Why Japan Will Never Forget
by Jayne Kim Schrantz
George Brady and Fumiko Ishioka
The story of Hana Brady’s suitcase and its journey
from World War II Auschwitz to contemporary
Japan testifies to the profound depth
and tenacity of the human spirit. Fumiko Ishioka,
the woman responsible for bringing Hana’s story to light,
recently visited Hong Kong for
the Asian premiere of Inside Hana’s Suitcase
at the 2009 Hong Kong Jewish Film Festival.
The story of Hana Brady begins in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, but today it spans the globe, thanks to the determination of Fumiko Ishioka, the director of the Tokyo Holocaust Education Resource Center. In 2000 while working with Small Wings, a group of Japanese students studying the Holocaust, Fumiko visited Auschwitz and eventually convinced them to lend her some items from their museum to showcase in an exhibition she was planning, “The Holocaust Seen Through The Children’s Eyes.” Among the items she received, the battered suitcase marked in white paint with the name and birth date of a Holocaust orphan, Hana Brady, sparked the imagination of her students.
Over the next eight months, Fumiko doggedly retraced Hana’s steps through WWII from a happy childhood in Czechoslovakia to the doors of Auschwitz’s gas chambers, eventually tracking down Hana’s elder brother, George. George had not only survived life in both Terezin, the Jewish Ghetto in Czechoslovakia, and Auschwitz, he had gone on to create a new, happy life and family for himself in Canada. Fumiko reached out to George and asked him to help her students understand the person that Hana Brady had been and to share her story with them. George relished the opportunity to share his memories of Hana, thus beginning an almost decade-long friendship between George and Fumiko. With George’s assistance, Fumiko has developed a traveling exhibit and presentation on the Holocaust, centered around Hana’s suitcase. that has been presented to over 500 schools throughout Japan.
It’s important to understand that Fumiko’s work is pioneering in Japan. History education itself is a contentious issue in contemporary Japan and has inspired a long, heated debate among scholars for six decades. The content of history textbooks is tightly controlled by the extremely powerful Ministry of Education. Japan’s wartime activities, its complicity with Nazi Germany, and its active aggression throughout East Asia have been considered taboo subjects for school textbooks for years. For almost fifty years, a famous historian Ienaga Saburo raged a legal war against the Japanese government for violating his freedom of speech by censoring material on 20th century Japanese history in textbooks he had written. Fumiko’s mentor, Makoto Otsuka, who she considers a true pioneer in Holocaust education, established the beginnings of Holocaust education in Japan through the Japanese Christian Friends of Israel’s Holocaust Education Centre in Hiroshima. However, Fumiko has taken the process a step further. In the past decade through work such as Fumiko’s at the Tokyo Holocaust Research Center, students throughout Japan beginning to learn about a vital part of world history.
In Fumiko’s experience, an openness to learning modern Japanese history often depends upon the teachers. “It really varies but I would say that the Holocaust is a new subject for many of the children that I meet. Not only the Holocaust but also our country’s atrocities have not been told properly. We always joke that they [textbooks] ran out of time by the time they got to the modern period and World War II since they started with the ancient period.” In fact, while children are extremely keen to learn about World War II history and even Japan’s complicity, Fumiko finds that it can be difficult to introduce the subject because history teachers themselves are as not interested in the subject. As a result, she has to approach the topic through other subjects, such as art, literature, or music.
As a small island nation, most Japanese children are not exposed to children of other cultures, races, or religions. While Japanese children are no strangers to prejudice or racial bias, particularly against other Asians such as Koreans, Chinese, or Filipinos, they are often surprising free of anti-semitism, perhaps a result of being woefully unfamiliar with the history of the Holocaust or WWII in general. To that extent, Fumiko is working with an empty slate. “Some kids or teachers might have an image of Jewish people being rich, but for most students it’s the first time they have really heard about Jewish people. I explain to them that it’s not a race but a religion and try to explain to them the long history of Jewish people in Europe for 2000 years.”
Fumiko deconstructs stereotypes of Jews that were perpetuated by the Nazis by showing students pictures of people from different sects, such as Orthodox Jews from Eastern Europe or assimilated Reform communities in France. “We see the Holocaust as an event with a finite beginning and ending, but I try to explain to them how it developed from the early years into the eventual result.” It is Fumiko’s hope that teaching children how to deconstruct the underpinnings of prejudice and the rhetoric of hatred will empower them to apply the same lessons to their own lives and communities.
The founders of the Tokyo Holocaust Education Resource Center were originally inspired in their work by a desire to promote tolerance and understanding to Japanese children and perhaps mitigate the serious social problem of bullying in Japanese schools. Fumiko explains that, “Our intention was not to give them the chance to learn how terrible it [the Holocaust] was, but rather to look at how it happened and how we could possibly have such hatred towards a certain group of people. We want to encourage them, faced with such intolerance and prejudice in their own community, to open up their eyes and minds. We want them to widen their world through learning about the Holocaust.”
Like Anne Frank, the story of Hana Brady resonates with children on many levels. Hana’s happy early childhood, her dreams of becoming a teacher, the loss of first her parents and later her beloved elder brother, and her confinement in the Jewish Ghetto that only ended in the gas chambers of Auschwitz all generate an empathetic response in children because they can imagine themselves in the same position of confusion, powerlessness, and suffering. Fumiko admits that, “Of course, the children are shocked by the depravity of what occurred, by the sheer vast numbers of people that were killed, and they are especially shocked by the fact that young children, often of their same age, were killed.” She is careful, however, to try not to scare them with the subject matter, so young children are never shown photos of the gas chambers or of dead bodies. What she tries to generate is empathy for those that suffered under the Holocaust.
Fumiko’s discovery of Hana Brady’s suitcase and her incredible story has been a transformative experience. For Fumiko, George Brady is a personal hero in the truest sense. “I cannot describe how grateful I am that he decided to share his most difficult memories with us. What inspired me is how a person like George survived and has never given up and has created such a beautiful family, his positive outlook on life. The Holocaust is more than just a historical event for me. It’s become a chance to explore human nature. I really want to keep sharing this lesson with many more students. It’s really my life’s work.”
More information on the Tokyo Holocaust Education Resource Center can be found at http://www.ne.jp/asahi/holocaust/tokyo/topenglish.htm. The Center no longer runs a permanent exhibition on the suitcase and instead maintains a traveling exhibition through its outreach program to schools.