Fr. Klaus Luhmer was at a Jesuit center outside Hiroshima the day that the city suffered the first atomic bomb attack. At 92, he still has clear memories of the bombing and how he went into the city to help that night.
Luhmer, who was a newly ordained Jesuit priest at the time, ended up carrying the seriously injured head of the Jesuits in Japan, Fr. Hugo Enomiya Lassalle, on a stretcher from the city to the novitiate outside the city, in an area called Nagatsuka. It was the Lassalle connection that led to the interview with Luhmer, who is living in a Tokyo retirement center for priests.
Lassalle was seriously injured in the Aug. 6, 1945 bombing, but he recovered to go on and lead the construction of the Hiroshima World Peace Memorial Cathedral and help introduce Zen meditation into Christianity, particularly in Europe. (One of the less seriously injured priests from the same house in Hiroshima, Fr. Kleinsorge, was one of the six main characters in John Hersey’s classic account, “Hiroshima.”) There were times Luhmer had his doubts about Lassalle’s survival that night.
Ordinarily, going by foot from the city to Nagatsuka would have been about an hour’s walk. But, as Luhmer said, “This was no ordinary walk.” Debris was everywhere, power had been lost and desperate people were still searching for help or a place to rest. The party, with Luhmer helping to carry the stretcher, got under way and “somehow we made it out of town.” But a vehicle came in the opposite direction with no signing of stopping. As the party scrambled out of the way, they stumbled down into what Luhmer called a brook and the stretcher was broken.
Luhmer recalls that the group was trying to figure out what to do. Lassalle, he said, “It looked like he was absolutely pale and it was his last minute.” Lassalle, who had been in the German military during World War I, asked if anyone had a cigarette — something, Luhmer noted, was often the last request of a dying soldier.
But the group found a wooden cart to use to carry Lassalle and, about midnight or 1 a.m., prepared to set out again. Lassalle was put on his back in the cart and had to curl up his rather long legs. Later, it turned out that Lassalle, who was pretty much injured all over his body, had glass shards filling his back, but the group didn’t realize that. “He never uttered a sound,” Luhmer said. He must have been in terrible pain.”
Lassalle was in bed for a considerable time but recovered from the injuries at Nagatsuka.
Lassalle had already begun learning about Zen before Luhmer served directly under him for two years from 1941 to 1943. Luhmer never followed Lassalle into Zen meditation and he expressed some doubt whether Lassalle ever achieved any kind of authentic enlightenment and encounter with the supernatural that he sought. But he sees Lassalle’s Zen involvement as part of his efforts to reach hearts and minds in Japan as a missionary.
“He was a missionary at the bottom of his heart and he never abandoned this particular dream” of bringing people to the church, Luhmer said. Indeed, Lassalle brought a rather missionary-like dedication to talking about Zen to young people in Europe during the 1970s and 1980s. And I remember his rather charming confidence in young people and their spiritual and moral sense when I interviewed him in 1986. It’s clear that in Lassalle’s mind, Christianity and Zen fit together perfectly well. So, Luhmer may have a point about him remaining a missionary at his core.
“He was a great man, no doubt,” Luhmer said. “I admire him. But I could not follow him” into Zen.
Luhmer likes to crack that the retirement center where he lives is a place they send you to die and he has slowed down. But he was sharp, funny and clear during an hour-long interview. He is looking forward to the publication in Germany of a book of memoirs he has written.