12 Moments In History That Would Have Been Horrific To Live Through

History is full of triumphant events, heartwarming happenings, and general good times. But throughout the long span of time, there have also been truly horrific moments full of pain and suffering. Many of the most horrific moments in history have survivors who, at one time or another, told their stories. These individuals provide vivid accounts of what they saw and how they felt that humanize the hard statistics and objective facts often presented in history textbooks.

Some of the worst moments in history are testaments to survival; others are reminders of humanity's capability to commit devastation and cruelty. All, however, should remain part of our collective memory in hopes that no one will have to live through them again.


  • In August 1945, the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan. The first fell on Hiroshima, a town with roughly 350,000 residents. Hiroshima was targeted to showcase the destructive capabilities of atomic weaponry and to bring about an unconditional surrender from Japan. As a "compact" city, Hiroshima was also home to numerous manufacturing facilities, making it a military target, as well.

    When the atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima just after 8 a.m. on August 6, 21-year-old Kikue Shiota was at her family's home. The "blinding light" of the blast buried Shiota and her sister, both of whom were pulled from the debris by their father. As Shiota looked for other members of her family, she found her brother, age 10. She recalled, 

    All the skin on his face was peeling off and dangling... He was limping feebly, all the skin from his legs burned and dragging behind him like a heap of rags.

    Soon after, Shiota was reunited with her mother but it wasn't until the next day that she found her sister, Mitsue. While walking through the streets, Shiota was able to identify 14-year-old Mitsue by what was left of the pants she had been wearing. Shiota said:

    I thought my heart would surely stop because the very cloth I found was my sister’s, Mitsue, my little sister. "Mi-chan!" I called out to her. "It must have been terribly hot. The pain must have been unbearable. You must have screamed for help."

    Shiota's brother survived, although her mother died the following month of acute leukemia. 

  • Being Taken Prisoner During The Nanjing Massacre
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    In late 1937 and early 1938, Japanese forces launched a six-week attack against Nanjing (also called Nanking), China. They targeted civilians and soldiers alike, killing and raping hundreds of thousands of people in the process.

    The Nanjing Massacre, as it became known, was part of an ongoing series of conflicts between China and Japan. The threat to Nanjing was known, but few people fled before Japanese troops arrived in December 1937. Wen Sunshi was among those in Nanjing and was one of "six or seven maidens" taken by Japanese troops. She recalled

    One Japanese soldier forced me into an empty room. I can remember him being chubby, with a beard. Once we were both in the room, he used a knife to force me to take off my pants - I would be killed if I didn’t. I was thus raped in this manner.

    Sunshi was then released and, that same night, was hidden in a cellar to avoid future attacks.

    Chen Jiashou, 19 years old at the time of the massacre, was taken captive several times. On one occasion, he was lined up with Chinese soldiers as the Japanese "opened fire on us all. I immediately fell toward the ground, faking my death." 

    Captured again soon after, Jiashou was forced to work at a silk factory. While there, he watched as Japanese soldiers "indiscriminately opened fire" on four women as they laid in a bed. On yet another occasion, Jiashou witnessed something he would never forget:

    A man surnamed Tse heard the sound of a Japanese truck, so stuck his head out to take a look. Coincidentally, he caught the eyes of the Japanese troops, who immediately disembarked and tied Old Tse up, forcing him to kneel on the ground.

    One of them took out a bayonet, and violently hacked at Old Tse’s head. Unfortunately, though the back of Old Tse’s neck was sliced through, his head hung on by the remaining front part of his neck - he was still breathing  and alive, collapsed on the floor.

    Seeing this, the Japanese soldiers then raised their leather boots, mercilessly kicking him around the Changshan Park’s grounds. It was only then... that Old Tse passed away.

  • Marching Through The Trail Of Tears As Elderly Family Members Were 'Left To Perish By The Wayside'

    The Trail of Tears is a term used to describe the paths taken by displaced Indigenous North Americans during the mid-19th century. With the formalization of United States' Indian removal policy during the 1830s, members of the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, Creek, and Cherokee Nations were forced to march thousands of miles from their native lands in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, and Tennessee. Their destination was the newly designated "Indian Territory," located west of the Mississippi River in modern-day Oklahoma. 

    One member of the Muscogee Nation, Mary Hill, talked about her grandmother's experience along the Trail of Tears in 1937. Hill's grandmother, Sallie Farney had told her granddaughter how she and her fellow Muscogee tribespeople living in Alabama were moved into a "crudely built stockade" and "kept penned up" until the march initiated. However, the "awful silence that showed the heartaches and sorrow at being taken from the homes and even separated from loved ones... became more terrible after the real journey was begun."

    Farney described:

    Many fell by the wayside, too faint with hunger or too weak to keep up with the rest. The aged, feeble, and sick were left to perish by the wayside. A crude bed was quickly prepared for these sick and weary people. Only a bowl of water was left within reach, thus they were left to suffer and die alone.

    Among the individuals who continued on, "The little children piteously cried day after day from weariness, hunger, and illness. Many of the men, women, and even the children were forced to walk."

    When Farney's own grandfather perished along the Trail of Tears, "A hastily cut piece of cotton wood contained his body. The open ends were closed up and this was placed alongside a creek." Other people who died were "placed between two logs and quickly covered with shrubs, some were shoved under the thickets, and some were not even buried but left by the wayside."

