"Inside Hana's Suitcase" a Lesson in Tolerance and Compassion

Fumiko Ishioka helped start the Tokyo Holocaust Education Resource Center in 1998 as a way to introduce the concept of tolerance to Japanese students. Although considered a homogenous country, Japan has had a difficult history with its Korean minority and indigenous peoples. Using the Holocaust as an educational tool, the center teaches Japanese children how to accept others and to understand differences in religions, cultures, and ethnic backgrounds. In a broad way, she hoped the center would open children’s eyes to the severe bullying problem in Japanese schools.

In addition to reaching 160,000 students from 800 schools since its inception, the center has also become the subject of a book, a play, and a film. And it’s because of a simple suitcase that arrived at the center in March 2000.

The suitcase, sent to Ishioka from the Auschwitz Museum, belonged to a young girl named Hana Brady, who perished at Auschwitz during World War II. The suitcase sparked questions among the Small Wings, a group of Japanese children studying at the center, and led Ishioka on a worldwide search to find out details of Hana Brady’s life.

Holocaust, World War II, Tokyo Holocaust Education Resource Center
"Inside Hana's Suitcase"

The documentary Inside Hana’s Suitcase, which had its New York premiere on April 18 and is currently running at Quad Cinema in Manhattan, Kew Gardens Cinemas in Queens, and Malverne Cinema 4 on Long Island, follows Ishioka from Tokyo to the Czech Republic in pursuit of Hana’s story.

Ishioka would not have done this much research had she not been lent the suitcase. But why was it important for her to have a physical object with which to tell Japanese children about the Holocaust, as opposed to simply telling them the story?

“I thought an object could spark their imagination. Especially a suitcase,” says Ishioka via e-mail. “When I visited Auschwitz, I stood in front of a pile of nearly 4,000 suitcases. Each suitcase naturally makes you think who the owner was, what was inside, and what journey it took with its owner . . . What I’m really hoping is that if students can see what’s in this one empty suitcase, they can use the same imagination and compassion to understand the fate of, for example, another child who suffered under the brutal Japanese occupation during WWII, or the pain of any other child who is, right now, being affected in war-torn areas, or even a friend who is being bullied and hurt right next to them in school.”

Ishioka visited Terezin, the first concentration camp where Hana was sent. After visiting the Terezin Museum and interviewing several people, Ishioka eventually discovered that Hana’s brother, George, survived and was living in Toronto.

Ishioka tracked down George, who visited the Tokyo Holocaust Education Resource Center, breathing life into the name painted on the suitcase and providing pictures and memories of his little sister.

The story itself is fascinating, but the way in which it is told through Inside Hana’s Suitcase is also special. Director Larry Weinstein had children from Canada, Japan, and the Czech Republic narrate the film, weaving together the experiences of Hana and George Brady before and during World War II and Ishioka’s determination to discover the life behind the suitcase.

“The biggest change is that we are inundated with so many letters, drawings, e-mails from students, teachers, and parents who have read the book, saw the play, or watched Larry’s film all over the world,” says Ishioka of how the suitcase has affected the Tokyo Holocaust Education Resource Center.

“I feel it’s my obligation to make people aware of what can happen if people hate each other,” George Brady says in the film. That is essentially the same reason Ishioka founded the center, and she is seeing results.

“Though we are tiny in operation, a non-profit organization with only two staff members including myself,” Ishioka says of the center, “ . . . the reactions [from visitors] are very positive and rewarding. Many students write that they want to learn more, they think of the importance of learning from the past, they think of prejudice, discrimination in their own daily lives, and they think of bullying at their schools, and much more.”

Holocaust, World War II, Tokyo Holocaust Education Resource Center
George Brady and Fumiko Ishioka (from http://tokyoholocaustcenter.blogspot.com/)

An interesting facet of the film is the appearance of Machiyo Kurokawa, who is a Hibakusha, the Japanese word for a person who survived the atomic bombings of Japan during World War II. Kurokawa, a Hiroshima survivor and Holocaust scholar, volunteered at the Tokyo Holocaust Education Resource Center and “was outspoken about Japan’s wartime atrocities,” says Ishioka.

“Machiyo sometimes shared with children what it’s like to lose someone special and what it’s like to go on living after surviving horrors of war,” Ishioka says. “She always made it clear that the dropping of the A-bomb was an act of war, while the Holocaust is not.”

An artifact from a different side of war from what the Japanese experienced has created a sustained curiosity lasting more than a decade. Ishioka and the Brady family travel the world with Hana’s suitcase, visiting schools and teaching lessons of tolerance and compassion. “It’s been twelve years since Hana’s suitcase arrived at my Center,” says Ishioka. “We have more and more requests for visits from schools.”

A young Japanese girl who is a member of Small Wings says in the film that even though the suitcase was from a long time ago and a place far away from Japan, it “belonged to a girl just like me.” Fueled by such reactions, Ishioka embarked on a journey to make Hana’s suitcase a “symbol of life, not of death.”

“I never imagined that I could find anything about Hana in the first place,” says Ishioka. “But now I almost feel as if Hana has been guiding me and the story in her spirit from the beginning. I feel extremely lucky to have met Karen Levine, who put this story into a beautiful book, and also Larry Weinstein, who made a wonderful film with such care, love, and compassion. And so many others who have helped me share this story in so many wonderful ways. Ten years have passed, but I still have a long way to go, because I want to keep sharing the story with many more students so that they learn to grow more compassionate and humane.”

2 thoughts on “"Inside Hana's Suitcase" a Lesson in Tolerance and Compassion

  1. I saw this film a year or two ago here in Honolulu; it was quite touching, and moving.

    As the grandson of Holocaust survivors, and someone with a very strong interest in Japanese history & culture, this brought together two aspects of my life, or my identity, and… it didn’t hurt that my mother’s name was Chana (Hana), helping me identify with the young girl. How wonderful, and incredible, that such a thing as the Tokyo Holocaust Resource Center should exist, and that young Japanese should be involved in learning about these events.

    After seeing the film, I hoped to visit the Center, but if I recall correctly, I believe that after looking into it, I discovered that the Center no longer has a public space to visit…

    I have, on occasion, been thanked by people from Japan or Okinawa for showing interest in their culture, and the issues that they face; I always say いやいや、I don’t see it as a thing that deserves thanking or anything. I don’t study Okinawan or Japanese subjects for that purpose – I find Japanese and Okinawan culture beautiful and fascinating, find myself identifying with these people very strongly, even though I lack any familial or ethnic connection, and pursue studies and cultural activities out of my own interest. … But, that said, it seems it is my turn to thank you, for showing interest in the things that have affected my family, and my people. Thank you.

  2. Hi Travis,

    Thank you for your comments. “Inside Hana’s Suitcase” is truly a beautiful film, and I’m glad to see it resonated with you. I found it touching as well, even though I have no personal connection to the Holocaust. You are devoid of emotion if watching the film doesn’t affect you.

    I had no idea the Tokyo Holocaust Education Resource Center existed until my friend Justin Tedaldi, who also writes about Japanese culture in NYC, put me in touch with the firm handling PR for the film. I’d love to visit the center, too, but it’s hard to tell from the website if there are regular visiting hours. I’ll ask Fumiko Ishioka, the director of the center and the person who set “Inside Hana’s Suitcase” in motion. I’ll keep you informed when she responds.