by Karen Levine
Reviewed by Carolyn Cooper
Hana’s Suitcase is a true story that interweaves the tragedy of Hana Brady, a Czech Jewish girl who died at 13 in Auschwitz, the determination of Fumiko Ishioka, the director of the Tokyo Holocaust Center, and her young helpers, and the generous spirit of George Brady, Hana’s older brother, who survived the Holocaust and now lives in Toronto.
The Tokyo Holocaust Center, endowed by an anonymous Japanese donor, had a number of objects obtained from the Auschwitz Museum in Poland, among them Hana’s suitcase. The simple suitcase, with Hana’s name, birthdate, and the German word for orphan written across it, captured the imagination of the children who helped Fumiko at the Center and other children visiting it. They wanted to know who Hana was, where she had lived, what her family was like, and what had happened to her. They formed a club called “Small Wings,” and they produced a newsletter so that children in other parts of Japan would know about the Holocaust and their search for Hana.
Karen Levine skillfully alternates the narrative of Hana and her family in the 1930s and their deportation and life in the concentration camp with the story of Fumiko’s detective work in 2000 to uncover that story and share it with Japanese children. Some time after sending the suitcase to Tokyo, the Auschwitz Museum learned that Hana had been held in the camp in Theresienstadt (the name the Nazis gave to the Czech town Terezin) prior to being sent to Poland. Fumiko was able to obtain some drawings that Hana had made there, but the Terezin Ghetto Museum could not provide any more information about the young girl.
The children at the Tokyo Center kept asking Fumiko to find out more about Hana and especially to get a picture of her, but Fumiko had very little information to go on. Then, finally, Fumiko herself visited the Terezin Museum and with the help of Ludmila, a worker there, she found a list of the children who had been imprisoned in the camp and discovered that Hana had had an older brother. The records also showed that Hana had died but that George had survived. The knowledge that Hana’s life had been so unjustly ended made Fumiko even more determined that she would not be forgotten. Continuing their search through the records, the two women found the name of the boy who had shared a bunk with George in the camp. Miraculously, Ludmila recognized the name and knew that the man was living in Prague. Immediately Fumiko took a bus to Prague and found someone at the Jewish Museum who put her in touch with him, and he gave her George’s address in Toronto.
Back home in Tokyo, Fumiko wrote to George in Toronto telling him about her work in the Holocaust Center and the tremendous interest of the members of Little Wings, who identified with Hana so closely. George responded right away with photos of Hana and a long letter telling about his and Hana’s happy early days with their family before the war.
In 2001 George and his daughter Lara Hana visited the Tokyo Center, met Fumiko and the Little Wings and saw Hana’s suitcase. At that intensely moving meeting, George realized:
“… in the end, one of Hana’s wishes had come true. Hana had become a teacher. Because of her—her suitcase and her story—thousands of Japanese children were learning about what George believed to be the most important values in the world: tolerance, respect, and compassion. What a gift Fumiko and the children have given me, he thought. And what honor they have given Hana.”
Hana’s Suitcase has been translated into more than 20 languages, and Fumiko, George and the suitcase continue to travel, sharing Hana’s story and its message of tolerance.