Hanas Suitcase author packs three stories into one book

Who was Hana Brady?

This seemingly simple question sparked an international quest for the answer when her small suitcase turned up at a Holocaust resource center in Japan in March 2000.

Karen Levine, a radio show producer with the Canadian Broadcasting Company, picked up the narrative a few years later, weaving together the complexities of three unique story lines, first in an on-air documentary and then in her first book, “Hana’s Suitcase.”

To celebrate its Community Read, the Osher Marin JCC is distributing copies of “Hana’s Suitcase” for free until Nov. 1 (or until its supply runs out). Levine will discuss her 2002 work and signs copies at 1 p.m. Nov. 16.

“I love the idea of the community reading one book and people talking with each other about the reading they shared,” Levine said. “Of course, I’m tickled that it’s my book.”

Levine calls “Hana’s Suitcase” an “intergenerational” read, meaning it’s written in a language accessible to a younger audience, but has enough elements and layers to sustain the interest of an adult reader.

The award-winning book is a historical pendulum, going back and forth between Japan and Toronto in 2000 and Nové Me˘sto, a town of 4,000 people nestled in what was then Czechoslovakia, in the 1930s.

Flashbacks to Auschwitz and Theresienstadt cast a transitory darkness over lighter moments earlier in the story when the reader meets young, blonde-haired, blue-eyed Hana playing the piano, learning about Jewish holidays with her brother, George, and delivering food and clothing to needy neighbors.

After the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939, Jews were not allowed on sports fields, could not study at public schools and had to be inside their homes before curfew. They surrendered their radios and sewed yellow Star of David patches onto their jackets. And one by one, each member of the Brady family was sent to a concentration camp.

“Unfortunately, the reality is that Hana’s story alone was commonplace,” Levine said. “There were millions of kids like Hana who had pretty happy lives that were stolen from them. Her story alone wouldn’t have sustained this book.”

Enter Fumiko Ishioka, director of the Tokyo Holocaust Education Resource Center. In an effort to teach Japanese children about the Holocaust, Ishioka wrote to Jewish and Holocaust museums all over the world asking for artifacts that belonged to children.

Eventually, Ishioka received a package from the Auschwitz Museum in Poland. It contained a child’s sock and shoe, a child’s sweater, a can of poisonous gas and Hana’s suitcase.

Children who saw the suitcase on display beseeched Ishioka to find out more about what happened to Hana. She searched for clues across Europe and North America, eventually connecting with Hana’s brother, George, a Holocaust survivor living in Toronto.

“For kids who haven’t read a lot about the Holocaust, Hana’s story is pretty scary, sad stuff,” Levine said. “To read about it at the same time you’re reading about Fumiko and her group of kids is a relief from the pain of what happened to Hana.” She was killed in the gas chambers at Auschwitz at age 13.

An article featuring George in the Canadian Jewish News grabbed Levine’s attention. She gave him a call and secured interviews with him and Ishioka, and their voices propelled a 25-minute documentary.

For George, meeting Ishioka and the children, and seeing his sister’s suitcase for the first time in over half a century, was nothing short of overwhelming.

“Our meetings were amazing,” Levine said. “It was a very powerful telling of the story, going back and forth in time somewhat like the book. There were many, many tears from both.”

When families gather to discuss “Hana’s Suitcase,” Levine wants her audience to understand that racism has deadly consequences, and everyone has a responsibility to make sure Holocaust victims are remembered.

“For kids, the story raises a lot of questions,” Levine said. “It thrills me that they are going to their parents and grandparents, many of whom have their own Holocaust stories to tell. When I hear instances of grandparents speaking out for the first time, that makes me happy.”

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