Women in WWII

My dream of uniting female WWII witnesses from different countries was realized at the United Nations in Vienna in September 2016. While organizing this International Day of Peace conference presented challenges, the event culminated in many beautiful moments with the three female WWII witnesses: Hazel Richardson – UK, Rosina Wernig – Austria, Reiko Yamada – Japan. Here they are speaking at the UN, ringing the UN Peace Bell (with Aldo Lale-Demoz, UNODC Deputy Executive Director), and being serenaded by the Superar children’s orchestra playing ‘Ode to Joy.’

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More about the Women in WWII project

It was the summer of ’95 and hundreds of us were marching in the sweltering Tokyo streets – a moonlight demonstration punctuated only by candles illuminating signs reading ‘No nuclear testing!’

An elderly woman in full kimono had begun marching beside me. At my gaze, she turned and whispered: ‘I was in Hiroshima when the atomic bombs fell. Unlike my family, I survived.’ With a faltering voice she added, ‘Working for understanding… it’s the least I can do.’

And with that began my education about WWII.

In contrast to the heroic feats I had been drilled on in high school, US military victories in the ‘Good War,’ I began to learn about the untold experiences of WWII witnesses across the world. The Filipino survivor of Bataan’s Death March, the Warsaw Upriser whose youth was sacrificed fighting for freedom, the Americans of Japanese descent subjected to stateside internment, the Holocaust survivor rescued by the Kindertransport as her beloved parents perished in concentration camps…

Meeting these witnesses through the years led to haunting questions. How do people pick up the pieces when their entire world has been destroyed? How can one endure vicious abuse for decades, yet continue to approach others with kindness and hope?

What did we really learn from WWII anyway?

Those questions led to establishing a multimedia project incorporating a book of interviews with global, female WWII witnesses and complemented by teaching materials plus an educational website.

Inspired, I gathered many interviews – some recorded on film and others on audio – and tried for years to get funding to finish the project. Repeated brick walls: ‘WWII isn’t trendy.’ ‘Who cares what women were doing then anyway.’

But the project will continue. Given the amazing legacies of these women, ‘Working for understanding… it’s the least I can do.’

Some of the women interviewed

Postscript: Hedy Epstein was diagnosed with terminal cancer in April 2016 and died weeks later. Her obituary from the New York Times: Hedy Epstein, Rights Activist and Holocaust Survivor, Dies at 91

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