Fumiko Ishioka, a delicate and elegant woman who has just arrived in Seattle from Tokyo, greets a sturdy, white-haired man from the Czech Republic. She attempts to smooth down the man’s hair and he laughs. “Oh it is impossible!” George Brady says, pushing off her efforts.
This is a rare friendship. Brady is an 88-year-old plumber. Ishioka is a 40-something Japanese museum director. How could they have ever met? The answer, as is everything about this odd pair, is surprising. They met because of the Holocaust. They met because of a suitcase.
In March of 2000, a suitcase from Auschwitz concentration camp arrived at the tiny Tokyo Holocaust Education Resource Center. On the suitcase in white paint there was a name, a date and the word “waisenkind” — German for orphan. This battered, brown trunk would change the life of center director Fumiko Ishioka.
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“Kids in Japan were just very curious to know about the owner of the suitcase,” Fumiko says.
The mystery of Hana Brady — and Fumiko’s worldwide search to unlock that mystery — turned out to be so interesting it was made into a play. That’s why Fumiko has flown from Tokyo, to see the production of Hana’s Suitcase at Seattle Children’s Theatre. She’s also in Seattle to receive a Distinguished Service Award from the University of Washington, “in honor of her commitment to share the values of hope, tolerance and respect with young people around the world.”
Fumiko had no idea any of this would happen 16 years ago, when she asked museums across Europe for artifacts that could help her Japanese students understand the significance of the Holocaust in Nazi Germany. It seems strange that there would even be a Holocaust center in Japan, which has its own dramatic World War II history. But Fumiko believes Japan sweeps that history under the rug. She became the director of the center because she thinks the Holocaust is an important lesson about intolerance that Japanese children need to learn.
When the museum in Auschwitz sent the suitcase, it created more questions than answers. The museum didn’t know who Hana Brady was. But that didn’t discourage Fumiko or her students at the center. They did lots of research, wrote letters and emails and eventually they were sent drawings made by a girl in a concentration camp named Hana Brady. The drawings came from a collection of artwork made by children in a secret art class in the camp.
“So, we were one step closer to Hana,” says Fumiko. “We decided we had to see her face.”
Encouraged by children at the center, Fumiko began a search from Japan to Germany to the Czech Republic. That’s where she found the name “Hana Brady” on a list of Jews who were imprisoned by the Nazis. Her name had a check mark next to it, which indicates she did not survive the camps. Fumiko was saddened to learn Hana was sent to the gas chamber the very same day she arrived at Auschwitz.
But Fumiko also noticed another Brady on the list — this one without a check mark. George Brady turned out to be Hana’s older brother, who survived the camps. Through a series of coincidences, Fumiko located George Brady in Toronto.
“Imagine writing a letter saying, ‘We have your dead sister’s suitcase!’” marvels Allen MacInnis, the director of the play at the Young People’s Theatre in Toronto, which developed Hana’s Suitcase.
Before getting a letter from Fumiko, George Brady, now a plumber in Toronto, didn’t talk much about the Holocaust. “Mostly I didn’t burden my kids with my fate. I have a tattoo number, and I told them it’s my phone number from previous life in the Czech Republic,” George says. “That letter changed my life completely.”
In response to the letter, George sent the Holocaust Education Center in Tokyo a treasure trove of family photographs from before the war. Once they saw Hana’s face, the children in Japan realized Hana Brady was not just a girl who died in Auschwitz. She was a girl who lived a happy life with her loving family in an idyllic town.
Fumiko flew to Toronto to meet George and his family in person. She convinced George and his daughter, Lara Hana, to visit the Holocaust Center in Japan, and the rest, as they say, is history. Their story was made into an internationally published book, a documentary and an acclaimed play.
Fumiko and George have traveled to Europe, South Africa, America and Japan educating children about the Holocaust. With every trip they take together, Fumiko says she always learns something new about George’s past. For example, how a male prisoner escaped from Auschwitz by dressing up as a cleaning woman. Or how, at the end of the war, the Nazis sent prisoners on a ten-day march for Germany with one loaf of bread for each man. On the trip to Seattle, George talked about the best hot shower of his life, which happened on that march to Germany. His group stumbled into an abandoned British POW camp with hot running water.
“For us, who had for months and months felt filthy, to have a hot shower was such an unbelievable pleasure,” George relates as if it happened yesterday.
“George is my true hero,” says Fumiko. “I am most fortunate to meet someone who I see as a role model.”
And Hana has become a hero for thousands and thousands of children who have seen the play as it travels the world. That is satisfying for director Allen MacInnis, because he’s often felt like Hana is guiding the production.
“What I think is that the Nazis didn’t succeed,” MacInnis says. “They tried to erase her and they didn’t. I mean, for a while, erased. But not permanently. That’s extraordinary.”
Watch the post-play discussion, hosted by KCTS 9's Enrique Cerna:
Jenny Cunningham’s favorite kind of story is the one she hasn’t done before. Whether it’s reporting for TV or writing for magazines, travel or tribulation, Cunningham likes discovering something new. At KCTS, Cunningham has covered everything from the history of Hanford’s race to build the atomic bomb to biodynamic wine to opera supernumeraries. Cunningham has been honored with television journalism's most prestigious awards including Emmy Awards and the Edward R. Murrow Award for Best News Series in America.
As a writer for magazines and newspapers Cunningham’s features have appeared in publications including the Irish Times, Sunset Magazine, Seattle Magazine, the Vancouver Sun, The Oregonian and Wine & Spirits Magazine.
Cunningham has a master’s degree in Broadcast Journalism from Northwestern University and she graduated cum laude from USC with a BA in Journalism and a BA in Theater