Tuesday, 31 August 2010

A Suitcase for a voyage to Nowhere.

An empty suitcase from the Czech Republic brings together two stangers: one from Canada, the other from Japan. Now they are trying to bring together the whole world. / Ori Golan.

Fumiko Ishioka cuts a rather delicate figure. When I first meet her, I hesitate before shaking her hand; they look so fragile. But the 40-year-old director of the Tokyo Holocaust Education Centre is a formidable force.

And when she has her heart set on something, she won’t take no for an answer.

In 2000, while working with a group of young Japanese students studying the Holocaust, she searched for personal items that had belonged to children during the Holocaust, and was repeatedly turned down. “The museums would not lend us any of their exhibits and the survivors felt their mementos were too precious to part with” she recalls. But this did not deter her and she pressed on until, finally, the Auschwitz museum in Poland agreed to send some artefacts. When the parcel arrived in her office, Fumiko found a slightly battered brown suitcase. Painted on it, in thick brush strokes, was the name Hanna Brady. “It was the only object they at the centre that had a name attached to it”, she adds.

This suitcase would change the course of Fumiko’s life. And not just hers.

In a bid to discover the identity of the suitcase’s owner, she embarked on an amazing voyage of enquiry that crossed continents, languages and centuries. It entailed tireless research work, protracted email exchanges and numerous meetings with survivors of Auschwitz.

Her efforts paid off. Fumiko uncovered Hana’s identity (her name was misspelt on the suitcase); she found drawings made by the young child, as well as records of her imprisonment in Terezin Ghetto. Hana Brady, who hailed from a middle class Jewish family in the Czech Republic, was murdered, aged 13.

A chance meeting with a survivor, led to the discovery of George Brady, Hana’s brother, who had survived the war and was living in Toronto. In the last 10 years they have formed a close bond. “Meeting George”, she says, “has been a life affirming experience. Despite his terrible tragedy, he has never given up and has created such a beautiful family”.

With his assistance, Fumiko was finally able to piecet Hana’s story with clarity and detail. It is a tale that begins with Hana’s carefree life in a little town of Nove Mesto, continues with the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, and ends tragically in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

The book "Hana's Suitcase" by Karen Levine, tells the entire story of Hana’s short life. It has been translated into 40 languages and has garnered a slew of prizes. Larry Weinstein adapted "Hana's Suitcase" to film. Alongside Georgeʼs memories, school children from Japan, Canada, and the Czech Republic tell Hanaʼs story in their own language.

With George’s daughter, Lara Hana, Fumiko has been presenting Hana’s story in Australia. Their itinerary has covered schools in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. “It is important”, she says, “to tell Hana’s story to non-Jewish students because, while the Holocaust is unique, it offers universal lessons. As a Japanese and a person who does not embrace any organised religion, I introduce it to young people for its universal lessons. We all have a role to play to make this a better world.”

Given Japan’s complicity with Nazi Germany and its active aggressive wartime activities throughout East Asia (which go unmentioned in history books in Japan), it is reassuring – and surprising – that a Japanese is attempting to spread the word of tolerance. Fumiko nods. “Not only the Holocaust but also our country’s atrocities have not been taught properly” she says.

Does she feel she is making a difference?

“I know it is a never ending struggle. There are millions of children today like Hana who are living in fear and may not make it to tomorrow, but if we can prevent even one child from growing up a racist or a bigot, then we have done our job.”

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