Amid the gloom of rotating teachers’ strikes at the Toronto District School Board, a ray of light: All 17,000 students in Grade 6 at TDSB schools will receive a copy of Hana’s Suitcase, the true story of Hana Brady, a young Jewish girl from Czechoslovakia who was murdered at Auschwitz.
The program’s launch at TDSB headquarters on Jan. 27 had two tie-ins: It took place on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz – this year, the 75th – and kicked off the TDSB’s involvement in Liberation75, a global gathering of Holocaust survivors, descendants, and educators slated for this spring in Toronto.
The “One Book Event” launch featured appearances by Toronto Mayor John Tory, Hana’s Suitcase author Karen Levine, and Lara Brady, Hana Brady’s niece, who brought along an array of war-era documents that belonged to Hana and her brother George – Lara’s father, who died a year ago in Toronto at the age of 90.
Milestone and anniversaries often cause young people to question why something as horrific as the Holocaust should be commemorated so many years later, Tory said in his remarks.
The answer “is quite simple,” the mayor said. “Beyond continuing to pay tribute to the lives of the millions who were lost, and to recognize and honour the survivors, it’s because we all have a role to play in ensuring that something like this doesn’t ever happen again.”
In December, Toronto’s city council voted to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day each Jan. 27.
Also on hand for the TDSB program were consular officials from Germany and Japan, representatives from Jewish advocacy groups, and Heather Reisman, CEO of Indigo Books and Music. The copies of Hana’s Suitcase are being made available to students through a partnership with Indigo and the volume’s publisher, Second Story Press.
Reisman told the launch that Hana’s Suitcase is vital to “the notion of remembering, not just the liberation of Auschwitz, but that Auschwitz was part of a larger reality and a larger story, where six million Jews and 12 million people in total lost their lives. The number rolls off our tongues. Six million! But if each of us thinks that if we lost just one person, how that would change things.”
Hana’s Suitcase is Canada’s most awarded children’s book, has been translated into more than 40 languages, was turned into a stage play, and is the subject of a prize-winning radio documentary and film.
The connection to Japan is through Fumiko Ishioka, the curator of a Holocaust education centre in Tokyo, who, 20 years ago, was looking for something to help pique the interest of Japanese youngsters. She contacted the Auschwitz museum asking to borrow an artifact connected to the experiences of children at the death camp, and received an empty suitcase bearing Hana Brady’s name and the German word Waisenkind (orphan). When children began asking questions about Hana, Ishioka tracked down George Brady in Toronto, and a story was born.
TDSB students in Grade 6 will also submit individual or group art projects to showcase what they learned from reading Hana’s Suitcase. Students may submit poems, short stories, songs, sculptures, paintings, a suitcase filled with artifacts, or letters written to Hana Brady or to Levine.
Selected projects will be displayed during Jewish Heritage Month in May and at Liberation75, set to take place at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre from May 31 to June 2.
Later on Jan. 27, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs co-hosted a reception for International Holocaust Remembrance Day at Israel’s Toronto consulate, together with the World Jewish Congress. That event was attended by representatives of 15 diplomatic missions, as well as from provincial and municipal governments, school boards, and other faith communities.
On the evening of Jan. 27, Tory and several city councillors joined community members and Ontario Lt.-Gov. Elizabeth Dowdeswell at city hall to commemorate the first International Holocaust Remembrance Day officially recognized by the City of Toronto. The event was hosted by Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre.