Carrying her case
September 28, 2010
In some ways it is an ordinary suitcase.
Brown and sturdy. Scuffed and battered. Certainly not beautiful.
German words are painted on it in thick, white letters:
gob 16/v. 1931
A name. Birth date. The word ‘orphan.’
Hana’s story begins with her suitcase and travels the world.
It has happy chapters in a small town in the former Czechoslovakia. It has terrible chapters in the Terezin concentration camp and Auschwitz. Ten years ago a chapter of persistence began in Tokyo. There is a chapter of hope and peace in Toronto. There are chapters in unexpected places such as South Africa, Mexico, Australia, China and a dozen cities across Canada.
Soon, there will be a grand chapter of Hana’s story in Hamilton.
Before he tells the story, George Brady puts in his hearing aid.
He is 82, retired after running a Toronto plumbing company which he has passed to a son. Back when George still ran the place he came to Hamilton and put pipes in the city’s tallest building – Century 21.
If you were to judge George by his appearance you might be tempted to say he is solemn.
You would be wrong.
He is quick-witted. Opinionated. Mischievous. A touch ribald.
“How many children do you have George?”
“Four. That I know of.”
His white hair is neatly combed. But for his 80th birthday party, to which 300 guests were invited, he showed up with his hair in a multi-coloured Mohawk. His grandchildren were aghast.
In some ways, Hana Brady is an ordinary girl.
She is popular amongst children growing up in the 1930s in Nove Mesto in Moravia. It is a town of 3,000 in what is then Czechoslovakia. Hana lives with mother Marketa, father Karel and big brother George above their general store.
Hana is fond of skating and cross-country skiing. She is learning piano. She carts around a doll nearly as large as herself.
She is pretty. With blue eyes and shiny golden hair.
Her dream is to be a teacher.
Something eventually sets Hana apart from other children.
Hana is Jewish.
When George talks of his sister he looks away.
“She was a lively girl,” he says, his accent still thick after 60 years in Canada. “She wasn’t a compromiser. She knew how to fight. She liked to pull my hair.”
The Brady family is close.
Karel plays soccer and is a volunteer firefighter. His fire hat fascinates George and Hana.
Folks come to the general store just to be in Marketa’s company. She speaks Czech, German, English and French.
“Mother was very, very loud and laughed a lot and liked to joke,” recalls George.
The Bradys are not religious. Hana and George are Nove Mesto’s only Jewish children.
Six million Jews died in the Holocaust.
“One and a half million children that died is just a number,” says George. “But it shows what hate can do. Hana is a child that children all over the world can identify with. They think ‘It could have been a child like me.’”
Nazis march into Nove Mesto in March 1939.
The Bradys are given a curfew. They can only shop at certain stores. Visit certain people. They can not go to movies or play sports.
“Nobody cared that we were Jewish until then,” says George.
As Hana starts third grade, Jews are banned from school. The Bradys hire private teachers for Hana and George.
“It was devastating for Hana,” says George. “But we still had a family. A big house. We could play in the garden and the attic.”
In March 1941, Marketa is ordered to report to the Gestapo.
“Mother left very early in the morning by horse and carriage,” says George. “I remember and always feel bad that I somehow didn’t get out of bed. I was half asleep and she was gone.”
Marketa is taken to Ravensbruck, a women’s camp in Germany.
She saves her bread ration. Chews it then forms it into coin-sized hearts and a horseshoe. Rolls it into pearls.
“On the hearts she put toothpaste to give it colour,” says George.
She carves her children’s initials in the charms and sends them to Hana for her 10th birthday.
“I miss you so much, dearest Hanichka,” she writes. “I am kissing you now. Love, Mother.”
In his house in Toronto, George opens two boxes lined with silk.
“This is a family treasure,” he says. “I can only imagine how she felt when she was making it.”
In one box lie five hearts and a horseshoe. In the other, a necklace.
Some bear the impression of Marketa’s fingers.
Marketa is transported to Auschwitz on Oct. 6, 1942.
Hana sends a postcard.
“Stay healthy and don’t worry,” she writes. “Kisses, your Hana.”
The postcard is returned to Hana. She has written eight lines. The Nazis allow six.
Her mother would not have received the card anyway.
“My mother was dead by then,” says George.
Marketa is killed 23 days after arriving at Auschwitz.
George holds a cloth star.
“Father got the order that we had to wear a yellow star,” he says. That was the fall 1941 and there are strict rules about the star. It is to be carefully cut out and pinned to the clothes of every Jew in Nove Mesto.
“A man who wasn’t even from our town refused to cut it out properly,” recalls George. “So the Gestapo took all five Jewish men.”
One is George and Hana’s father.
On Nov. 23, 1941, Karel and George exchange goodbyes.
“It’s not much what you say,” George says. “It’s too emotional.”
Karel writes to George from a Gestapo prison.
“It said I am the older one and I should somehow watch over Hana.”
June 11, 1942, Karel arrives in Auschwitz. A month later he is killed.
Uncle Ludvik, who is Christian, takes Hana and George to live with him and Aunt Hedda, Karel’s sister. Hana brings her suitcase.
“He was a brave man,” George says.
Every day, Hana and George return to their own home to have lunch with their governess. It is a way to feel connected to their old life, but there is another motive.
Karel had shown George where he hid photos and documents under the shingles. Each day George puts a few in his pocket and sneaks them to his aunt and uncle’s house.
May 14, 1942.
Hana and George are ordered to report to the Nazis.
Hana packs her suitcase. Inside is a waterproof sleeping bag made by Hedda. There are warm clothes. Salami and sugar. There is no room for toys.
