Around the time Hana Brady would have turned 31, a childhood acquaintance spotted her suitcase sitting atop a pile of Jewish luggage at Auschwitz. Hana had died in a gas chamber nearly two decades earlier, but after a five-year search, the woman tracked down Hana’s older brother, George, who had survived the camp and emigrated to Canada. Nearly 40 years later, another woman would contact George about the suitcase — this time from Japan.
In 2000, Fumiko Ishioka, the head of the Tokyo Holocaust Education Resource Center, received what appeared to be Hana’s bag — a rectangular suitcase bearing her name and the German word for “orphan.” Ishioka wanted to know more about the girl who owned it, and reached out to George before eventually flying to Canada to meet him.
In a conversation with The Times of Israel, George Brady, now 84, discussed the surprising travels of his sister’s bag, the subject of a documentary called “Inside Hana’s Suitcase.” The film, which opened this week in New York City and Long Island, has proven an audience favorite at film festivals around the world, and received a nomination for a Genie, Canada’s version of the Oscar. It’s part of a multimedia set of works inspired by the suitcase, which also include a similarly titled book and play.
During the interview, Brady reflected on the documentary, why his sister’s story resonates, and his own harrowing tale of survival. He also alluded to the suitcase’s sad true fate — revealed in the documentary — and described the feelings that continue to bind him to his childhood home.
A transcript of the interview, trimmed for continuity and length, appears below.
Did the suitcase’s journey surprise you?
The suitcase was displayed on the pile of suitcases in Auschwitz, and a schoolmate of Hana went there in 1962 and saw it, so they took a picture of her with [the suitcase], and she had to find me. About five years later, I got a letter from her with a picture of it. I went to Auschwitz in 1997 and looked for it and couldn’t find it, and then in 1999 or 2000, I got a letter from Japan that it was there. If you saw the end of the movie, it shows that it isn’t the real one. It shows that even today there are people, neo-Nazis, who will suppress all the evidence to say that it didn’t happen.
When you think of your sister, do you ever imagine what her life would have been like if she’d survived? Or do you picture her only as you knew her, as a young girl?
I just see Hana as a young girl. I can’t see her as an older person
I remember her as a kid. I was visiting with one lady, and she said, “You probably see Hana in me, because I am the same age,” and I just thought — I didn’t tell her, but I just see Hana as a young girl. I can’t see her as an older person. It doesn’t work that way in my imagination.
Was there anything about sharing her story that made you nervous? Did you ever wonder if it was the right thing to do?
At first, I thought it was more or less [my] own story. Even my family, the kids, I didn’t tell them much because I am a person who likes to tell happy stories and funny stories rather than tragic ones. But when the suitcase appeared, I had no choice, I would say, and since then it’s just incredible what’s happened.
What do you think your sister would say about the film? Your parents?
[Emotional pause as he finds words] All I can tell you is another story. After the war, I didn’t know how to put my life together. I said, I want to do what my parents would want me to do, and the fellow [I was with] laughed and said, “That’s what you think they want.” I have no idea. I’m sure my parents certainly would be happy… It’s an abstract question. I am sure they would like it.
You’ve traveled extensively to attend screenings of the movie. Where have you received the most interesting reactions, and what have they been?
We were in Hong Kong and Mexico City and all over Europe, all over the States, and mostly we got standing ovations because it’s very emotional for everybody. I couldn’t have imaged that something like this would ever happen. For [my family’s] memory, I couldn’t have had a better outcome. Hana today is teaching millions of children all over the world about being equal and respect. We are getting many e-mails, thousands of letters. I am not counting them, but I send every kid who writes a picture, and my daughter sends a letter. If it’s a classroom, we send one letter to the classroom. We have printed 7,000 pictures, and [the letters] are coming from Turkey, India, South America, Australia.
What has it been like to return to the Czech Republic, where you and Hana spent your early years? What are your feelings when you’re there?
It’s a lot of memories, and I love to go there because that’s where I grew up. I had a very happy childhood. My hometown, which is a small town, gave me honorary citizenship. The new owner fixed [my childhood home] very nicely, put some pictures in the hallway, put a bust in the house of Hana with the suitcase, so I am happy being there. I am in Canada for the past 60 years, but my heart is still there.
Some people try to forget these sorts of memories. But talking about it seems like it’s not so hard for you.
I was living in a room in Terezin where there were 100 boys that went through. We wrote a famous magazine that is called “We Are Children Just the Same.” [Unlike many of its authors, the magazine survived and was published as a book after the war. — NB] Of the 100 boys in the room, 99 went to Auschwitz. From this, only 15 survived, and only six are alive today. One of them lives about 20 miles from me, and he absolutely has nothing to do with it. He doesn’t want to remember, or he tries to suppress it. We all are different.
