Seattle Children’s Theatre is staging “Hana’s Suitcase,” the true story of a Tokyo museum coordinator whose detective work reunited a man in Canada with an artifact belonging to his sister, who perished in the Holocaust.
A suitcase. A name. A birth date. The word “orphan.”
That was about all that Fumiko Ishioka, the intrepid coordinator of the Tokyo Holocaust Education Resource Center, had to go on in 2000 when she began a rewarding search for a young girl named Hana.
Due to her efforts, today Hana’s story is known to a multitude of young people worldwide through the book “Hana’s Suitcase” by Karen Levine, a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation documentary titled “Hana’s Suitcase: An Odyssey of Hope” and a play by Emil Sher, adapted from Levine’s book.
by Emil Scher. Through Feb. 7 at Seattle Children’s Theatre, Seattle Center; $22-$40 (206-441-3322 or sct.org).
Like that of young diarist and Holocaust victim Anne Frank, Hana’s story resonates especially with children who can see in her something of themselves.
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In a production by the Young People’s Theatre of Toronto, the multimedia drama “Hana’s Suitcase” is now in its West Coast debut at Seattle Children’s Theatre.
And to further their mission of introducing young people to Hana’s story, and what lessons may be gleaned from the Holocaust, Ishioka and Hana’s now 87-year-old older brother George Brady have come to Seattle to draw attention to the play and stimulate discussion among youth and other educators.
Brady was the living link Ishioka finally found, after a diligent investigation, to Hana. In still heavily accented English, he remembers her as “a normal child, with normal dreams” and an interest in art, when the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939 and conducted an anti-Semitic reign of terror there.
The Brady children lived above the family store in the town of Nové Město na Moravě. Soon they were forbidden to attend school. Their parents were arrested by the Gestapo, and sent to their deaths in a Gestapo prison and the Auschwitz concentration camp. After being sheltered for a time by other adults, in 1942 Hana, nearly 11, and George, 14, were sent to Theresienstadt (a Nazi transit camp known in Czech as Terezin).
Fast forward to 2000, when Ishioka visited the Auschwitz Museum in Poland. She requested the loan of some relics for her small Holocaust education center, and received by mail a small suitcase marked with Hana’s name and birth date, along with other unrelated objects. Ishioka longed to know more the valise’s owner.
“I started writing letters to 40 museums all over Europe, and they didn’t have any information about Hana. Many books about Terezin were translated into Japanese, and naturally I guessed she might have made some of the children’s drawings recovered there after the war. I found five by Hana, two in color and three in black and white, which she signed with her name and the date.”
From there, Ishioka tried to trace Hana’s family, most of whom perished in the Holocaust. But George Brady had somehow survived Terezin, Auschwitz and even a Nazi death march, then moved to Canada and raised a family.
For decades Brady, who ran a plumbing business, spoke little of his devastating adolescent experiences. Hana was killed in 1944, a day after her arrival at Auschwitz.
“I didn’t want to tell my children and burden them with it,” he recalls. “When they asked about the tattooed number on my arm, I told them it was an old phone number.”
When Fumiko contacted him about her project out of the blue, “She brought it all into the open and it changed our lives. It got into the newspapers, then the radio, on television, the play.”
Were the memories of that dark time overwhelming? “I didn’t find a problem coping with it. I’m happy to see that Hana turned into a very positive symbol, teaching children about tolerance, respect and appreciating parents and children. Her story has touched the lives of so many people.”
And the response in Japan, an ally of Germany during World War II? “I have found great interest,” responds Ishioka. “My organization is still going. We have visited nearly 1,000 schools and over 200,000 students all over the country. In some schools, every fifth-grader learns about Hana.”
“We Japanese people have shied away from our own country’s aggression [during WW II],” she notes, “and some people don’t want to discuss that period. But when it comes to the stories of Hana and her brother, we’ve found so much curiosity and support.”
There’s also been much interest in other countries, including Germany. There, and everywhere else Ishioka visits, she says the lost and found tale of a little girl and her suitcase packs a compelling lesson about universal understanding, and the need to prevent future holocausts.