Monday, February 18, 2008

Hana's Suitcase

As part of her school's Holocaust awareness curriculum, our daughter recently read the book, Hana's Suitcase. Studying the Holocaust has always been central to my identity as a Jew, to the sense of righteous indignation that guides my life as a writer, to the themes of becoming responsible citizens of the world that we hope to instill in our children. So it was with great excitement that I took her and our eldest son to see George Brady, Hana's older brother and the only survivor of his family, speak to a packed audience in London earlier tonight.

I could likely write thousands of words on this. This book has become a centerpiece of tolerance-based educational programming for countless children around the world. It's available in dozens of languages. Here in London, the play has been playing to packed houses at the city's main stage, the Grand Theatre. A colleague of my wife at the school has built an entire curriculum around this work, and has made it available to every school in the region. Because of her efforts, thousands of students from all backgrounds have learned Hana's story, learned why the Holocaust isn't just a lesson for world Jewry, but for the world, period.

George Brady was Hana's brother. He was 13 and she was 10 when their happy world of family and togetherness in an idyllic Czech village began to come apart at the seams. After their parents were deported to a Nazi death camp, he took responsibility for his little sister, doing everything in his power to keep her safe. In the face of brutality and cruelty that continues to defy understanding, he couldn't.

Yet he survived, came to Canada and built a life of honor, family and achievement. He succeeded in spite of what he had been through - and in doing so reflected a trajectory shared by so many Holocaust survivors. When I think of the millions of stories like this one that remain untold, that risk being swallowed by a history that's all too willing to forget, I get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. We need to do more.

Listening to him share stories was nothing short of incredible. Watching our children absorb his message, respond to his voice, learn his lessons...well, that made it incredible-squared. Maybe even cubed.

If you haven't yet experienced Hana's Suitcase, I urge you all to follow the links below. Tolerance, after all, is a universal human need, and we all have a part to play in spreading its light as far as we can:
Your turn: Hana Brady wanted to be a teacher. George likes to relate how she now teaches countless people around the world lessons in tolerance and humanity. What is your next step in widening Hana's reach as an educator?


Unknown said...

Carmi: I spent lunch with a friend of mine who escaped Italy just 8 days before Hitler over-ran it. A really good book is by Michael Bar Zohar called "Escaping Hitler's Grasp: The heroic Rescue of Bulgaria's Jews". My father's country of origin received the Highest Honor from Israel. When I visited at age 13, I was taken to my Aunt's sister's basement where a board was removed revealing a hiding place. I crouched inside. This was where our Jewish neighbors were hidden when the Nazi's went door-to-door. History is so important! A fine post!!!

Star said...

I had not heard of this book. As a child I read the Diary of Anne Frank. After my youngest daughter read it, she became quite interested in the holcaust. She saw Elie Weisel speak and read many bok on the subject. As a young adult visiting Europe she visited both concntration camps nand the house that Anne Frank hid in.

lissa said...

Thanks for this entry, is a topic close to my heart. After 7+ years of having interviewed countless Holocaust survivors for the Oral History project at the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Center, I, too, sought ways to educate about that time. Not as much about what happened, but about the strength that came from it; personal strength and strength as a people. My children have learned from me (and not from their schools - more on that in a minute).

Now, 7 years after having stopped the interviews (but no less empassioned), I am once again embarking upon the path. Life Stories of Montrealers is a project being hosted by Concordia, aimed at collecting 600 interviews from Montrealers displaced from their homes by war, genocide (the word was coined because of the Holocaust, btw), and other human rights violations. I was hired in November, to join this amazing team of researchers.

Part of my job is to train the interviewers (everyone hired on this project is automatically an interviewer but not everyone has the experience or a grasp on the process), having gone through it and being so invested. It is also my thesis - teaching (effective) active listening skills when interviewing victims of trauma.

The project, a 5-year scope, will collect the interviews, and then research - WITH the communities involved (Haitians, South Asians, Latin Americas, Cambodians, Rwandans as well as Holocaust survivors) - the implications not only of their stories but of telling those stories.

