Forced into a Jewish ghetto in 1939 with her parents by the Nazi forces occupying her native Poland, 6-year-old Eva Unterman would go on to endure more than five years of captivity -- including a year in a variety of concentration or labor camps -- before her family was liberated in May 1945.
The longtime Tulsan understands how fortunate she was to survive an experience that millions of her fellow Jews did not.
"I see it as my obligation -- or I have for the last 20 years -- to tell about the other people, the children, who did not survive the Shoah," she said, referring to the Hebrew term she prefers to the word holocaust. "There were so many people we know nothing about. They just disappeared, vanished. And there's no one left from their family to tell about them."
Unterman serves as the coordinator for the 2011 Interfaith Holocaust Commemoration, an annual event sponsored by the Council for Holocaust Education -- a committee of the Jewish Federation of Tulsa -- in cooperation with a number of community and interfaith organizations, including the Circle Cinema and the Tulsa City-County Library. She said the theme for this year's 14th annual commemoration, "Searching for the Lost," is a reflection of the efforts of people around the world to try to determine the fate of friends or family members who disappeared in the Holocaust.
Unterman has been particularly enthralled with the work of Fumiko Ishioka, executive director of the Tokyo Holocaust Education Resource Center, to uncover the story of one of those victims -- a formerly forgotten teenage girl who was executed at Auschwitz during World War II. Ishioka visited the infamous concentration camp in 1999 and asked to borrow a child's object from the museum so she could display it for children in Japan. She was provided with a suitcase bearing a birth date and the name "Hanna Brady -- orphan."
From those simple clues, Ishioka was able to piece together what happened to Brady during the Holocaust and eventually tracked down her surviving brother in Toronto, Canada. The details of the girl's life -- and Ishioka's work to discover them -- were conveyed in the book Hana's Suitcase by Karen Levine in 2002. Since then, the book has been translated into 40 languages, while a documentary and a stage production dealing with Brady's life have followed.
Ishioka will serve as the featured speaker for this year's Yom Hashoah Commemoration at 7pm on Thursday, May 5 at Congregation B'nai Emunah, at 1719 S. Owasso Ave. She also will answer questions from the audience after a free showing of the documentary Inside Hana's Suitcase is held at 2pm on Sunday, May 1 at the Circle Cinema, 12 S. Lewis Ave.
Ishioka said her involvement in the project has been a singular experience. She had no idea what she was in for when she received the suitcase in 2000.
"I had never, ever imagined that my search for Hana would lead me to where I am," she wrote in an email from Tokyo. "Finding out all these details about the short life of one little girl, meeting with her surviving brother, who is my true hero now, and receiving so many wonderful responses from children all over the world."
Ishioka said she has been overwhelmed with messages from a number of Holocaust survivors since the publication of Hana's Suitcase, but it's clear the story resonates with people around the world -- especially young ones.
"It's a story of absolute tragedy, but it also has an element of hope," she said. "Many young readers are so moved and excited when they learned Hana's brother is still alive. Also, the whole search started with a very simple question, 'Who is Hana?,' by a group of ordinary students. I believe there are so many elements young readers can relate to. Hana was just their age, as well as those inquisitive Japanese kids."
Unterman was among those who were struck by the story, whose compelling nature can't be denied, she said.
Treasured Find. Ishioka said her involvement in the project has been a singular experience. She had no
idea what she was in for when she received the suitcase in 2000.
"When I first heard about it, I was very impressed, and I still am," she said. "Just think about it -- a teacher in Japan is concerned about what happened to children in Nazi-occupied Europe. She begins pursuing this, studying about it, and goes to Poland, eventually getting this suitcase to Tokyo. And now, 60 some years after World War II, this Japanese lady is coming to Tulsa, Okla., to tell us about Hana. I think that just shows how incredibly small our planet is, how we're all interconnected. I'm amazed by it."
Unterman said she kept the story of her own survival during the Holocaust to herself until 1978. Many of her fellow survivors -- and the American servicemen who liberated them at the end of the war -- simply were not ready to talk about the horrors they had lived through or seen for many, many years, she said. Nor was much of the world ready to hear it.
"We just wanted to go on with our lives," she said. "Our stories then would have been so bizarre to people. No one asked about it or wanted to be told. It was too early to tell our stories."
That began to change in the 1970s, she said, with the airing of the NBC-TV miniseries Holocaust, the publication of numerous books on the subject and the opening of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. At the request of a local teacher, Unterman herself began speaking to students about her experiences as a Shoah survivor in 1978, and she now estimates she has spoken before hundreds of such groups.
The message she tries to convey, she said, is about promoting tolerance.
"I always tell students, 'It always starts with a word,'" she said. "Bigotry and prejudice can lead to hate. Kids repeat what they hear, and if they start hearing something early enough, they'll believe it. We have to prevent that in our daily lives. It's the same thing with bullying. I tell them to be kind to other kids, be kind to animals, respect nature, respect others."
Ishioka's message is much the same, she said.
"It's the message of tolerance, compassion and understanding," she wrote. "Hana wanted to be a school teacher. Thought she's not here with us, by learning those lessons of history, we can make her dreams come true."
Parking for the Yom Hashoah Commemoration on May 5 is limited, but Unterman said free shuttle buses would be running between Congregation B'nai Emunah and Temple Israel, just south of Utica Square.
For more information about the commemoration, call the Jewish Federation of Tulsa at 918-495-1100. To request a copy of Hana's Suitcase from the Tulsa City-County Library, call 918-549-7323. To learn more about the story of Hana Brady, visit insidehanassuitcase.com.
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