An Unforgettable Afternoon

By Tannis Sprott

Thin Air is always a surprise. Surprisingly profound. Profoundly moving. I snuck into the school stage program on Monday afternoon to catch Karen Levine talking about her non-fiction book Hana’s Suitcase with Grade 5 and 6 students from Gray Academy of Jewish Education. It is the story of Hana Brady, born in Czechoslovakia in 1931, and murdered in the gas chamber at Auschwitz in 1944 at the age of 13. I left an hour later moved to tears by the story of Hana, and filled with admiration for those kids, their courage in tackling a difficult subject, the depth of their curiosity, their struggle to relate Hana’s life to their own.

It all began with a young Japanese educator, Fumiko Ishioka, who ran the Tokyo Holocaust Education Resource Centre, and was searching for a way to engage young people in learning about the holocaust. She visited Auschwitz and requested the loan of any artifacts that would have belonged to children, and was given Hana’s suitcase. It elicited such a strong response from her young students that she began a year long quest to discover who Hana was. She eventually tracked down Hana’s older brother George, now living in Toronto, who had survived the concentration camp, and helped piece together the fragments of Hana’s life. Karen Levine read about Hana’s suitcase in the Canadian Jewish News, and was inspired to turn it into a CBC documentary, and later, a book.

As the author spoke about Hana and her brother, she tracked the dissolution of their family life as one thing after another was stripped from them, and revealed how they ended up in the concentration camp. It was Dr. Joseph Mengele, known as the “Angel of Death”,  who decided their fates. George, older and stronger, was sent off to be a labourer. Hana, being younger and smaller, was sentenced to the gas chamber mere hours after arriving at Auschwitz. I found myself weeping as the author told their story to a backdrop of family pictures featuring two happy, smiling kids, cross country skiing, skating, dressed in costume for a play. They could have been anybody’s kids, and therein lies the power of the story.

The children in the audience were spellbound, and when it came time to ask questions, so many hands shot up that it looked like a forest of tree limbs reaching for the sky, quivering in the breeze. Many of their questions were unbelievably poignant. “Why didn’t the Jews fight back?” “How did George survive?” “What did they do with the bodies when they came out of the gas chamber?” “Did they ever catch Dr. Mengele?” “Were the Jews happy when Hitler died?” “Why didn’t the rest of the world help them?”

There is such a temptation to shield and protect our children from bad stories. Levine refuses to do that. She honours Hana’s short life by respectfully relating every detail they discovered, by answering every question that is asked, by pointing out that it is important to learn from Hana’s experiences because genocide is still with us today. She also encouraged them to explore many of the larger issues with their history teachers. Thanks to that suitcase, children all over the world have been catapulted into her world, ensuring that Hana’s story, and that of the holocaust, is never forgotten. Hana’s life may have been short, but her reach is long. It was a powerful afternoon, and I will long remember Hana and those Winnipeg school kids..