After we have a grasp on the so-called "bigger picture", we will be implementing educational materials to be distributed via public education, educational institutions, and theatrical productions. It is a major undertaking and an exciting place to be.

I'm not stopping there. I plan to take this to my phd, researching just why it is stories like Hana's Suitcase and David's Story that stand out; yes these are inspirational people but by the same token, ALL survivors, victims, and witnesses have stories to tell. Why is this not being taught as a regular curricular topic? I've even seen an article which says Holocaust ed should NOT be taught to younger grades (to grade 4). My conviction is that anything, sensitively and appropriately framed, can - and SHOULD - be offered all who will listen.

Okay, stepping off the soapbox. You have touched a chord inside me which has sung for 14 years and continues to sound. Thank you for raising awareness!

lissa said...

**Addendum - may I recommend Paper Clips, a documentary available on DVD, showing how a small Southern town became aware and raised awareness throughout their community, their state, and frankly, worldwide, to a degree no one had predicted. Talk about inspirational!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing this Carmi. As a history student these stories are of special interest to me and its something I want to make sure my own children are exposed to.

kenju said...

Carmi, I am going to follow all those links, but I will come back later to do it. I worked for a doctor once who escaped Poland by fleeing and hiding in the Black Forest.

photowannabe said...

Very touching Carmi and a message that is universal. How some can say it never happened is beyond me. When my husband and I visited Israel in 2000 I found visiting Yad Vaschem one of the most haunting and special parts of the trip. It was an unforgetable memory.

Joan said...

I'd never heard of this one before, though I'm quite familiar with Anne Frank. I'll have to check it out after such high praise. My first year as a teacher, I had my 8th graders create their own Anne Frank / WWII history museum in our classroom, and we invited all the other classes to come visit. My students served as tour guides and "experts" at individual stations; it was an experience many will likely remember the rest of their lives. I'm no longer teaching in a formal way, but I enjoy active conversations about history and literature with anyone and everyone - they're a regular part of my life.

One of the highest (and lowest) points of my life was when I spent several weeks interviewing a holocaust survivor for my college senior history paper. I wound up doing a sort of imitation on One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Solzhenitsyn. I was honored by my interviewee's willingness to talk with me, especially since the local Holocaust historical society was very protective of their contacts. He had been in the Warsaw Ghetto, Dachau, and Auschwitz, among several other smaller camps. The stories he told were haunting ... and riveting.

Red said...

I haven't heard of this book and even if it is a children's book I will be reading it.
When I read about things like this, look at her picture as a young girl, my heart gets heavy for her and her family. The first thing I think is "Damn, I am lucky". Lucky to be here, to have what I have, to not have lived there, ...

Holly Schwendiman said...

I'm so behind on reading blogs but wanted to share that since we turned of the TV at my house, we've been spending time reading and studying things together as a family. I just read a WWII story to my kids and I've been teaching them about the atrocities of the holocaust. It makes me so sad to know how cruel humans can be. Thank you for sharing, the timing was perfect.


awareness said...

Both of my children have read Hana's Suitcase at was their first awareness of the Holocaust.....and generated many discussions. My daughter has since read the diary of Anne Frank and entered a speech contest on Anne's life a couple of years ago.

When I did the backpacking tour of Europe thing YEARS ago, we started out in Amsterdam.....we visited the Annex where Anne and her family hid.......went straight there from the airport. Anne Frank's Diary was my first learning awareness of the Holocaust when I was young.....and it spurred me on to read and learn much more.

May we never forget.

Beverly said...

Hi, Carmi,
I don't know where I was when you wrote this post. Last year when I went to my son's in Virginia, that area was having a Holocaust Awareness weekend. The local high school presented the play, Number the Stars, set in Finland. A Holocaust survivor was there. He spoke of his being hid in a room for 22 months in Poland before the liberation. The young people who had presented the play just surrounded him with so much love. I'm sure their lives will not be the same from their studies.