the ongoing need for healing and peacemaking.

It took Tolstoy seven years to write War and Peace, while it took Leslie over thirty years to write Choosing Life. Her book is similar to Tolstoy’s classic because it is about war and peace, nuclear war, that is. But also, rather than a top-down academic history,  her book is a Studs Terkel style history of average people and how the bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki affected an individual, his family and the Japanese he photographed. This book is different than War and Peace in two respects: First her book is about real lives rather than fiction. Second it is a lot shorter in length.

Leslie is a lawyer and judge so she was adept at writing that language called “legalese.”  To write this book she needed to learn how to write regular English which emphasizes experiences, stories, ambiguities, unknowns, and emotions. She admirably succeeded as the book is full of emotion. I teared up a number of times reading some of the sad stories in the book. This is why the book is so good. There are many excellent descriptions of the atomic bombs and what they did to their victims, but for horror of nuclear weapons to be effectively realized, there also needs to be that gut emotional level of disgust. There is a lot of this in Choosing Life.

Like Tolstoy’s novel, this book is also many layered as real life always is. It included Leslie’s difficult childhood and rebellion, her attempts to understand her father, living in and adjusting to a foreign culture, the raising of her own child, Kendra, while in Japan, and lack of bitterness that the Japanese people had about WWII and the atomic bombing. While her father and later Leslie herself are almost unknown in the United States, they both have been treated as celebrities in Japan.

This book has come out at the right time. The world has just realized that all the atomic bombs in the world did not protect anyone from Covid-19 and that the resources spent on those bombs would be better spent on making the world a better, healthier place for everyone. Choosing Life provides that needed emotional context to the abolition of nuclear weapons.

A reviewer ends a positive review by encouraging people to read the book. Let me express this in another way. You will be the loser if you don’t read the book.

from David Zarembka, Bethesda (MD) Meeting (10/8/2020)