Hana’s Suitcase receives Yad Vashem Award
By JENNY HAZAN
Canadian Jewish News
November 16, 2006
JERUSALEM — George Brady never imagined he would accept an award for children’s Holocaust literature at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. But the Czechoslovakian-born survivor of Auschwitz, who moved to Toronto in 1951, did just that on Oct. 30.
Along with his 22-year-old daughter, Lara Hana, and Tokyo-based teacher Fumiko Ishioka, Brady accepted the 2006 Yad Vashem Award on behalf of first-time Canadian author Karen Levine for Hana’s Suitcase.
The 2002 book was selected from among 10 children’s books, which, other than Hana’s Suitcase, were written originally in Hebrew by Israeli authors.
Hana’s Suitcase is the story of Brady’s younger sister, Hana, who, in 1942 at the age of 10, was killed at Auschwitz and the Japanese educator who told her story to the world. “Never in my wildest imagination did I ever expect that this would happen,” says Brady, a plumber in Toronto for more than 40 years. “Not just these awards, but this whole story – it’s like a dream.”
The award is the culmination of a story that began when Hana was murdered. The only thing the little girl left behind was a suitcase, on which was written her name, her birth date and the German word waisenkind, which means orphan.
The mysterious suitcase found its way into the hands of Japanese school teacher Fumiko Ishioka, co-ordinator of the now-defunct Tokyo Holocaust Education Resource Center. Ishioka, who had written letters to several Holocaust museums around the world requesting children’s artifacts for her modest collection at the centre, received the suitcase, along with a baby shoe, a little sock, a baby sweater and a can of Zyklon B gas, from the Auschwitz Museum in Poland in March 2000.
“Although there is a Holocaust museum in Hiroshima, Holocaust education is a very new subject in Japan. In the history textbooks, the Holocaust is only described in a few lines. As a result, most students in Japan have never even heard the word ‘Holocaust’ before,” says Ishioka, who estimates that since the centre in Tokyo closed three years ago, she has been able to bring a travelling exhibit about the Holocaust to more than 200 schools in Japan, reaching some 60,000 students.
“There are some teachers who have started to realize that there are many important universal lessons to be learned from the Holocaust. But we still have a long way to go,” she says.
When the centre was still open, Ishioka says several students who visited were curious to know more about the mysterious Hana Brady.
“I remember one girl from high school was furious that the Nazis had classified her as an ‘orphan,’” Ishioka recalls. “I realized I needed to know more about this little girl. In order to really tell the story of the Holocaust, I had to put a face to the suitcase.”
Thus began Ishioka’s journey. A trip to the Czech Republic led to Poland and finally, in September 2000, to George Brady in Toronto. Ishioka wrote him a letter, to which he responded immediately, with photos of Hana and himself as children. Ishioka says: “I finally got to see the face I had so long been looking for.”
“When Fumiko first contacted me, it was totally unexpected. If the letter had come from Europe, it somehow would have been easier to explain than from Japan, which seemed like this faraway country that had nothing to do with me or this history,” Brady says. “It was lucky for me that she was so persistent.”
Ishioka recalls Brady’s response to her request for information about Hana. “I cannot thank George enough for his courage to share such difficult memories with me,” she says. “I will never forget what he first said to me: ‘if it’s for children, then I will share.’”
Ishioka and Brady first met in person in Toronto in January 2001. Their meeting inspired CBC journalist Karen Levine to create a prize-winning radio documentary – and to write her first book.
Since it was first published in English in April 2002, Hana’s Suitcase has been translated into more than 20 languages (Ishioka herself did the Japanese translation), and published in more than 27 countries. “This is the most exciting thing for me, that this story is being so widely read by so many children from so many different backgrounds,” Ishioka says.
When the book was translated into Hebrew – by Schocken Publishing House in Israel – it became eligible for the Yad Vashem award.
“Hana’s Suitcase was the natural choice to win this award,” says Haim Gertner, director of teacher training at the International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem.
“One of the main pillars of the school’s educational philosophy is that when you are teaching about the Holocaust, you have to focus on one individual. You have to save the soul of one person among the pile of bodies. You have to see a face, and be involved with a particular person’s story,” he says.
“Not only does Hana’s Suitcase focus on one face, but it follows the process by which one educator came to discover that face. The story is unbelievable. It’s interesting and it’s touching, and it’s very important.
“Now that the generation of the survivors is disappearing, we have to give tools to the next generation. This book is an important educational tool that really presents the Holocaust in a touching and sensitive way,” Gertner says
Hana’s Suitcase has already expanded to encompass other mediums. A production of Hana’s Suitcase was staged in Toronto, at the Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People, this past fall, and the show is set to tour Canada, the United States and perhaps even to England. Documentary filmmakers in the Czech Republic are about to start working on a film about the story.
“It’s neat to get acknowledgement – especially so far from home,” says Lara Hana, who just completed her undergraduate degree in anthropology and Near and Middle Eastern civilizations at the University of Toronto. “It’s exciting, but it’s bizarre. It’s completely taken over our lives. We have had to put everything else on hold.”
She adds that since the book launch they have struggled to respond to hundreds of letters, e-mails and invitations they have received from around the world. Over the last few years, they have visited many places in Europe, Japan, the United States, Canada and central America.
On Nov. 14, the father-and-daughter pair returned to Israel to attend a ceremony to dedicate a memorial plaque to Hana at the Weitzman Institute in Rehovot, for which Brady has been a longtime board member.
“I feel that what we are doing now is really important,” says Lara Hana. “In a way it’s gone way beyond Hana, and is really opening up doors – especially for kids who don’t know anything about the Holocaust, since Hana is someone who everyone can identify with.”
Brady adds:“It’s very gratifying that my sister’s story has been turned into this huge international educational tool. There is no consolation for her loss, but it’s the best thing that one could imagine – that out of something so bad could come something so good.
“I can’t help but think that all of this has somehow been directed by some higher being – that my little sister, the girl who dreamt of becoming a small- town teacher, is now teaching thousands of kids around the world.”
Aside from the award for Children’s Holocaust Literature, donated by the Bruno Brandt Foundation, Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies gave out prizes for the outstanding Holocaust education programs to the Mevo’ot Primary School in Be’er Tuvia, the Manor Kabri Middle School at Kibbutz Eilon, and the Rabin School in Givat Ze’ev. English teacher Marsha Goren, of the Ein-Ganim Primary School in Petach Tikvah, received an award for the most outstanding educator. Chana Kupetz, Talia Kirsh and Elior Cohen received awards for writing outstanding high school matriculation papers dealing with issues related to the Holocaust.
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