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The International School for Holocaust Studies

Hana’s Suitcase

Featured Book

Reviewed by Sheryl Ochayon

Hana’s Suitcase

Hana’s Suitcase
by Karen Levine
Albert Whitman & Company, Illinois, 2002
111 pages


Hana’s Suitcase seems, at first glance, to be a book written for children. On the cover is a beautiful sepia-toned portrait of a little girl with a faraway look in her eyes and a slight smile. She is wearing a pressed dress with a ruffled white collar and a broach; her shiny hair is twisted and pinned up, and reflects the light. This lovely little girl in the photographic portrait ordered, no doubt, by her doting parents, could be any beloved little girl, anywhere.

The title of the book and the author’s name appear on the cover in a typeface that could have been scrawled by a child. The book’s print is large, and its sentences are short and simple. In the Introduction, World War II, Adolf Hitler, and concentration camps are explained briefly, for those not familiar with the terms.

Surely, then, this must be a book for children. But that’s just the point – though Hana’s Suitcase is a wonderful story about how the director of a museum in Tokyo, Japan, together with a handful of Japanese children, solved a mystery related to one Jewish child who perished in the Holocaust, the book is hardly just a children’s book. It is also an incredible story about persistence, and about how important it is to put faces and names and life stories to each of the millions of victims of the Holocaust. It was only through persistence and stubbornness and refusing to give up that Fumiko Ishioka and her Japanese schoolchildren rediscovered Hana Brady and brought her back to life.

The book about their search, about Hana, and about the Japanese children who “found” her, is much more than just a children’s book, though it engages the young reader as well. It is filled with pictures of Hana playing in the snow, acting in costume for a school play, sitting in the sun with her brother, posing with a doll that is almost bigger than she is. It keeps the young reader interested by jumping back and forth in time and in place – from Tokyo in 2000, to Czechoslovakia in the 1930s, and back to Tokyo again. It unravels the story of Hana’s suitcase as though it is a true detective story – with clues, dead ends, twists and turns.

But again – it is much more than a children’s story. Hana’s Suitcase is the story of a very short life – the life of one child – that was rediscovered, dusted off, and reexamined. In this, it has a great deal of value for adults as well.

Children in the Holocaust

Children were particularly vulnerable during the Holocaust. Deemed a threat to future Aryan domination, and too young to be of use to the Nazi war machine as slave labor, children were killed en masse. The Germans and their collaborators murdered more than one and one-half million Jewish children during the Holocaust. For those who remained alive, the ruthlessness of Nazi rule and the barbarities of war forced many to mature beyond their years. Many children took on responsibilities that are normally associated with adults, such as providing food for, or working to support, their families. They were forced to become the breadwinners when their parents were unable to properly care for them. They made difficult choices that often affected the future of their families, such as the decision to smuggle food, which could result in death. Often, they had to struggle to live without any parental supervision at all. These are subjects often overlooked when teaching the Holocaust.

Why Teach About Children During the Holocaust?

Teaching about children during the Holocaust allows younger students to learn and empathize with people roughly their age, at a stage of life to which they can relate. Almost anything that is true of adults during the Holocaust was true of children as well – they, too, went into hiding; they, too, were forced to move into ghettos; they, too, were shipped in cattlecars to death camps; they, too, were humiliated, terrified, broken and somehow still hopeful; they, too, were sent to their deaths.
Sometimes teaching the stories of children – the stories of victims of the Holocaust who were young and vulnerable, and to whom children can relate – can provide teachers with a new approach.

Hana’s Suitcase

Hana’s Suitcase exemplifies this. Yad Vashem’s pedagogical philosophy holds that the victims of the Holocaust cannot and should not be seen as six million nameless, faceless victims; identifying the victims and giving them back their names and faces makes them more accessible, since we are then able to realize that each victim was a person made of flesh and blood, with parents, siblings, hopes, dreams and an entire universe, just as we are.
This is what Hana’s Suitcase does.

