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Japanese Educator Recounts Quest to Unpack Story of ‘hana’s Suitcase’

November 10, 2006
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Fumiko Ishioka carefully opened a large, cardboard box mailed to her in Tokyo from the Auschwitz museum in Poland. Among the contents were a child’s shoe, a can that once contained Zyklon B poison gas and a worn, brown suitcase with white letters painted on its side that read: “Hanna Brady, born May 16, 1931.” Who was this young girl, wondered Ishioka, who at the time had been setting up an exhibit on children and the Holocaust at a small museum called the Tokyo Holocaust Center. That question grew louder in her mind as the Japanese schoolchildren that came to see the exhibit peppered her with questions: What happened to the suitcase’s owner? What did she look like? Did she live or die?

“I wanted to know about how happy she was before the war so that our kids could understand what was really lost. If they could really appreciate that one little life was lost, I hoped they might understand that there were 1.5 million other children just like Hana,” who were also killed by the Nazis. “So I needed to put a human face on this ordinary suitcase.”

Her quest for information on Hana (whose name had been spelled incorrectly on the suitcase) led her to Terezin where Hana was interned for two years before being deported to Auschwitz at the age of 13. There she was sent to the gas chambers.

Ishioka later traveled to Toronto after tracking down Hana’s brother George, the only member of the immediate Brady family to survive the war.

Ishioka’s journey to learn more about Hana and the story of Hana’s life became the subjects of a children’s book entitled “Hana’s Suitcase” by Karen Levine.

On Monday, Ishioka and George Brady were in Jerusalem to attend a Yad Vashem ceremony in which the book won a prize for Children’s Holocaust Literature. The prize was one of several given by Yad Vashem on Monday in the field of Holocaust education.

The book, published in 33 languages, has chapters recounting Hana’s childhood in the Czechoslovakian town of Nove Mesto in Moravia, where she was an avid cross-country skier and skater. It follows Hana through her eventual deportation along with her older brother, George. Further chapters describe Ishioka’s quest to uncover Hana’s identity.

Ishioka, who says that Holocaust education in Japan is a new concept — decided to travel to Auschwitz soon after beginning work for the Holocaust museum in Tokyo.

It was during that visit in 1999 that she requested artifacts related to children from the Auschwitz museum for the exhibit she was putting together. The suitcase and other items arrived about a year later.

When Ishioka, now 36, found out that Hana had been to Terezin, she traveled there and found her first trace of Hana at a museum in Prague: several drawing she had done in art classes there. She then poured over stacks of typed deportation lists until she found Hana’s name and deportation date of Oct. 23, 1944.

She also noticed another Brady on the list. A box was drawn by the name to signify that George Brady had survived.

She eventually tracked Brady down in Toronto, where he’d moved soon after the war. There he had become a successful businessman, parlaying the trade of plumbing he learned in Terezin into a large mechanical contracting business in Canada.

“I had to continue the search, I really wanted to see her face,” Ishioka said.

For Brady, 78, the contact with Ishioka was a life-altering encounter. Both of his parents were killed by the Nazis and he had always felt haunted by guilt for not having been able to save his younger sister.

“I felt responsible for her. I wanted to bring her home and I could not do anything,” he said. The connection with Ishioka and the subsequent book has led to a strong bond between the two as well as speaking tours for both of them in North America, Japan and Europe. Most recently, they worked together on a documentary for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Speaking of his sister, whom he remembers as vivacious and athletic, he said, “She wanted to be a teacher in a small town and she ended up being a teacher to the world. We get letters and e-mails from all over the world.”

Ishioka now visits about 200 schools a year in Japan and tells the story of Hana’s suitcase. To date, she has reached about 60,000 school children.

“The kids got so excited that this is Hana. We could finally put a face to a name written in white paint on a suitcase,” she said.

Ishioka said the example of a tower of photographs at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, depicting the lives of Jews before the death camps, had resonated with her when she was designing the exhibit in Japan.

“I thought this type of exhibit was more powerful than pictures of dead bodies. I wanted to make this suitcase a symbol of life, not just an unknown child,” she said.

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