TORONTO — George Brady is an unprepossessing man. The celebrity that came with publication of his family’s wartime story came as a complete surprise to him.
His story was turned into a bestselling children’s book, a film, a children’s play and a radio documentary. He received invitations from around the world to speak, and piles of letters from elementary schoolchildren tell how they were inspired by the story of Hana’s Suitcase.
The story of Hana’s suitcase has acquired a momentum of its own, being shown in film festivals and growing now to include the brave new worlds of social media and the family’s website (www.hanassuitcase.ca).
Ten years ago, when Brady visited the offices of The CJN, he told the remarkable story of his sister, Hana, who was murdered at age 13 in Auschwitz after living for two years in Theresienstadt. Their parents had already been killed and Brady felt as the older brother – all of 16 at the time – he had a responsibility to keep his little sister safe. After her death, he made it his mission to keep her memory alive.
A series of remarkable coincidences brought the story to more people than Brady could have imagined, beginning when Fumiko Ishioka, a Japanese educator, contacted him about a replica suitcase she’d received from the Auschwitz Museum. She’d asked for an artifact to help make the Holocaust more current and real to her students, and the museum had chosen a replica suitcase, the original of which had belonged to Brady’s sister. Brady did not know it even existed.
“Do you think this is a story,” he asked with characteristic modesty.
The story ran on the front page of The CJN and attracted the attention of Karen Levine. She authored Hana’s Suitcase, a children’s book that has been translated into more than 45 languages and as of 2009 was in its 24th printing.
Winner of the Silver Birch Award, voted by Ontario students, the story spawned a television documentary by veteran CBC journalist Joe Schlesinger, a film, a website and, in Japan, a touring group of student actors called Small Wings.
Brady still can’t believe the story could touch so many lives and even today is at a loss to explain why.
“I didn’t think it would be interesting for anybody but the family,” he said. “I had no idea how far it would go. Nobody could imagine how far it would go.”
His wife, Teresa, has her own take on why the story became so popular. The book is constructed in a way that touches young people today, she said.
Part of it focuses on the Brady family’s normal life in Czechoslovakia – the skiing and theatre outings – and contrasts it with the world of fear created by the Nazis.
“It describes this happy family life before the hell happened,” she said. “They go through a period of evil and still stay [human.]”
“Everyone seems to be able to find a connection in the story to themselves,” adds Brady’s daughter, Lara.
New immigrants from strife-riven countries like Somalia have been touched by it and they see “a certain parallel,” he said.
He’s seen that same universal appeal across Canada and during his many speaking engagements abroad. In Macao, 2,500 kids came to hear him tell the story. Afterward, a young girl came up to him and told him how she was affected by the tragic death of her grandfather.
Hearing her story, “I told her to make it through the mourning and then life goes on. She acknowledged she could also get through it,” Brady said.
One of the incidents that touched him the most was described in a letter from a teacher in a Micmac community in Nova Scotia. It told of a young girl who, it was feared, might take her own life.
“The teacher wrote that the girl read the book and now it changed her attitude completely. Things like that…” Brady said, his voice trailing off.
Over the years, Brady has received thousands of letters from middle school students, passed along by their teachers. He’s sent back 7,000 signed photos of himself and Hana in the last five years alone.
“We get about 100 e-mails a week, plus 2,000 letters a year,” said Lara, who along with her father responds to them all. Another 25 to 60 questions about his life are generated on their Facebook page and “we’re starting to tweet,” she said.
Brady has travelled across Canada to tell the story, as well as to Hong Kong, Macao, South Africa, Israel, Australia, the Czech Republic and, just recently, Scotland. Still active at 84, he’ll tell his story in Boston, Mass., in March and a month later, in New York. At one point, he’d speak to 100 schools a year, but with age he’s cut it down to a more manageable 10 or 15.
Brady has used Hana’s Suitcase to draw attention to another wartime story, that of his wartime friends, the boys who shared a room with him in Theresienstadt. One of them, Petr Ginz, was a creative soul who drew a picture that imagined the Earth as seen from the moon. The artwork survived the war and was taken aboard NASA’s space shuttle Columbia by Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon. The shuttle, of course, burned up on re-entry, killing all on board. Ramon, it turned out, died on Ginz’s birthday.
Brady marvels at the coincidences – and there are many. In 2004, he received an e-mail on his birthday from the Czech Republic. Someone, it turned out, had found his wartime diary in a dumpster. A family in Brno, in the Czech Republic, was clearing out its basement and a person walking by happened to notice some children’s books on top. As his mother was a professor of drama and children’s literature, he thought she might be interested in them. When he looked more closely, he also found worn books, papers and postcards. He retrieved them and turned them over to his mother. Later, she happened to read a review of Hana’s Suitcase and thought the material might be connected to it. It turned out many of the items had actually belonged to Hana.
The papers were taken to a Roman Catholic priest – who happened to know Brady – and he passed them along. Among the documents were postcards from Hana, including one sent to her mother in Auschwitz but which had been returned. There was also a 90-year-old family photograph in which Brady recognized his grandparents and mother, Marketa, as a young woman.
Also retrieved was Brady’s diary from Theresienstadt, with the last entry in September 1944, just five days before he was transported to Auschwitz. The material had been found at the home that belonged to Brady’s aunt’s family. It had been saved because the aunt’s husband was not Jewish and was not deported.
Just another coincidence in a remarkable series of coincidences, though Brady is convinced something more than blind luck is at play.
“The story should have ended when [the suitcase] was in Auschwitz, when it was destroyed [by vandals] in 1984. The suitcase was not an original artifact when Fumiko got it,” Brady said.
Fumiko found a survivor in the Czech Republic who knew Brady and initiated contact, but the story could have ended there.
“These are crazy chances,” Brady said.