A horse and buggy take them to Trebic, 50 kilometres away. They join 600 other Jews in a warehouse, sleeping on floor mats. On their third night, George finds a cookie and puts a candle on it. He wishes his sister happy birthday.
She is 11.
The children move to Terezin, a Czech village converted to a concentration camp. It will be their home for two years.
Hana takes secret art lessons from a famous painter who encourages her to draw pictures of what she wishes life was like. Hana draws a park with flowers and trees.
After a few months Hana and George are able to visit each other.
On Fridays, each prisoner is given a scone. Hana gives hers to George.
“She felt I needed more food than she did.”
George is learning to be a plumber at Terezin.
Hana and George talk of their parents. “We were hoping they would show up,” says George. “You always have to feel hopeful. Otherwise you give up.”
In September 1944 the Nazis are losing the war. They step up their effort to eliminate Jews and George learns he is going to Auschwitz.
“We just thought we were going to a labour camp,” he says.
After he leaves, Hana looks forward to going to Auschwitz too. When her name is posted for transport, she is happy.
Hana arrives, suitcase in hand, at Auschwitz on Oct. 23, 1944.
When you get off the train at Auschwitz, a Nazi is waiting.
If he points right, you go to the work camp. If he points left, you go to the gas chamber.
George is sent right and is put to work as a plumber.
For months after the war, George does not know Hana’s fate.
“As she was only 13, I figured she didn’t make it,” he says. “Deep down, I knew that she was dead. But you hold out some hope.”
One day in Prague, George bumps into a girl from Terezin.
“She told me Hana went straight to the gas chamber.”
There is a woman in Tokyo named Fumiko Ishioka.
She is asked to teach Japan’s children about the Holocaust. The Tokyo Holocaust Education Resource Centre is created in 1998 and Fumiko sets out on her mission with a dozen school children who name themselves Small Wings.
Fumiko and Small Wings want to show students something they can understand. So Fumiko writes letters to museums and survivors around the world asking to borrow a child’s suitcase.
They are turned down.
Fumiko goes to the Auschwitz Museum in Poland and talks her way into a five minute meeting with the assistant director.
In 2000 a suitcase from the museum arrives at her centre in Japan.
“The biggest miracle for me is that of all the suitcases, I was given Hana’s,” says Fumiko. “I feel like it’s a gift from Hana.”
Hana’s name is spelled the German way on the suitcase: two ‘n’s.
Fumiko and the children want to know more about her. Eventually, the Auschwitz museum finds a list showing Hana came from Terezin. Fumiko writes a letter to the Terezin Ghetto Museum. They send her copies of Hana’s drawings.
Hana is becoming real.
Fumiko goes to Terezin.
She convinces a woman at the museum to help in her quest for information about Hana Brady.
They search a list of 90,000 prisoners and find her name. There is a check mark beside it, and all other names on the page. Except for one.
The check means Hana died.
The only prisoner spared is listed right above her: George Brady.
The woman at Terezin searches records for George Brady. She finds the names of his bunkmates. By chance, she knows one. A survivor.
They track him down. He is an art historian in Prague. He not only remembers George, they are still friends. He tells Fumiko that George lives in Toronto.
Back in Tokyo, Fumiko and the Small Wings write George a letter.
“It was the biggest surprise,” George recalls simply.
He sends a package to Japan. It contains a photo of his sister.
Fumiko and the Small Wings see Hana for the first time.
The suitcase brought Hana’s memory to life.
Yet, the suitcase is not real.
It is learned by Fumiko and George that Hana’s original suitcase was destroyed in a 1984 fire set at a warehouse by neo-Nazis. The suitcase sent to Tokyo is a replica, but the Auschwitz museum forgot to say so.
Rather than being bitter about the mistake, Fumiko and George take it as a testament to Hana’s perseverance.
Nothing can stop her from being a teacher.
Hana’s suitcase continues to visit Japanese schools.
Fumiko, George and George’s daughter, Lara Hana, have visited schools around the world.
In South Africa children were amazed there can be hatred between white people. At Canadian Forces Base Borden, just west of Barrie, a child with a parent in Afghanistan asked how George felt saying goodbye to his parents.
CBC journalist Karen Levine turned Hana’s story into a radio documentary. Then an award-winning children’s book, Hana’s Suitcase, which has been translated into 40 languages and inspired several plays.
The book also begat a brilliant docu-drama called Inside Hana’s Suitcase by Canadian filmmaker Larry Weinstein. On Oct. 4 and 5, 2,000 Hamilton and Halton students from grades 5 to 12 will watch a screening of it at Hamilton Place. They will continue to learn about Hana in their classrooms.
On the evening of Oct. 4, the public is invited to see the movie. Fumiko Ishioka and George and Lara Hana Brady will be there to answer questions. The event will be hosted by Hamilton Spectator publisher Dana Robbins and presented by Today’s Family and The Hamilton Jewish Federation.
“It’s the story of this one ordinary little girl who is just like them,” says Fumiko. “The children are fascinated to know how Hana wanted to be a teacher and never gave up hope and loved her big brother. The way she tried to live on. And although she’s not here with us anymore, the kids are fascinated that her story survived. It is about the power of survival. They see love in this story. They see hope in this story.”
Susan Clairmont's commentary appears regularly in the Spectator. Sclairmont@thespec.com
INSIDE HANA’S SUITCASE
What: A docu-drama by filmmaker Larry Weinstein about Hana Brady who was 13 when she died at Auschwitz.
When: Oct. 4, 6:30 p.m.
Where: Hamilton Place
Tickets: $20. Call Today’s Family at 905-574-9344 X101 or e-mail email@example.com
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