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Arts & Culture Holocaust Tale of Girl’s Suitcase Touches People from Tokyo to Toronto

November 13, 2003
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A child’s suitcase that was abandoned by its owner at a Nazi death camp has become the unlikely epicenter of a remarkable literary success story stretching from Toronto to Tokyo.

The small brown, slightly tattered suitcase is clearly marked as the property of Hana Brady, a young orphan. After gathering dust at Auschwitz for nearly six decades, the unassuming relic has taken on new life by inspiring a children’s story that apparently has touched untold numbers around the world.

An international best seller, “Hana’s Suitcase” so far has been translated into 17 languages.

Written by Toronto radio producer Karen Levine and first published last year as an illustrated book for children, the book relates the true story of how the director of a small Holocaust museum in Japan received the suitcase from the Auschwitz Holocaust Museum and began an investigation into its former owner.

Seeing the suitcase in a display case, visiting schoolchildren were full of curiosity about the mysterious girl whose name was painted on it in big white letters, along with the word “Waisenkind,” German for orphan.

Prodded by their questions, Fumiko Ishioka of the Tokyo Holocaust Center used records from the Terezin Ghetto Museum to locate Hana’s brother, George Brady, who had survived Terezin and Auschwitz and lives in Toronto.

The Czech-born Brady was stunned to receive Ishioka’s letter.

He sent Ishioka photographs of Hana, who was just 13 when she died, along with many details of her life. Brady later visited Japan and received a warm welcome from schoolchildren who had adopted Hana as a symbolic representative of the more than 1 million children who died in the Holocaust.

Hana’s suitcase has become the centerpiece of a traveling display, “The Holocaust Seen Through Children’s Eyes,” which has drawn tens of thousands of people at dozens of sites around Japan.

After Levine wrote a riveting radio documentary about Brady’s experiences, Toronto publisher Margie Wolfe urged her to turn the story into a tale for children.

Since its publication, “Hana’s Suitcase” has become a runaway best seller, helping bring Hana’s spirit to life for some 250,000 readers in 26 countries, according to Wolfe. Her publisher, Second Story Press, published the story as part of a series of Holocaust books for young readers.

Reaching mostly non-Jewish readers, the book has sold about 100,000 copies in Japan and gone into its third printing in France and its seventh in Canada, Levine said.

“One reviewer said that it’s perhaps as important as ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ in giving a face to the Holocaust,” Levine said. “People have said that if children are not ready for ‘Anne Frank’ yet, then they should read ‘Hana’s Suitcase.’ “

The book has won numerous awards, including a Canadian Jewish Book Award. Earlier this year it was named the Canadian Library Association’s Book of the Year for Children.

Now 75 years old, George Brady spent two and a half years in Terezin before being transported to Auschwitz in September 1944. He says the book has helped him deal with his family tragedy.

“It’s taken me a long time to get over my sister’s death because I felt responsible for her,” he said. “She went to Auschwitz one month after me, and the older I got the more it bothered me.”

He used to believe his role was “not to forget the past but not to live in it,” but now, as a result of the book’s popularity, Brady has become a frequent public speaker on Holocaust topics. He has received hundreds of letters from readers around the world, including many from teachers.

“On many occasions, one could have heard a pin drop while I was reading,” wrote a fifth-grade teacher from Bright’s Grove, Ontario. “There were several days on which children held their heads low to cover their tearing eyes.”

“The most challenging boy in my class wept openly through much of the book,” wrote another fifth-grader teacher from Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia.

For Levine, who has donated all royalties from the book to the Tokyo Holocaust Center, the book’s popularity came as a total surprise.

“I’d never written a book before and I had no idea how overwhelming the response would be,” Levine said. “It’s hugely gratifying and hugely rewarding.”

When writing the book, the longtime Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio producer said she struggled with how much information to include.

“I decided not to include the most gory of details, and I know those questions will come out when children are reading the book,” she said. “I only hope they will have a smart and sensitive and knowledgeable adult to ask.”

Levine’s own son recently turned 8 and has begun asking questions about Nazis, she said.

“A few days ago he started asking me why they burned books,” she said. “I tried to explain it to him and I said, ‘But that’s not the worst thing they did; they also killed a lot of people and one of them was Hana.’ He’s now, I think, ready to hear it.”

The book has generated about 10 offers for film rights and two for theater rights so far, according to Wolfe, the publisher, who said any decision would involve both Brady and Ishioka.

“We feel strongly that however we can help Fumiko and the Holocaust Center in Japan, we will, because Fumiko is the heroine of the story,” Wolfe said.

Wolfe said the book has succeeded beyond all expectation because of its ability to put a human face — Hana Brady’s — on a numbing statistic.

“Hana, for all her sweetness, was just one of a million children killed in the Holocaust,” she said. “When you tell people a million Jewish children were killed, that doesn’t really mean anything. You can’t picture that horror. But when you hear the story of Hana, then you begin to see the bigger picture.”

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