A suitcase that talks

An empty Czech suitcase joins two strangers: one from Canada, the other from Japan. Now they are trying to bring together the whole world.

HanasSuitcase311 (photo credit: .)
(photo credit: .)
Fumiko Ishioka cuts a rather delicate figure. When I first meet her, during her visit to Israel, I hesitate before shaking her hand; it looks so fragile. But as her story unfolds, it becomes apparent that the 39-year-old director of the Tokyo Holocaust Education Center is a formidable force. And, when she has her heart set on something, she won’t take no for an answer.
In 2000, while working with a group of young Japanese students studying the Holocaust, she searched for personal items that had belonged to children during the Holocaust, and was repeatedly turned down. “The museums would not lend us any of their exhibits and the survivors felt their mementos were too precious to part with,” she recalls. But this did not deter her and she pressed on until, finally, the Auschwitz museum in Poland agreed to send her some artifacts.
When the parcel arrived in her office, Ishioka found a battered brown suitcase. Painted on it, in thick brush strokes, was the name Hanna Brady, a date of birth and the word “orphan.” “It was the only object we had at our center which had a name attached to it,” she remembers.
In a bid to discover the identity of the suitcase’s owner, she embarked on an amazing voyage of inquiry that crossed continents, languages and centuries. It entailed tireless research work, protracted e-mail exchanges and numerous meetings with survivors of Auschwitz.
Her efforts paid off. Ishioka uncovered Hana’s identity (her name was misspelled on the suitcase); she found drawings made by the young child, as well as records of her imprisonment in the Theresienstadt Ghetto.
To her dismay, Ishioka discovered that Hana Brady, from a middle-class Jewish family in Czechoslovakia, was murdered at 13 in Auschwitz. But she was determined to learn more about her.
With the help of a curator in Theresienstadt she located a man who had shared a bunk with Hana’s brother, George Brady. In the course of their meeting, he informed her that George had survived the war and was now living in Toronto with his family. Ishioka immediately set about writing to George and after a brief correspondence, he accepted her invitation to visit the Holocaust Education Center in Tokyo and meet her and her students. Thus began a close friendship that has spanned 10 years.
“Meeting George,” she says, “has been a life-affirming experience. Despite his terrible tragedy, he has never given up and has created such a beautiful family.”
With his assistance, Ishioka was finally able to piece together Hana’s story with clarity and detail. It is a tale that begins with an assimilated Jewish family living a carefree life in the little Czech town of Nove Mesto, and a young girl who wants to become a teacher when she grows up; it continues with the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia and the many calamities this brings; and it ends tragically in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
IN 2002, when Hana’s Suitcase was written by Karen Levine, it had an immediate impact on readers all over the world, particularly the younger generation. It has since been published in more than 30 countries and translated into 20 languages, collecting accolades and garnering prizes. In 2006 it won the Yad Vashem Prize for Best Children’s Holocaust Literature. Hana’s suitcase is also the subject of a moving documentary of the same title. More recently it has spawned a theater production by playwright Emil Sher. Last month, its Hebrew version, translated by Beatriz Hal, was staged for the first time by the Nephesh Theater in Holon’s Mediatheque.
I attended the matinee performance. The audience was largely made up of schoolchildren and the clamor was deafening. As soon as the lights dimmed and the play started, you could hear a pin drop. For an hour they sat, rapt.
Hana’s Suitcase tells the story of Ishioka’s persistent trail to discover who Hana Brady was. Three main characters carry the drama: Ishioka and two of her Japanese students, Maiko and Akira. The two children are captivated by the empty suitcase, and are eager to unlock the mystery of its owner. “We don’t know where Hana’s story will take us” says Ishioka’s character on stage. “It may end in ways you can’t imagine, Akira. Are you prepared for the very worst?”
The children agree. When they learn of Hana’s tragic end, they start a children’s club, the Small Wings, to preserve her story in the hopes of preventing similar tragedies from repeating themselves. “We can open minds with a book about Hana” says Akira, “We can go from school to school to school and put on a play about Hana’s suitcase. A suitcase that talks!”
Hana’s Suitcase is a beautiful play told in simple prose, using minimal props. The acting is superb; the drama arresting. The dialogues take the audience on an emotional roller-coaster: Tears and laughter, hope and despair, compassion and anger all intertwine. Their strength is that they also include historical and textual information to allow outsiders to follow and understand Hana’s short life as it unravels. And despite its tragic theme, throughout the play there is hope.
Hana was one of some 140,000 who were sent to Theresienstadt and from there to their deaths. But the play ends with a note of optimism. “Now we can see that Hana’s spirit has triumphed!” says Ishioka’s character, when the young girl’s story is finally told. With her tenacity, Ishioka brings Hana Brady out of anonymity.
THE PLAY was received with huge enthusiasm by the crowd. At the show’s conclusion, Howard Rypp, the Nephesh Theater’s artistic director, took center stage to announce that he had a surprise. Suddenly, from the back row emerged Ishioka herself. The children were awestruck. “Wow. It’s unbelievable” said a young girl sitting beside me to her mother. “This is the real Fumiko!”
Following a short question-and-answer session, as the audience dispersed, a young student approached. “I am very grateful you are coming here and I am happy to meet you” he said, timidly. She held out her hand and shook his. “You know, Hana’s story is also teaching us many lessons in Japan” she told him.
“I loved it,” said Ishioka offstage after the performance. “I thought the play was very well designed for young people.”
After the evening performance, she recounts smiling, a couple came to her and introduced themselves excitedly: They had just realized that they were related to the same Brady family.
This is not the first time Ishioka is here: She has been here on four separate occasions, promoting Hana’s story. With George’s daughter, Lara Hana Brady, they are touring the world – with Hana’s suitcase.
Given Japan’s complicity with Nazi Germany and its aggressive wartime activities throughout East Asia (which go unmentioned in history books in Japan), it is reassuring – and surprising – that a Japanese is attempting to spread the word of tolerance. Ishioka nods. “Not only the Holocaust, but also my country’s atrocities have not been taught properly” she says. “In Japan, too, there is prejudice and intolerance against minorities. We have to learn so much from Hana’s story.
“It is important to also tell Hana’s story to non-Jewish students because, while the Holocaust is unique, it offers universal lessons. As a Japanese and a person who does not embrace any organized religion, I introduce it to young people for its universal lessons. We all have a role to play to make this a better world.”
Does she feel she is making a difference?
“I know it is a never-ending struggle. There are millions of children today like Hana who are living in fear and may not make it to tomorrow, but if we can prevent even one child from growing up a racist or a bigot, then we have done our job.”