"Hana's Suitcase": the story of a Czech girl whose tragic death touched the hearts of children in Japan

Today we look at a book that wasn't written by a Czech. The author is the Canadian journalist Karen Levine, but the story she tells has its roots firmly in the Czech countryside. Her book, "Hana's Suitcase" tells the story of a Czech girl, Hana Brady, and how her tragic fate in the Second World War came to touch the hearts of children on the other side of the globe. There have been many books written about the Holocaust, but this story is unusual: it takes us from the quiet little town of Nove Mesto, where Hana was born into an ordinary middle class Czech family, to Toronto in Canada and Tokyo in Japan. Hana Brady's brother Jiri - or George Brady as he calls himself in his adopted Canada - survived Auschwitz. He often visits his native Czech Republic and recently I invited him to the studio, to talk about "Hana's Suitcase", and the girl whose story it tells.

"She was a very lively girl, she was very strong, she was a skater, she loved skiing. When we cross-countried, she always wanted to be the first one to blaze the trail, and as I have said a few times, when we were fighting she didn't always lose. So we had a great childhood and she was very spirited. She was nothing unusual. She was good in gymnastics. She was very well liked by everybody."

In those days before the war in a small town in Moravia, you were one of the only Jewish families in the town.

"She was the only Jewish girl and I was the only Jewish boy."

Had you thought of yourselves in any way as different?

"It wasn't important. Nobody talked about it and religion for us, in our family, was not important. We just lived like everybody else."

Nove Mesto, 1938.

...In the summer, in the creek behind their house, they pretended to be in the navy. Climbing into an old wooden washtub, the children sailed along until one or the other pulled the plug in the middle and they sank, laughing and splashing. There were three different kinds of swings in the backyard meadow - one for a small child, a two-seater, and one that swung from a giant tree out over the creek. Sometimes the neighborhood children would gather there for swinging contests. Who would swing the highest? Who could jump the farthest? Often it was Hana.

"Then Hitler came and the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia, and from then on we had one restriction after the other. My sister was born in 1931 and I was born three years earlier, so I was older. We had many, many restrictions, but the biggest blows were when we were not allowed to go to school. And then, when my mother was arrested by the Gestapo, the reason was that her brother escaped to Belgium. Some Belgian guy offered to take some money to him, she gave it to him and when they occupied Belgium they arrested the man. He had all the addresses and that was enough to send my mother to Ravensbrueck and then to kill her in Auschwitz. Then my father was arrested, and again my father was killed in Auschwitz. So I was alone with my sister. On the 14th May 1942 we were called to report in Trebic to go to the concentration camp in Theresienstadt [Terezin in Czech]. So we celebrated - the two of us - her eleventh birthday on the way to a concentration camp."

Deportation Center, May 1942.

On the morning of the fourth day, a loud whistle blew, and a Nazi soldier marched into the warehouse. Hana and George huddled in their corner as he barked out the orders.

"Everyone is to appear at the train tracks in one hour. Each person is allowed one suitcase. Twenty-five kilos. Not a gram more. Form straight lines. No talking. Do as you are told."

The voice was so harsh, so scary. Hana and George quickly got their things together. Adults tried to help them, making sure the children were ready. Poor little ones, they thought. Such a hard journey and alone, with no parents.

In Terezin you and your sister were apart, but you were able to see each other.

"Well, in the beginning we had problems, because we were allowed to get out of the building only once a week for two hours, and that's when the first time we missed each other. Then eventually we could see each other always until eight o'clock in the evening, except that I was working the whole day, so I saw her twice, three times a week after that."

And then, tragically, your fates took you separate ways.

"Tragically. They were losing the war. It was obvious in the fall of 1944, and they still decided to kill 20,000 people. So they made ten transports to Auschwitz and I was in the first one. Hana then was in the next to last one, and she was looking forward to seeing me. She asked her cousin to fix her hair, so she would look pretty when she saw me. And when she got there, they just cut her hair and killed her."

Tokyo, winter 2000.

Back in her office, half a world away in Japan and more than half a century later, Fumiko Ishioka remembered how the suitcase had come to her.

