Even at age 90, the accolades keep piling up for George Brady. Not too long ago, the Toronto resident travelled to the Czech Republic, the land of his birth, where he received the key to the capital city, Prague, a golden ski, medals and awards from the country’s prime minister and parliament.
No stranger to kudos, this particular set of honours were given to him because he is a Holocaust survivor and Czech patriot who helped his fellow countrymen in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion in 1968 and has been a long-time advocate for freedom and coexistence.
Readers of The CJN, and particularly parents with school-aged children, may also recognize Brady as the inspiration behind the book, Hana’s Suitcase.
The book tells the story of Brady and his sister, Hana, two young Jews trying to survive in Czechoslovakia during the Nazi’s reign of terror.
Prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, they lived normal lives in the town of Nove Mesto, enjoying the theatre and going skiing (hence the golden ski Brady was recently awarded).
By 1942, their parents had been deported and the two, who were still adolescents, were sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. They lived there for about two years before Brady was transported to Auschwitz in September 1944. Hana followed about a month later.
Brady doesn’t know exactly what happened to his sister, but being only 13 and with no skills to offer, she was likely sent to the gas chambers immediately upon her arrival, he said.
Because he was already 16 and had a trade, he was put to work repairing railway cars in a satellite camp. That allowed him to survive.
After the war, Brady moved to Toronto and became successful in the plumbing business.
Around 2000, he was contacted by a Japanese educator, Fumiko Ishioka, who had been directed to him by a Czech survivor who knew Brady personally.
Ishioka wanted to talk to him about a replica suitcase she’d received from the Auschwitz Museum. She’d asked for an artifact to help make the Holocaust more relevant to her students and the museum had chosen the suitcase, which had belonged to Brady’s sister. Brady did not know it existed at the time.
“Miko brought the story to light,” Brady explained. “She called on the museum for items to show children what can happen when people hate.”
The two met and, since then, they have spoken to countless audiences around the world, promoting the message of tolerance, understanding and respect.
Brady first told his incredible story to The CJN in 2000. It attracted the attention of Karen Levine, who would go on to write Hana’s Suitcase.
The book has been translated into more than 45 languages and has been published in more than 50 countries. The story also spawned a television documentary, a film, a website and, in Japan, a touring group of student actors called Small Wings.
Over the years, Brady has said that one of his goals has been to keep the memory of his sister alive. The book, the media, all of it has done much more than that.
Brady has received hundreds, if not thousands, of letters from youngsters who were inspired by the book. “Every kid writes that the book changed their life. They realized how lucky they are to have friends, parents, siblings, freedom, and they look at life differently from then on,” he said.
As a youngster, Brady said, “Hana wanted to be a teacher in a small town and now she is teaching kids all over the world about tolerance and understanding.”