After his sister and parents were murdered during the Holocaust, George Brady immigrated to Canada in 1951 and began a new life, starting a plumbing business, marrying and raising four children.
Then one day in 2000, he received mail from a stranger in Japan. “Please forgive me if my letter hurts you [by] reminding you of your difficult experiences,” a woman in Tokyo wrote to him. “... We would like to know about the time you spent with Hana before you were sent to the camp.”
It was another life-changing moment for the Czech-born Mr. Brady, who had been deported by the Nazis at 14, had survived Auschwitz but still felt responsible for the death of his sister, Hana.
In the years after he received the letter from Japan, Mr. Brady became famous around the globe as a protagonist in Hana’s Suitcase, a bestseller about him and Hana and their journey as Jewish children under the Nazis.
Mr. Brady died on Jan. 11 of heart failure, his daughter, Lara, said. He was 90.
He had spent much of the past two decades speaking about his experience, the memory of his sister and the importance of peace and tolerance.
The eldest of two children, Jiri Brady was born in Prague on Feb. 9, 1928. He grew up in Nove Mesto, a ski resort in the Moravia region, where his parents, Karel and Marketa, ran a general store.
He and his sister, Hana, had a comfortable childhood. By the time he was 11, however, Czechoslovakia had been occupied by the Germans. Jews like the Bradys had to live under a curfew and a series of anti-Semitic decrees gradually barred them from public places.
In March, 1941, Marketa was arrested for sending money to her brother in occupied Belgium. She was deported to the Ravensbruck concentration camp. Six months later, Karel was also arrested. He and his wife died separately in Auschwitz in 1942.
Left without parents, Jiri and Hana moved in with a Catholic uncle. However, in May, 1942, Jiri, who was 14, and Hana, who was about to turn 11, were deported to the fortress town of Terezin. Known in German as Theresienstadt, it was a Potemkin-like ghetto that was in fact a transit camp holding Jews until they were sent to their deaths.
Jiri and Hana had to live in different barracks. He became an apprentice plumber and managed to keep contact with his sister. Despite the overcrowding, the outbreaks of typhoid, the bunk beds infested with fleas, he and other boys kept up their spirits by secretly publishing a handwritten magazine, Vedem, documenting life in their cell block.
By the fall of 1944, Mr. Brady was sent to the Auschwitz extermination camp, weeks ahead of his sister.
Packed into a cattle car, he arrived in the middle of the night, amid screaming guards and barking dogs. “Show that you’re healthy,” a prisoner whispered to him. When he appeared before an SS officer who was separating the new arrivals, Mr. Brady said “Gesund,” German for healthy, and was among those kept for slave labour.
As they walked into the camp, prisoners shouted at them: “Throw us your food, you’ll lose it anyway.” Someone tossed a tin of sardines but when a female inmate tried to pick it up, she was shot by a guard, Mr. Brady recalled in a video testimony for the USC Shoah Foundation.
He was 16, but claimed he was an 18-year-old iron worker. He was rejected but slipped into a group that was sent to to one of the Gleiwitz satellite camps of Auschwitz, where he worked in a railway repair shop.
He did his best to survive in the camp’s filthy, brutal conditions. A guard beat him up after he had been wrongly accused of smuggling a spoon. He injured a leg and went to the infirmary, but an orderly got him to leave before the patients were selected to be gassed.
There was so much cruelty and violence that “you become indifferent to it and you even felt good when somebody was beaten because you were happy it wasn’t you,” Mr. Brady recalled.
In January, 1945, the Auschwitz camp complex was evacuated ahead of the approaching Soviet army. Mr. Brady joined the other Gleiwitz prisoners on a forced march.
After four days, they reached another camp, Blechhammer. Soviet troops attacked the next morning and in the confusion Mr. Brady and several others escaped, arriving in an abandoned village where they found civilian clothes.
After the war, he returned to his hometown and waited for his parents and sister. “I was hoping against all hopes that somebody would return but nobody did.”
He learned that Hana had been taken to Auschwitz a few weeks after him and sent to the gas chambers immediately.
“My knees practically folded. It was a blow. I was free but … they are dead. That was it,” he said in a video testimony for Toronto’s Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre.
After settling in Toronto, he thought he had adjusted but in the 1990s began to suffer from insomnia, waking up after dreaming about Hana. “My sister had gone to her death alone. I felt responsible,” he told The Globe and Mail.
Around that time in Japan, Fumiko Ishioka, the director of the Tokyo Holocaust Education Resource Center, had convinced the Auschwitz Museum to lend to her institution five artifacts that could be shown to Japanese children. One of the items was a suitcase on which was written Hana’s name, her birth date and the word Waisenkind – orphan.
The children’s curiosity about Hana’s fate led Ms. Ishioka to discover that the little girl had been deported from Terezin. Visiting the camp, the Japanese curator learned that Hana had a brother and found Mr. Brady’s address.
After Ms. Ishioka contacted Mr. Brady in 2000, a CBC producer, Karen Levine, made a documentary about them, then turned it into a book. It became a bestseller translated into 40 languages, used as school material, and adapted for the stage and the silver screen.
In 2004, Mr. Brady’s daughter, Lara, noticed differences between the suitcase sent to Japan and old photographs of it. It turned out that the original had been destroyed in a fire so the item sent by the Auschwitz Museum to Ms. Ishioka was a replica.
“If Auschwitz had not created a replica … the story of my sister’s life would never have been told," Mr. Brady told The Globe after the Auschwitz Museum apologized to him.
Mr. Brady leaves his wife, Teresa; their daughter, Lara; sons Douglas, Paul and David, from his first marriage, to Carol Brady; and 12 grandchildren.
In writing his death notice, his children said Mr. Brady often remarked how his parents would have been proud to see how the family had thrived in Canada. “This was his vindication; that he won out in the end.”