The Icons That Survived Hiroshima

I grew up under the watchful eyes of three Russian icons that survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. They belonged to my father’s parents, refugees from the Russian Revolution who were quietly eating breakfast with two of their three children when the Enola Gay flew over their city on Aug. 6, 1945, and dropped the bomb that turned most of it to dust.

Miraculously, my father’s family escaped unscathed. To everyone’s surprise, so did the icons. Today they hang on my mother’s dining room wall in Reno, Nevada, priceless symbols not only of the Russian Orthodox faith but of the impact of the 20th century’s upheaval and violence on the lives of one family.

That grim day in Hiroshima wasn’t the first time the Palchikoffs escaped attack. Members of the Russian nobility, they had fought in the White Army and traveled across Siberia to Vladivostok before fleeing Russia when the Red Army solidified Soviet control. Eventually, they joined a handful of other White Russians in Japan, where my father Nikolay was born in 1924.

At the time of the bombing, my father was somewhere in the South Pacific, a soldier in a U.S. Army intelligence unit, assigned to monitoring Japanese radio transmissions, trying to break their codes. Years earlier, in 1940, his parents had put him on a ship bound for Los Angeles, eager that he be educated in the West. By the time he turned 18, Japan and the United States were at war, and he enlisted in the army of his adopted homeland to fight against the land of his birth.

Growing up in San Diego, I would listen patiently to my father’s stories as we ate dinner, staring at the icons, portraits of Mary and Jesus. No one knew much about them, what Russian city they had come from, or in what century they were painted. All we knew was that they had once belonged to the Palchikoff family in Czarist Russia and had survived the first atom bomb. As I ate dinner, I often wondered if radiation was seeping out of the wooden frames and if one day I would die of cancer.

My father would talk of many things, from idyllic childhood memories of swimming in Hiroshima’s rivers to his bitterness over Washington’s decision to drop the bomb. Although he called himself a devout atheist, he nevertheless was proud of his icons and would show them with pride to visitors. To him they were more than a piece of his childhood; they were representative of the upheavals that had changed his family’s life. Like his family, they were survivors.

One of his favorite childhood memories involved watching his father kneeling in the candle light before the icons, praying for the return of the Russian monarchy. As World War II loomed, the Japanese government advised foreigners living in Hiroshima to leave Japan. Instead of packing their bags, his family prayed for divine guidance. Nikolay recounted how his father carefully wrote out the words “da” and “nyet” on pieces of paper, and put them in his hat. The paper he picked would decide their fate. And so the family remained in Hiroshima until that August morning, when an atomic flash changed the world forever.

My father was among the first American soldiers to arrive at ground zero. He often talked about the day he arrived in Hiroshima, one month after the bombing, looking across the ruins of the flattened city, searching for news of his family. He presumed they were dead and was going to pay his last respects. Miraculously, he found them alive. He brought them to Tokyo, where they stayed until they eventually relocated to America.

He liked to mix life’s lessons in with his anecdotes. “It’s O.K. to admit you’re wrong,” he’d often say, waiting for the day when America would finally apologize to Japan for the atomic bomb. Sometimes he’d talk so much my mother would reach over and turn him “off,” which meant she stuck her index finger into his bellybutton, a sign for him to let it go for a while.

Once in a while he’d take his prized icons to classrooms at the nearby elementary school, where my mother worked as a guidance counselor, to talk about world peace.

He would ask the children to close their eyes and imagine their entire city leveled, their parents dead, all their friends, pets, everything gone. He would then ask them to think of ways they could solve problems without violence.

Last year, I got a phone call from the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. They were documenting the lives of Russian Hibakusha, the Japanese name for A-bomb survivors. They wanted to know what happened to Nikolay-san and his family.

My father was gone, I told them, he died in 2003. His sister was the only family member still alive. But like the icons, she was silent about what she had witnessed.

Japan has seen its share of troubles, this year — the tsunami, earthquakes and continuing problems at its Fukushima nuclear power plant.

Today, as I look at the icons, I think of how art can inspire us to think of things other than what the artist may have intended.

My mother has decided to hang on to the icons, but I hope one day that they will make the journey back to Hiroshima. They belong in the museum there, surrounded by other artifacts and artworks that are a part of the city’s history. I would be sad to see them go. But by being displayed in a museum, they may help remind visitors that the legacy of Hiroshima and the future of nuclear energy rest with us all.

By Kim Palchikoff, a freelance writer based in Las Vegas. She is at work on a memoir From Moscow to Monte Carlo: On the road with the Moscow circus.

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