The story begins at a tiny Holocaust museum in Tokyo, the Tokyo Holocaust Education Resource Center. The Center, which was endowed by an anonymous Japanese donor, is dedicated to contributing to global tolerance and understanding. Little did this donor know that his Center, and the mystery its director unraveled, would – like a pebble cast into a lake – create ripples far and wide across the world.[1]
When the director of the Tokyo Holocaust Education Resource Center, Fumiko Ishioka, asks the museum at Auschwitz for an artifact that will help children connect with the Holocaust, she receives a suitcase that had belonged to one of Auschwitz’s victims. Written on the brown, slightly battered suitcase, in white paint, is a girl’s name: “Hanna Brady,”[2] her date of birth, May 16, 1931, and the word “Waisenkind,” German for “orphan.” Fumiko and a group of children who volunteer at the Center become very curious about the suitcase’s owner. Who was she? Where did she come from? How did she become an orphan? What happened to her? The empty suitcase provides no clues. The children implore Fumiko to find out all she can about the girl who owned the suitcase – the only Holocaust artifact that the Center has that is actually linked to a name. The children figure out that Hana Brady would have been about thirteen years old – close to their own ages – when she was sent to Auschwitz.
To find out more about Hana, Fumiko delves into the past, looking for clues. After her initial inquiries come up with dead ends, a list is discovered that shows Hana came to Auschwitz from the ghetto of Theresienstadt, in Czechoslovakia.
From the minute she learns about Theresienstadt, Fumiko’s journey to “find” Hana takes on surprising twists that are reflected in the book. But while the book chronicles Fumiko’s persistence and her search for information about Hana, it also goes back in time to explore Hana’s life with her family in Czechoslovakia in the 1930s. We learn about the increasing restrictions on the Jews after Czechoslovakia is invaded by the German army in March, 1939; about Hana’s frustration when she is forbidden to attend third grade because she is Jewish; about Hana’s mother’s arrest by the Gestapo and her imprisonment at Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany. We understand Hana’s humiliation when she is forced to wear the yellow star, and her shock and terror when her father, too, is picked up by the Gestapo and she and her brother, George, are left alone. Hana and George are taken in by their father’s sister, and her husband, a Christian – but even they are unable to protect the children for long – in May of 1942, both children are deported. We envision Hana and George, alone in the world, celebrating Hana’s 11th birthday in a crowded, dirty warehouse on May 16, 1942 with hundreds of other Jews waiting to be sent to Theresienstadt; we imagine her horror and fear as, upon reaching Theresienstadt, she is separated from her brother, the only person she has left in the world, and assigned to a barrack for girls at Theresienstadt. We learn that Hana loved to draw, that she created pictures of picnics and open fields while she was in Theresienstadt, in the art classes she had with Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, but that she also drew pictures of trains like the one that had taken her away from her aunt and uncle. We learn other things about Hana, as well – that George tried to protect her at Theresienstadt; that Hana was devoted to her big brother and gave him the doughnut she received every week instead of eating it herself; that their elegant and cultured grandmother, who arrived in Theresienstadt from Prague was housed in a stifling, filthy attic and was dead within three months; that Hana was heartbroken when George’s name was on a list in September, 1944 and he was shipped to the east. Perhaps the saddest of all, we learn that four weeks later, when Hana found out that her name was on a list and that she, too, was being shipped “to the east,” she washed her face and did her hair specially with the help of a friend so that she would look nice when she was reunited with George. Hana arrived at Auschwitz on October 23, 1944 and was sent directly to the gas chambers.

Fumiko’s sleuthing ultimately leads to a boy that had shared a bunk with Hana’s brother, George, in Theresienstadt, who knew that George had survived Auschwitz and was living in Canada. This part of the story is particularly miraculous. George is stunned when he receives a package from Tokyo with inquiries from the Center, and is willing to reopen, at age 72, a chapter of his life that he had closed long ago in order to help Fumiko discover who Hana was and what her short life had been like.

This slim book with its simple sentences that children can understand has a story that is universal in its appeal; in telling the story, it brings one small face – a little girl with a faraway look in her eyes and a slight smile – into sharp focus. It turns one more victim of the Holocaust into a flesh-and-blood human being that adults and children can relate to.

[1] Hana’s Suitcase has been translated into 40 languages, has been staged as a play across Canada and the United States, has become the subject of a documentary film, and that film has been adapted for, and aired on, television in the United States by CBS as recently as March, 2011.
[2] The German spelling of the name has two “n”s, though Hana spelled her name with one “n”.
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