CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 19 . . . . January 20, 2012
Hana’s Suitcase. (The National).
Toronto, ON: CBC Learning (www.cbclearning.ca), 2003.
25 min., DVD, $52.50 (Site license price).
Product ID Y8Q-03-04.
Grades 4 and up / Ages 9 and up.
Review by Harriet Zaidman.
Hana Brady wanted to be a teacher. Although the Czech girl perished in the gas chambers at Auschwitz in 1944 at the age of 13, her story has taught millions of children about the horrors of the Jewish Holocaust and valuable lessons about defending human rights and dignity. First told as a radio documentary, then in a book and a play, Hana’s Suitcase is presented here in a moving 2002 television documentary by the CBC that will ingrain these valuable lessons in the minds of anyone who watches it.
The 25 minute documentary is tenderly narrated by Czech-born veteran CBC journalist Joe Schlesinger who, himself, was saved from the scourge of the Nazis by the Kindertransport of 1938, sent away by his parents who were later killed. Interviews with the key personalities are shot close up, adding to the emotional intensity of their testimony about the impact that Hana’s short life had on them so many decades later. A delicate musical score underlines the irony of the story about a child whose life was cut short only because she was Jewish.
The camera follows the unusual trail of how Hana’s story came to be known. Japanese human rights activist, Fukimo Ishioka, determined that Japanese children should learn about the Nazi atrocities in World War II, something to which they were not greatly exposed, petitioned the museum at Auschwitz for an artifact to use as a teaching tool. Hana’s name and birth date on the outside of the suitcase sent Ishioka on a search to then-Czechoslovakia to discover if she had survived. She learned that Hana had died, but that her brother, George Brady, had lived and was now 74-years-old and living in Toronto.
Together, Ishioka and a rejuvenated George Brady began to tell the story in Japan. An account of their work in a newspaper article caught the eye of CBC radio producer Karen Levine, who also says Hana’s story changed her life.
The documentary weaves back and forth through the two narratives. One shows the concentration camps, with their cruel slogan “Arbeit Macht Frei” [literally “work makes one free”] above the iron gates, and grim film footage of the Nazi machine. The contemporary scenes show Ishioka, Brady and Levine travelling endlessly, speaking to schoolchildren everywhere about Hana, the Holocaust and human rights. They have the suitcase and talk about the tiny, precious gifts George and Hana's mother fashioned out of chewed bread in the prison-camp where she was confined, likely starving herself of a few scarce calories in the hope of giving her children some comfort, as well as Hana’s drawings of picnics and a happy family life, made in the midst of the upside-down, insensible hell in which she lived – tangible marvels to young audiences.
Much good has come out of the work Ishioka, Brady and Levine have done. Children talk about their sadness but also about the connections to their own lives, their heightened awareness about racism and the need to protect human rights. In Japan, people have come forward to state that their country should address the crimes in their own past – the slaughter of Chinese, Korean and other peoples in World War II.
George Brady said he never stopped having nightmares about his sister’s fate - he felt he had failed to protect her despite being only a child himself. Now he feels gratified, that his sister is “very much alive” and teaching children, long after she died.
This sensitive documentary can stand alone or augment any teaching program about the Holocaust, World War II, anti-Semitism, racism or human rights. Both the book and the play, Hana’s Suitcase, have been reviewed previously in CM, Vol. VIII, No. 21, June 21, 2002, and CM, Vol. XII, No.16, April 14, 2006.
Harriet Zaidman is a teacher-librarian in Winnipeg, MB
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