    The exact number of people who died on the Trail of Tears remains unknown. Historians estimate no fewer than 3,000 Native Americans perished from disease, starvation, and exposure to the elements. 

  • Coming Face-To-Face With A Bayonet During The Battle Of The Somme
    Photo: Ivor Castle / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    During the Battle of the Somme, which lasted from July 1 to November 18, 1918, more than 3 million men took part in the battle, one-third of whom were wounded or killed. 

    One British soldier, Tom Short, was only 19 years old when he found himself up against a German soldier in a shallow trench. Short recalled: 

    In a split second before the moment of connecting my stomach with a bayonet, at which I was nearly passed out in terror, a terrific shout of "halt" came from somewhere and knowing how disciplined the German soldier is, the bod coming at me slid flat on his back, his rifle shot straight up in the air and his legs shot between mine. It appears a German officer gave this order.

    In contrast to Short's escape from death, both John Kirkham and George Rudge described inflicting bloodshed on the enemy. Kirkham described using a metal-spiked club against one German soldier:

    It sank deep into his forehead. In the scuffle, his helmet flew off, and I saw that he was a bald-headed old man. I have never forgotten that bald head, and I don't suppose I ever will, poor devil. 

    Rudge articulated what happened when he saw the body of one of the men he had killed:

    When things quieted I went and looked at a German I knew I had shot, and I remember thinking that he looked old enough to have a family and I felt very sorry.

  • Being Separated From Your Family When Entering Auschwitz
    Photo: Unknown, possibly E. Hoffmann & B. Walter / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Being Separated From Your Family When Entering Auschwitz

    Auschwitz, also called Auschwitz-Birkenau, was one of thousands of detention and extermination sites operated by Nazi Germany during the 1930s and 1940s. Auschwitz was the largest camp, made up of multiple complexes and subcamps as it grew between 1940 and 1945.

    As millions of men, women, and children were forcibly taken to Auschwitz, they were subjected to starvation, torture, and death. Arrival at Auschwitz meant being sorted into groups - specifically who could work and who could not.

    Irene Fogel Weiss, a young girl from Czechoslovakia (now Ukraine), recalled what it was like as she, her parents, and her five siblings were "taken on cattle carts to Auschwitz" in 1944. Weiss recalled their arrival at the camp: 

    Our family was torn apart on the platform on arriving. My sister, Serena, was chosen for slave labour. My mother and the younger children were sent off to one side and my father and 16-year-old brother to the other side. I held tightly on to the hand of my 12-year-old sister and for an instant I was mistaken for being older than I was, probably because I was wearing a headscarf that my mother had given me. My sister was sent with my mother, while I went to the opposite side. 

    At that point, Weiss was herded into a photo, one taken to document the deportation of Hungarian Jews to the camp. Weiss "ended up in a picture at the very moment I was separated from my sister. It captures me standing alone without my family on the Auschwitz platform, and I’m leaning inwards to see where my little sister has gone."

    There are additional photos that include members of Weiss's family. One was of them "waiting in line for the gas chamber. Two little boys, my brothers Reuven and Gershon, are shown dressed in hats, one struggling to put on his winter coat."

    Weiss later learned that she and her older sister, Serena, were the only child survivors from her town. Of some 100 people taken to Auschwitz, about 10 lived - but "not one parent and child."

  • The Jallianwala Bagh massacre took place in a garden area in Amritsar in the Punjab region of India. As a result, the violent clash is also referred to as the Amritsar massacre.

    The Sikh celebration of the festival of Baisakhi on April 13, 1919, coincided with a large protest in the city. The recent arrest of two leaders of the Indian independence movement by British imperial authorities prompted the gathering of Indian nationals, who had held numerous gatherings in the preceding days.

    On the 13th, Brigadier-General Reginald E.H. Dyer had banned public gatherings. When the crowd took shape, he called out British troops. Dyer closed off the exits to the space where the protestors gathered and had his men open fire into the crowd. Among the individuals present was Dr. Mani Ram, whose son died that day:

    Madan Mohan, aged about 13 years, along with his playmates used to visit this open square for play almost daily. On the 13th April, 1919 he went there as usual and met his tragic end, having been shot in the head which fractured his skull, he bled and died instantaneously. I, with eight or nine others, had to search for about half an hour till I could pick up his corpse as it was mixed up with hundreds... lying in heaps there, who met their respective ends under circumstances well known.

    Ratan Devi spent the night of the 13th with her husband's dead body:

    I could not go anywhere leaving the body of my husband. I saw other people at the Bagh in search of their relatives. I passed my whole night there. It is impossible for me to describe what I felt. Heaps of dead bodies lay there, some on their backs and some with their faces upturned. A number of them were poor innocent children. I shall never forget the sight. I was all alone the whole night in that solitary jungle. Nothing but the barking of dogs, or the braying of donkeys was audible.

    At one point, Devi used a stick to keep dogs at bay as they tried to eat the remains.

    The number of Indians killed at the Jallianwala Bagh massacre remains contested. Initial reports that hundreds perished are now dismissed, with the actual number falling in the vicinity of 1,000 people