Docu-drama tells story of Hana's Suitcase

The story of Hana's Suitcase has been the subject of a children's book, a TV documentary and a play, but filmmaker Larry Weinstein believes it's worth telling yet again.

The story of Hana's Suitcase has been the subject of a children's book, a TV documentary and a play, but filmmaker Larry Weinstein believes it's worth telling yet again.

His feature film, Inside Hana's Suitcase, which has its commercial release Friday, is a docudrama that combines a re-creation of Hana's life with the modern story of how her experience continues to speak to children around the world.

Weinstein, a Toronto documentary maker who has made music-themed films such as Overtures: The Story of a Community Orchestra and Solidarity Song: The Hanns Eisler Story, says the book moved him the first time he read it.

Suitcase from Auschwitz showed up in Japan

The real Hana's suitcase, an empty suitcase with her name and the word "orphan" in white paint, was retrieved from Auschwitz, where 13-year-old Hana Brady was gassed in 1944.

"I didn't want to make a Holocaust film," Weinstein told CBC's Q cultural affairs show. "I found the subject very dark and to be a potentially traumatizing thing, but someone handed me the book and said, 'You've been doing this dramatic blend of drama and documentary, why not?'

"It is written like a film — it crosses between different eras and different continents. I felt this would be more powerful as hybrid documentary and drama, and that's what I was trying for."

Inside Hana's Suitcaselooks at how the suitcase unlocked the memories of George Brady, Hana's brother, now living in Canada, and led to the creation of the book and its spinoffs.

The story, with its child's point of view, seems to move other children in the same way The Diary of Anne Frank has impressed youngsters with the reality of the Holocaust, Weinstein said.

That's why he let kids tell the story, even changing the action to suit their words, he said.

"The children in the film who are the omniscient storytellers are from Toronto and Czech Republic and Japan," he said.

That device was inspired by the thousands of letters to George Brady from children around the world that came after the publication of Karen Levine's book, Hana's Suitcase.

"They tell me, it changed my life," Brady said in an interview aired Wednesday on CBC. "Kids don't realize what it means to have parents and have siblings and have freedom."

George and Hana Brady were Czech Jews living in a small town. Their parents were sent to concentration camps before them, and they were sent to Theresienstadt, the Jewish ghetto in Czechoslovakia, where they survived for two years before being shipped off to Auschwitz.

"I was sent in September of '44 to Auschwitz, and I passed the selection because they needed workers, and Hana, who was only 13, didn't look like a worker, so I know that they killed her right away," Brady said.

Film has message of hope

Brady came to Canada and became a plumber and raised a family. He said he didn't tell his family much about his past.

"Well, there was no need to burden my kids that somehow they should feel sorry for me," he said. "If you know me, it's my nature that I like to tell happy stories and fun stories, but the sad ones, you have to tackle it sometime."

Brady's daughter, Lara Hana, began asking questions, and then, nine years ago, he got a letter from Fumiko Ishioka, the executive director of the Holocaust Museum in Tokyo.

"The letter said that they happened to have my sister's suitcase, and one of the biggest surprises, again that I didn't know, they found out that my sister's paintings … arrived from Theresienstadt. They are displayed now in a museum in Prague. I had no idea about them," he said.

That unlocked a floodgate of memories for Brady, and he began to tell his story publicly, as Weinstein shows in his film.

Weinstein works Fumiko into the film — looking at Hana's paintings and imagining, through animated sequences, what Hana would have seen. He uses historical footage, as well as interviews with surviving relatives and schoolmates and the voices of children today.

Weinstein said festival-goers who have seen the film come away with a positive message, "because it's about hope and humanity and compassion. That's a reflection of George, Fumiko and Lara," he said.

Brady says the film does a remarkable job of depicting key moments in his family's life, including the long-haired Russian wolfhound that was the family pet and the 1936 Mercedes the Gestapo used to take his father away.

Hana's Suitcase was a CBC TV documentary by Joe Schlesinger and a play by Emil Sher as well as a CBC radio documentary.

Inside Hana's Suitcase opens Friday in Toronto, Nov. 13 in Vancouver and Nov. 20 in Montreal.

With files from the Canadian Press