Hana's Suitcase is simply a remarkable book, and behind it is a remarkable story. Reading a tiny article in The Canadian Jewish News about Fumiko Ishioka's worldwide search to trace the origins of a suitcase that she had received on loan from the Auschwitz Museum for exhibition at the Tokyo Holocaust Education Resource Centre inspired writer Karen Levine to produce her CBC Radio documentary "Hana's Suitcase". That production has just received the Gold World Medal at the New York International Radio Festival and Levine has herself been honoured with a second Peabody Award, the only Canadian to win more than one of these prestigious journalism awards. Levine has now taken the story one step further, recrafting it for young readers and producing a most memorable tribute to Fumiko Ishioka's relentless search to find out just who Hana Brady was.
Levine divides her narrative into two strands¨she follows Fumiko's quest to find as much information as possible about the owner of this otherwise ordinary brown suitcase and offers readers an in-depth look into the life of Hana Brady who, at thirteen, died in the gas chambers at Auschwitz. In relating Hana's story, Levine gives readers a first-rate opportunity to see through the eyes of this particular Jewish girl exactly how life changed after the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in 1938. We watch Hana's life become increasingly more restricted as Czech Jews are told that they can no longer travel, can only shop in certain stores and at certain times of the day, and then like Hanna's family, are forced to surrender their radios and to tell the Nazis about everything they own.
Hana loses her schoolmates, who are no longer allowed to play with her, is no longer allowed to go to the movies, the playground, sports field, parks or even her favourite skating pond. We painfully watch her growing helplessness as first her mother is arrested by the Gestapo and, shortly thereafter, her father. We are offered a wealth of those wonderful pithy details that help us form a clear picture of this sprightly and imaginative young girl¨details that we wouldn't otherwise have were it not for Fumiko's search¨and Hana's older brother George.
Fumiko's story is truly absorbing, and readers will get caught up in all the excitement and passion that inspired her efforts. Her story is that of the Tokyo Holocaust Education Resource Centre, the children inspired by her teaching who formed "Small Wings", and that of George Brady. It's unbelievably exciting to see the letters that Fumiko sends out into the world come back with amazing discoveries¨that Hana Brady had come to Auschwitz from Theresienstadt and that in its collections, the Terezin Ghetto Museum had five drawings by Hana. Like Fumiko, we are on the edge of our seats as a list of the men, women and children imprisoned at Theresienstadt offers a faint hope: Just above Hana's name is that of another Brady, George Brady, who may or may not have been related, and who may not have perished in the Holocaust. We hold our breath as a telephone call goes out to George's bunkmate. Levine holds us in place, not letting the story run on ahead before its time, carefully measuring out the bits and pieces in much the same way that they revealed themselves to Fumiko. And then, all at once, Levine introduces us to George Brady and his story.
Karen Levine has been careful not to oversentimentalize this truly poignant account. She herself is the first to admit her indebtedness to Fumiko Ishioka and George Brady who shared their recollections with her. But Levine must also be complemented on how she has used this material to give contemporary readers a real feeling for who Hana was and a sense of the world that she was a part of. Equally, she deserves recognition for retelling Fumiko's story with all the tension of a really good mystery. George Brady has contributed to the book wonderful family photos and documents including the orders for Hana's deportation. Hana's drawings from Theresienstadt have also been reproduced so that readers will feel the loss of Hana as the loss of a real person¨not a finely drawn fictional character or a handful of statistics but a young girl whose memory has been lovingly preserved in this remarkable book.