Five years ago, George Brady, a 73-year-old plumber from Toronto, received a letter from an unfamiliar address in Japan. The writer, a young Japanese teacher named Fumiko Ishioka, wanted to know about his sister, Hanna, who died in Auschwitz 46 years earlier. He sent an answer, and the resulting exchange of correspondence led to a journey in search of roots that brought him further than he had ever dared to hope.
The heroine of the Japanese story is connected to the Holocaust by choice. In the late 1990s, when she was 29, Fumiko Ishioka was having a hard time deciding on her future and finding her place in the big city, Tokyo. Only one clear aspiration guided her: the desire to advance, in some manner, tolerance and peace in the world. She searched, sought advice and eventually joined a group of historians and teachers who initiated the establishment of the Tokyo Holocaust Education Resource Center - which she now heads.
The center began operating in the late 1990s, in a space not much larger than the area of a small store. Ishioka, who was not trained as a teacher, found herself teaching Japanese children a bleak and dismal subject that presented a special problem for them. Japan had been an ally of the Nazis in World War II, and was itself accused of engaging in genocide-like activities in China. The country still has a hard time dealing with these aspects of its past.
Realizing that children, like adults, have a difficult time understanding the Holocaust as an abstract concept, Ishioka looked for instructional aids. She wrote to the museum on the memorial site of the Auschwitz death camp and asked them to send personal items of victims. A few months later, in January 2000, she received a large package from Poland that included, among other items, a black suitcase. "Hanna Brady," was written on the side of the suitcase in white paint, "age 13." And under this, in German: "Orphan."
When Fumiko Ishioka showed the suitcase to children, it dawned on her that the personal item served as a sort of introduction to the most powerful pedagogical aid of all, the personal story. The students of the center inundated her with questions about Hanna Brady: Who was she, how did she live and what was her fate? Ishioka admitted that she did not have the answers. She assumed that Hanna had suffered a great deal and may have been cruelly murdered, but the children did not accept this, and wanted to know more. The teacher wrote back to Auschwitz, looking for details.
Museum officials knew only that Hanna Brady had arrived at the camp from the Theresienstadt ghetto. The Theresienstadt museum, to which Ishioka wrote, sent her five paintings Hanna made during her stay there. All of them show open landscapes, children playing in the shade of tall trees and people working the fields. When she saw the children's excitement at seeing the paintings, Ishioka decided to continue her search for clues about Hanna and her fate. Later on that year, when she was sent to a conference in London, she paid extra to be routed through Prague, and headed to Theresienstadt for a visit.
Unfortunately for Ishioka, the day she arrived in the Czech Republic was a public holiday, and the museums were closed. But she wasn't ready to give up. At the museum in Theresienstadt, she found an open side door and entered the building. The only clerk working there that day agreed to help her, and the two women began going through the lists of people who had been imprisoned there during the war, until they found the name of Hanna Brady. Next to the name was a check mark, an indication that Hanna was dead.
The clerk showed her that above Hanna's name was the name of a young man named Georg, who had the same last name, Brady. She surmised that perhaps he was related and may have survived. Georg Brady's name appeared in another list, noting the names of the boys living in Theresienstadt, broken down by the rooms in which they resided. At seeing the list, the clerk let out a shriek of surprise. Brady, it turned out, was a roommate of someone she knew, Kurt Kotouc, a well-known art historian now living in Prague. Ishioka hurried to the Jewish Museum in Prague, in the hope of being put in contact with him.
The museum in Prague was also closed that day, and the young instructor was again forced to use her resourcefulness to get through the shut doors. She told the watchman at the gate that an important person was waiting for her inside, and entered. A member of the museum administration who happened to be there telephoned Kotouc and as darkness fell, shortly before Ishioka's flight back to Japan, he came to meet her.
Kotouc told the Japanese teacher that he was in contact with all the people he knew in Theresienstadt who had survived the war. He knew that Brady, who had been sent to Auschwitz before his sister, in 1944, survived in the camp thanks to the blacksmithing skills he had acquired in Theresienstadt - and of course, thanks to his courage, cleverness and luck. After the war, he migrated to Canada, changed his name from Georg to George and opened a successful plumbing business. Kotouc gave Ishioka his address and wished her success.
