Review Blog

Mar 23 2014

Hana's Suitcase by Karen Levine

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(Anniversary Edition)Allen & Unwin 2014. ISBN 9781743317679.
When an anonymous Japanese donor decided that Japanese children should learn more about the Holocaust in an effort to contribute to global peace and understanding, it is unlikely that they had any idea of the impact of their philanthropy. The foundation of the Tokyo Holocaust Education Resource Centre set off a chain of events which spans three continents, seventy years and continues to educate and enlighten well beyond Tokyo, or even Japan.
The focal piece of that museum is a very ordinary brown suitcase which sits in a glass case but which is taken out for the visiting children to wonder at. For even though it is empty, it has a remarkable story to tell. Painted on the outside are the words, 'Hana Brady. May 16, 1931, Waisenkind'. Words that spark questions like 'Who was Hana Brady?' 'Where did she come from?' 'Where was she going?' 'How did she become an orphan?' 'How did this suitcase get to Tokyo?' 'Why is it so important?'
Hana's Suitcase provides the answers to those questions and more, and gives a little girl, who wanted to be a teacher, not only a voice but the ability to teach children the world over, an accomplishment beyond her wildest dreams. It is the story of how the director of the museum, Fumiko Ishioka, felt that she would need actual objects from the Holocaust if she was to reach and teach Japanese children about it in a way that would engage them. For months she wrote letters to everywhere she thought might be able to offer her something until, at last, she was rewarded with a parcel from the Auschwitz Museum which contained a child's sock and shoe, a child's sweater, a can of Zyklon B poisonous gas and a suitcase. Inspired, she started a quest to find out who owned the suitcase, a quest which eventually leads her to Hana's brother, George who had survived and was living in Canada. This book is the story of that quest, interwoven with Hana's story and photos because the family photo album was the one thing that George had managed to save and preserve over the years. It is that story which touches and teaches so powerfully.
While it is realistic and sad, it is written with a light hand that realises that its audience does not want to be frightened or terrified by explicit details - but, nevertheless, it paints a picture of racism, marginalisation and segregation and what happens when it is taken to the extreme. It is written in a way that those who read it and recognise its events in their own lives - particularly the marginalisation of being different - and respond to it in that way.
In this anniversary edition, as well as the original story we learn about its impact on the author, George Brady, Fumiko Ishioka and children around the world during the years since its original publication. It has been published in 45 countries, produced as a play, crafted into several television documentaries, inspired quilts, drawings, writings . . . George continues a website which has so much more than a book can contain. Hana is truly a teacher.
A search for Hana's Suitcase will bring up a host of ideas of how it can be used within the curriculum (Australian publisher Allen & Unwin have teachers' notes ) and across the years so even though it is very suitable for a primary school library (I'm very comfortable giving it to Miss 9 to read), it also has a place in secondary supporting the history curriculum. An essential acquisition.
Barbara Braxton

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