Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Remembering One, Remembering Millions

A friend invited me to a showing of the documentary "Inside Hana's Suitcase" on Sunday. The film is about a young Jewish girl named Hana Brady who perished in the Holocaust, Hana's older brother George who survived and now lives in Canada, and Fumiko Ishioka, the executive director of the Tokyo Holocaust Education Resource Center. In 2000, Fumiko visited the museum at the Auschwitz concentration camp, and asked if some of the museum's objects that had belonged to children could be loaned to the Tokyo center. She was sent several items, including a suitcase labeled with Hana's name, date of birth, and the German word for "orphan." Fumiko was curious about the girl who'd owned the suitcase and began researching Hana's story, eventually finding the surviving brother George. Fumiko's search and her interactions with George Brady led to news stories, documentaries, a play, a web site, and a best-selling book, Hana's Suitcase, that would eventually be translated into dozens of languages. Were it not for an old suitcase, an average little girl who suffered what was an all-too-typical fate for Jews at the height of the Nazi regime would have been forgotten by everyone except those few who knew her personally and managed to survive the war.

Only...the suitcase wasn't Hana's. That suitcase, along with others like it, was destroyed in 1984 in a fire that was deliberately set at an English warehouse that held artifacts being prepared for an exhibit. The suitcase that Fumiko received was a replica of Hana's. The management at the Auschwitz museum had decided to recreate Hana's suitcase because so few possessions of children had survived the Holocaust, and because a clear photograph of the original suitcase was available—a photo taken by a childhood friend of Hana's who had seen the original in 1962 while touring Auschwitz. Fumiko didn't know that the suitcase she'd received was a replica, and Hana's family didn't spot the minor differences between the replica and the 1962 photograph until after they'd returned from Japan, where they'd met Fumiko and viewed what they thought was one of Hana's possessions.

Interacting with an object that belonged to someone who's departed from life but not our memories or our hearts can be a powerful experience. I drink tea from one of my late grandmother's mugs, one I remember her using. I sleep under a quilt that was hand-sewn by my great-grandmother. How would it feel to learn that the original mug or quilt had been lost and the ones I use actually came from a secondhand store or a stranger's garage sale? Disappointing, of course, but the older I grow, and the harder it becomes to organize and store and preserve all the things I've accumulated, the more I realize that what's really precious to me is not "stuff," but the ideas and memories that the stuff provokes. If the mug isn't really Grandma's, well, that's OK. It keeps the memories of Grandma alive for me.

"Disappointment" is likely an inadequate word to express what George, his family, and Fumiko felt when they learned that "Hana's suitcase" was just a replica. Given the shortness of Hana's life and the tragedy of its ending, any object that she'd owned would have been precious to them, but they realized that if it weren't for the loss of the original suitcase, Hana's story would probably have faded into obscurity. I don't know if "happy accident" is an appropriate term for these circumstances, but I'm grateful that I got to learn about Hana.

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