The story of Hana’s suitcase

Since 1998, Fumiko Ishioka has been the director of the Holocaust Education Resource Centre in Tokyo, Japan. With a passion for making history meaningful to children, she has dedicated her life to educating others about the issues of racism and anti-Semitism. As part of the centre, Ishioka started the children’s group Small Wings to help inspire young people to recognize their own power and to actively fight injustice and intolerance of all kinds.

Right: Fumiko Ishioka

In 1995, Ishioka decided to create an exhibit of artifacts in the centre to educate children about the Holocaust. She received a number of items from the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland, including a brown leather suitcase with a painted inscription: “Hana Brady, May 16, 1931, Waisenkind [orphan].”  The story of the suitcase and Ishioka’s quest to answer the questions that the children of Small Wings had about Hana was documented in the book Hana’s Suitcase by Canadian writer Karen Levine.

On June 15, at the convocation for graduates of the Faculty of Education, York conferred an honorary degree on Ishioka for her role in educating children about the horrors of the Holocaust. In her speech to the graduating class, she talked of the importance and the impact that one small, brown suitcase has made on her life and how she has used that suitcase to teach children about the horrors of racism, intolerance and the Holocaust.

“Four years ago, I received Hana’s suitcase. This one old brown suitcase changed my life. So many unexpected things have happened since the day that I received this suitcase but I never would have dreamt of receiving such an honour today,” said Ishioka. “Thank you for your generous support for my work.

“When Hana’s suitcase arrived at my tiny education centre, I did not know what to do and I did not know how to use this one ordinary suitcase to tell the story about the Holocaust and the 1.5 million children who died,” she said. “I wanted to make this suitcase a symbol of life rather than death.”

She showed the suitcase to the children of Small Wings and was surprised by the interest it generated. “The children of Small Wings asked me questions like: ‘Who was Hana? What happened to her? Did she have a family’?” said Ishioka. “The children were eager to find out more and more and that pushed me to do more. With luck and with some miracles, I was able to find George Brady in Toronto, Hana’s only surviving brother.

“The children wrote to George because they wanted to let him know that Hana and her suitcase were important to them and changing how history would be taught. George sent the children photographs of his family and a beautiful photograph of his sister Hana, who died in the Holocaust. The children were thrilled and sad. The most shocking thing they learned was that Hana had a happy childhood. They learned about the true horrors of the Holocaust.

“We started the education centre in Tokoyo to give children an opportunity to learn about tolerance and respect. Children in Japan live on a small island and have little exposure to other religions,” she said. “I have been able to tell children in Japan and around the world what  intolerance and hate do to others through the story of Hana’s suitcase. Most of all the story of Hana and George is encouraging children to go out and share with others their thoughts on the Holocaust. Sadly, my journey will continue as long as we still encounter hate and intolerance in the world.”

“Children have the key to turn this around,” said Ishioka. “I hope to continue to build bridges with children of the world.”


Above: From left, Chancellor Peter deCarteret Cory, Fumiko Ishioka, Paul Axelrod

“We honour Fumiko Ishioka, curator, educator and tireless campaigner on behalf of children and in the cause of social justice,” said Paul Axelrod, dean of the Faculty of Education. “She is a central character in the book Hana’s Suitcase by Canadian author Karen Levine. The tale of Hana’s suitcase is both inspiring and tragic.

“Fumiko Ishioka’s Holocaust education work reflects the values of the Faculty of Education and York University. They are respect for cultural diversity, tolerance, civic responsibility and the critical importance of education in its broader sense,” said Axelrod.