Why is it so important for you to talk about it?
Peter went with me to Auschwitz. I went one way, and he went the other way
I somehow feel that it’s my obligation because of [Terezin]. The boys were very talented. [The Israeli astronaut] Ilan Ramon, when he went into space, he took a symbolic picture [drawn by one of the boys] because Ramon’s mother was a survivor. The picture was by Peter Ginz, a teenage boy who drew how the earth looks from the moon — very imaginative. Peter lived with me for two years, we published the magazine… and Peter went with me to Auschwitz. I went one way, and he went the other way. I feel it’s my duty, the same with my sister and parents, that they should be remembered, and to make people realize what a loss it was for mankind. It’s my duty to somehow keep their memory alive.
It’s easy to see certain parallels between Hana and a girl with a similar name, Anne Frank. What is it about them that resonates so deeply?
If you say 1.5 million [the number of children killed in the Holocaust], it’s just a number. When you see a person, you realize what it was, what it meant, and the one life lost, and then you can multiply it by a million and a half, and you realize what a horror it was.
In Canada, you were a plumber, and later ran a plumbing business. After that sort of career, what has it been like attending film festivals and being nominated for a Genie Award?
In the Globe and Mail, they wrote a big review of “We Are Children Just the Same,” and they said it was the first time that a plumbing contractor would be in there about a book. [Laughs] I wouldn’t have been a plumber if I hadn’t worked as one in Terezin, and it actually directly saved my life in Auschwitz. [After the war] I went to a [vocational] academy in Prague, then here. I had to work because I had to make a living, and I realized that my English wasn’t good enough and my Russian wasn’t good enough, and my Czech was useless for stenography and so on, so I started again as a plumber. Two years later I opened a business with another survivor… and when I retired, we had over 200 employees.
How did being a plumber help save your life in Auschwitz?
Before we arrived, we thought we were going to a labor camp, so we didn’t mind. We were in the cattle car for a day and a half, and the next night, the door opened, and there was a lot of yelling and floodlights and barbed wire all over, and SS guys with machine guns and German shepherds barking. It was a horror story — such a shock — and then lucky enough, there were prisoners throwing us out of the train, and I was lucky that there was a Czech prisoner who told me that when I come in front of [so-called “Angel of Death” Josef] Mengele, to say I was healthy.
We were the strong guys, so I thought we would go on hard labor and they would go on light labor, but it turned out they went straight to the gas chamber
So when I got in front of him, I said “gesund,” which means “healthy” in German, and Peter Ginz and the others didn’t, and they went to the other side. We were the strong guys, so I thought we would go on hard labor and they would go on light labor, but it turned out they went straight to the gas chamber. Later, when they were sorting us out for work, they put us in a big room where they [put] in one corner carpenters, another corner iron workers, another corner laborers… When the commission came, the guy, lucky for me, was a [Czech] prisoner, because the Germans didn’t speak the language. He asked how old I am and I said 16, and he hit me, [repeating,] “So how old are you?” He kept hitting me because he couldn’t [communicate] in front of the Germans any other way, until someone said I was 18. So I became 18 because I realized what he meant.
The next day came a commandant from a satellite of Auschwitz. He was looking for 300 iron workers and 300 carpenters to repair railway cars. When I got in front of him, I said I am 18 and I am an iron worker, and when he looked at me he said “too young,” because at that point, when I had a shaved head, I looked 14 — not even 16 — so I was rejected. [But] when they didn’t watch, I jumped into the group that was accepted. My horror was when we got into the camp and I realized it was [the same] commandant, but he didn’t remember. So that was what saved my life — I knew the tools.
When you look now at Jewish communities around the world, do you think anti-Semitism is fading?
What I think is we are doing more than anyone else for fighting anti-Semitism, because we are not just going to Jewish communities. Most of the letters, strangely enough, are from Catholic schools, and I feel it’s more important for them to hear the story. We feel always that you cannot change adults, but you can certainly change children, and you can show them what happens when people hate each other.
How do you hope people will think about the Holocaust in another 20 or 30 years?
I don’t know. It’s funny that it’s more of interest now than it was 50 or 30 years ago. I hope people won‘t forget, but some will certainly try to deny it, and we hope that it will be recognized. We hope the story of Hana will keep on going instead of dying down, that it will get bigger and bigger. If you would see the letters, the kids compare themselves to Hana. They realize what it means to have parents and freedom, and it is very gratifying for me.