In 1998 she had begun her job as coordinator of a small museum, called the Tokyo Holocaust Center. It was dedicated to teaching Japanese children about the Holocaust. At a conference in Israel, Fumiko had met a few Holocaust survivors, people who had lived through the horrors of the concentration camps. She was astonished by their optimism and their joy in living, despite everything they had been through. When Fumiko felt sad about things in her own life, she often thought about these survivors. They were so strong-willed and wise. They had so much to teach her. Fumiko wanted young people in Japan to learn from the Holocaust as well. It was her job to make it happen. And it wasn't an easy one. How, she wondered, could she help Japanese children understand the terrible story of what happened to millions of Jewish children in a faraway continent over fifty years ago?

She decided the best way to start would be through physical objects that the children could see and touch. She wrote to Jewish and Holocaust museums all over the world - in Poland, Germany, the United States and Israel - asking for a loan of artifacts that had belonged to children.

"From Auschwitz she got a pair of socks, a sweater, a canister of gas and a suitcase."

Tokyo, March 2000.

From the day the suitcase arrived in Tokyo, Fumiko and the children were drawn to it. Ten-year-old Akira, who usually loved to joke and tease, wondered aloud what it would be like to be an orphan. Maiko, who was older, loved to party and was an accomplished synchronized swimmer. She always became very quiet in the presence of the suitcase. It made her think about being sent away from her friends.

The suitcase was the only object they had at the Center that was linked to a name. From the date on the suitcase, Fumiko and the children figured out that Hana would have been thirteen years old when she was sent to Auschwitz. A year younger than me, said one girl. Just as old as my big sister, said Akira.

Fumiko wrote back to the Auschwitz Museum. Could they help her find out anything about the girl who owned the suitcase?

"Eventually she got a letter from Auschwitz that Hana had come from Terezin. So she started to study Terezin. And then she decided to go there and she succeeded incredibly in finding me in Canada, and that was a miracle. Then one day I mentioned to a friend of mine the story of this, and she said it might be interesting for the newspapers. And she called the Canadian Jewish News. They published it on the front page, and Karen Levine, who is a producer at CBC, a very well-known one, somebody who has already won two Peabody Awards, she said: 'Can I have an interview with you?' and I said: 'You don't know how lucky you are because Fumiko is coming to Toronto the next day.' Fumiko came, we made the interview. Karen's friend is a publisher and she said: 'You have to write a book.' Karen had never written a book. She had a job, she had a kid, so she was quite busy, but six months later she decided to write. She wrote, and since then the book has become an unbelievable success. In Canada it's already in its seventh printing at five thousand each which is quite unheard of. It got numerous prizes, and it's already in twenty countries, seventeen languages and it's selling like fire."

Tokyo, March 2001

"Calm down," Fumiko said with a smile. "They'll be here soon, I promise."

But nothing she said could tame the excitement of the children that morning. They buzzed around the Center, checked their poems, straightened their clothes for the umpteenth time, told silly jokes just to make the time move faster. Even Maiko, whose job it was to calm everyone else down, was jumpy.

Then, finally the waiting was over. George Brady had arrived. And he had brought with him his seventeen-year-old daughter, Lara Hana.

Now the children became very quiet. At the Center's front entrance, they crowded around George. They bowed to him, as is the custom in Japan. George bowed back. Akira presented George with a beautiful multi-colored origami garland. All the children jostled gently for the chance to be nearest to him. After so many months of hearing about George from Fumiko, they were thrilled to finally meet him in person.

Fumiko took George's arm. "Come with us, now, and see your sister's suitcase." They walked to the display area.

And there, surrounded by the children, with Fumiko holding one of his hands and his daughter, Lara, holding the other, George saw the suitcase for the first time in over half a century.

Suddenly, an almost unbearable sadness came over him. Here was the suitcase that belonged to his little sister. There was her name written right on it. Hana Brady. His beautiful, strong, mischievous, generous, fun-loving sister. She had died so young and in such a terrible way. George lowered his head and let the tears flow freely.

But, a few minutes later, when he looked up, he saw his daughter. He saw Fumiko, who had worked so hard to find him and the story of Hana. And he saw the expectant faces of all those Japanese children for whom Hana had become so important, so alive.

George realized that, 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.

"Everybody who reads it feels that it's a very powerful book."

And the English version, "Hana's Suitcase", by Karen Levine, is published by...

"...by different people in England, Australia, the United States, different local publishers, in France, in Italy, Holland, you name any country, even two Chinese languages apparently and Korean and in Japan obviously and many other countries."

Books for this programme supplied by Shakespeare and Sons.