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Obituary: Nagasaki survivor loved life — and won our hearts

Rudi Hoenson ‘changed lives. The moment you met him, you knew you were going to remember him for the rest of your life.’
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Rudi Hoenson has died at 96.

Jack Knox mugshot genericRudi Hoenson had every reason to be an angry man. Taken prisoner as an 18-year-old Dutch soldier in what is now Indonesia, he spent the last 3 1/2 years of the Second World War in slave labour in Japan.

In 1945, beaten down and starved, he weighed less than 80 pounds when the Nagasaki nuclear bomb exploded over his head. What followed was an apocalyptic nightmare that could have — should have — left him broken and bitter for life.

Instead, he may have been the kindest, most contented man in Victoria. No point dwelling on things, he would say. Life was good. He got to come to Canada, got to meet his wife. “What else do you want?”

Hoenson, 96, died Wednesday, a day after moving into the Veterans Memorial Lodge at Broadmead.

Having spent the previous two months in Victoria General Hospital following a fall, it was as though he waited to land somewhere that felt like home, then let go.

“Rudi changed lives,” his friend Kathy Baan said Thursday. “The moment you met him, you knew you were going to remember him for the rest of your life.”

Hoenson’s is a tale that has been told before, though it took a long time before he agreed to tell it.

For 70 years he kept his memories bottled up, wouldn’t talk about them to anyone, at least not in public. He said he didn’t want to sound like he was “showing off.” The idea of milking glory or sympathy from the horror of Nagasaki made him squirm. What good can come from talking about it, he asked.

The good, said his friend Jennifer Jasechko, would come from the rest of the story: how someone could experience all he had endured, yet emerge with his soul intact. So, five years ago, with Jasechko helping draw out the details, Hoenson opened up.

The abbreviated version began at 11:02 a.m., Aug. 9, 1945. Hoenson, clearing rubble from an air raid that had killed the prisoner next to him, heard planes overhead. He didn’t see the American B-29 Superfortress bomber that dropped the atomic bomb, but he glimpsed a parachute coming down.

Then, “a blinding flash.” A blast of hot air slammed the 22-year-old to the ground. His legs were burned. Two metres away, three men who had been pushing a cart were badly hurt, their clothes on fire.

Buildings were flattened, engulfed in flames. The noise, heat and smoke were overwhelming. “It was a scene of death and dying.”

Everywhere Hoenson looked there were Japanese women and children, their clothes ripped, their faces and bodies bleeding. He remembered a baby clinging to its dead mother.

Several people had been blinded by the flash. “I wished there was something I could do for them, especially the children.”

Estimates of the number who died that day vary widely, but the most common figure used is 40,000, with a similar number succumbing later. Hoenson and other prisoners spent the next month retrieving corpses — including those of dozens of young women who had died when the big rice- and soup-cookers of an industrial-scale kitchen toppled on them — until they themselves stank of death. Radiation sickness turned Hoenson’s urine the colour of black coffee and left his hair coming out in clumps.

There was much more to his ordeal, but you get the idea. Back in Holland, it took years for him to return to health.

He turned a corner after arriving in Canada with $50 in his pocket in 1951. Got a job as a geological draftsman on his second day in Calgary, worked hard, invested well and, best of all, married Sylvia, a Saskatchewan-raised teacher.

“Coming to Canada was wonderful for me,” he said, “but meeting Sylvia was the main reason I recovered.”

They moved to Victoria in 1979, travelled extensively, then turned to philanthropy, though it wasn’t until Sylvia died in 2008 that Rudi began divesting himself of his “small pile of money.” He donated millions to the likes of the Victoria Hospital Foundation, the Saanich Peninsula Hospital, B.C. Children’s Hospital, Queen Alexandra Centre for Children’s Health and the B.C. Cancer Foundation. Close to his heart was the lodge at Broadmead, home to his fellow veterans.

The honours poured in. In 2013, he received a National Philanthropy Day award. Government House unveiled Rudi’s Tea Room. Saanich’s Reynolds Secondary — whose staff and students he joined in shaving his head for the Tour de Rock cancer fundraiser — celebrated him. In 2018, one of Judith Guichon’s last acts as lieutenant governor was to present him with a commendation.

Until the fall that brought him to Victoria General, he lived on his own. He loved to eat well — a legacy of the years of near-starvation in Nagasaki’s Camp Fukuoka 14. “In the camp, we never talked about women. It was always food we talked about.”

Those times never left him. In fact, they returned more frequently as he aged. “Bad dreams come more often,” he said. He bore no resentments, though.

Instead, he was good-humoured, easy-going and rejoiced in any sign of goodness or beauty. Just days before his death, lying in his bed at Victoria General, he marvelled about the view out his window, the quality of the hospital staff, and the friendship of a handful of current or former Broadmead Care staff — Baan, Jasechko, Shannon Donnelly, Mandy Parker — who always watched out for him, found him easy to love.

He had no bitterness at all, just gratitude.

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