George Brady, who didn't know anything about any of this, was very surprised when in the summer of 2000 he received a letter from Japan. "I had no business with Japan, I had no friends in Japan," he said a week and a half ago, during a visit here with his 20-year-old daughter, Laura Hanna, and with Ishioka. "Suddenly, a huge envelope arrives, because she sent me not only the letter but drawings that the kids made and greetings that they wrote to Hanna. I was overwhelmed."
Brady wrote to Ishioka. He told her about his and Hanna's childhood in the Moravian town of Nova Miesto, where they were the only Jewish children, about the parting from their parents, who were deported first, and about their deportation to Theresienstadt. He remembered in detail the last time he was with his sister. He had heard about her death a few years after the end of the war, from a woman he met in Prague who knew Hanna and had seen her being led to the gas chambers in Auschwitz.
He told a reporter friend about the letter and drawings he had received from Japan, and the reporter wrote a story about it for the Canadian Jewish News. After publication of the newspaper article, Karen Levine of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation produced a radio documentary about Ishioka's search for Hanna's identity and roots, and the connection formed between her and Brady. The broadcast created a stir and Levine decided to turn the story of Ishioka, George and Hanna Brady into a children's book.
Her book, "Hanna's Suitcase," which is now being published in Hebrew by Schocken books, tells of Ishioka's journey, but also breathes new life into the character of Hanna. In Japan alone, the book has so far sold more than 135,000 copies. It has now gone into 15 printings in Canada, after having been selected as the favorite book among schoolchildren in Ontario in a poll held earlier this year.
A new chapter
How does Brady feel about the international success of a very private and very sad family story? "I never thought it would be as difficult as it turned out to be," he said. "Last year I traveled all over the States with Fumiko and Karen, We were in Chicago, in Detroit, in New Jersey and in Harlem. It was very emotional for me to be in Harlem and see how kids who are very poor identified with things. I was asked: `How do you control rage?' The next one was: `Did you ever consider suicide?'"
Brady and Ishioka find themselves exhausted by the experience, but are moved. "As a little girl, Hanna always said she wanted to be a teacher of children. Today she is the teacher of hundreds of thousands of children around the world, teaching them about history." Has the Holocaust center in Tokyo grown as a result of the story and the exposure? "It's still very hard; our main goal still is simply to survive," says Ishioka.
The story could have ended here, but three months ago a new chapter began. A history student found a carton of household rubbish in the street, in the Czech city of Brno, which had been thrown out of one of the apartments in the neighborhood. On top of the pile were old children's books. The student, whose mother collects such books, took them for her. Under the books he found a huge assortment of personal papers that were crumpled and wet from the rain, but he decided to take them to his mother, too.
The mother ironed the old documents and found, among other things, a journal written by a young man named Georg Brady in the Theresienstadt ghetto. Brady describes daily happenings, notes what he ate on which day, and had his roommates sign the journal, as if it were a memoir. Aside from the diary, the carton contained postcards sent to a girl named Hanna Brady, and a hand-written newspaper produced by girls imprisoned in Theresienstadt.
One week after the documents were found, the student's mother came across a newspaper article that told the story of "Hanna's Suitcase," which had recently been translated into Czech. Among the protagonists she spotted the names of the writers of the documents in her possession. She immediately contacted the Jewish Museum in Prague, and asked to contact Brady and Ishioka. Brady and his daughter picked up the documents on their way to Israel, and only got a chance to study them at their hotel in Tel Aviv.
Ishioka thumbed through them in absolute amazement, having a hard time understanding how the papers of Georg and Hanna had made their way to a carton in Brno. The solution to the mystery lies in other documents found in the carton that belonged to Vera, the half- Jewish cousin of Georg and Hanna. The home of Vera, who lived in Brno during and after the war, was the only permanent address of the family, so it became the collection point for the entire family's letters and documents. This past March, she and her husband set out to clean the attic. A local worker who was hired for the job brought down to the street anything that seemed to him inessential: Real garbage, collections of children's books, and many kilograms of memories.
How does a man whose past comes back to him from such diverse directions feel? "It's much more than I bargained for," he says. After discovery of the diary, the postcards and the newspaper, he said: "We are not a religious family in any sense, but we are beginning to toy with the idea that something mysterious stands behind all of these things. Go figure out life."