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Hana’s Suitcase

by Karen Levine

Adults have trouble understanding how people could do the things we know were done during the Holocaust. How then can we explain what went on 60 years ago to children? Fortunately, there are books like this one by CBC radio producer Karen Levine.

As a CBC radio documentary, Hana’s Suitcase won the gold medal at the New York International Radio Festival. It’s now available as a CD packaged with the book.

Paradoxically, Hana’s story gains in power over other Holocaust chronicles because it is only half of Karen Levine’s book. The other half is how Fumiko Ishioka, the curator of a small Holocaust education centre in Japan, uncovers the history behind an empty suitcase sent as an exhibit for her museum. Fumiko’s dedication to discovering Hana’s story illustrates the fascination of history as much as it does the Holocaust, and the reader eagerly jumps between chapters about Fumiko’s enquiries and Hana’s brief and tragic life. Levine’s spare yet vigorous prose, the short, punchy chapters, and the episodic nature of the storytelling move the events along rapidly.

Hana was gassed in Auschwitz in 1944, but Fumiko’s search ends in hope as she uses Hana’s story to create Holocaust awareness amongst Japanese children. The two endings are tied together by the discovery that Hana’s brother, George, survived the camps and lives in Toronto.

George Brady managed to preserve a large number of photographs of Hana’s childhood. These photographs constitute an almost unbearably poignant record of a happy, yet doomed, life. Combined with the drawings Hana did in the concentration camp at Theresienstadt and the pictures of Fumiko and her children in present-day Japan, they enrich the book and increase its accessibility for younger readers.

Hana’s story is, tragically, one of millions; Fumiko’s is unique. Together, they will captivate children, reduce them to tears, and teach them invaluable lessons. Hana’s Suitcase should be required reading.