Coming of age is challenging in the best of times; under unfathomably oppressive circumstances like the Holocaust, coming of age has the potential to erase a childhood entirely. Hana’s Suitcase: A True Story pieces together the life of a girl who never was able to realize her hopes and dreams. A victim of the Holocaust, Hana became encapsulated in her material belongings, left behind for others to interpret and comprehend. Hana’s Suitcase bridges cultural barriers because the suitcase is discovered by Japanese people endeavoring to understand what Hana went through and what her ordeal means for humanity as a whole. “Really, it’s a very ordinary-looking suitcase. A little tattered around the edges, but in good condition,” the narrative begins (Levine 1). The opening line summarizes the innocence of the title character, Hana, whose life becomes a symbol of everything the Holocaust itself represents: the tragedy of human existence.
Japan provides the apt backdrop within which to explore the themes related to the Holocaust. As Levine points out, Japan allied itself with Nazi Germany, creating complicity in the affairs leading to the annihilation of millions of Jews. Hana’s Suitcase therefore becomes a metaphor for humanity’s own coming of age. Just as a child’s innocence is forever lost in the horrors of the Holocaust, humanity can no longer feign ignorance. The Holocaust serves as a wake-up call, a sort of puberty for the masses of humanity. As a growing pain, the Holocaust entails tremendous suffering but also remarkable transformations that might not have taken place without such a dramatic background. The tale is a “story of terrible sadness and great joy, a reminder of the brutality of the past and of hope for the future,” (Levine 3). In many ways, Hana’s tale parallels the Jewish experience.
Eichler-Levine notes that Jewish children’s literature frequently and curiously conflates the holiday of lights, Hanukkah, with the Holocaust. Like many Jewish holidays, Hanukkah commemorates an event in the temporal past in which the Jewish people survived persecution, trauma, and tragedy. In the case of Hanukkah, a small amount of oil was extended to fill the lamps of all who needed them, a small but meaningful miracle denoting collective sharing of resources and shared suffering. Hana’s suitcase likewise represents one person’s belongings but simultaneously the entire Jewish experience. Anti-Semitism is a pervasive theme in the Bible precisely because it is a reminder of human cruelty. Even if Hanukkah does not feature in Hana’s Suitcase specifically, the fact that the holiday parallels the coming-of-age themes like liberation exhibits the same kind of “historical flattening, eliding the substantial differences between these two moments of persecution,” (Eichler-Levine 92).
For a child, coming of age is like the emergence from slavery to freedom. Jewish children are together linked by a collective knowledge of suffering and slavery. As Rothberg points out, it is not just Hanukkah that becomes a potent analogy for coming of age during the Holocaust but an even more important and eventful holiday: Passover. Hana is the “far-flung descendent of a people born in slavery and who emerged out of it three thousand years ago,” (Rothberg 149). However, Hana finds herself again in a situation similar to that of her very own ancestors. Fumiko Ishioka and his students contemplate the fact that history repeats itself until individual human beings are intelligent, willing, and able to stop the cycle of violence, oppression, and ignorance. Likewise, coming of age is a major transformation of the human spirit. The individual has been trapped in the state of childhood, a form of perceived and subjective slavery. One is fully dependent on the parents and other elders for subsistence and nourishment, and feels ambivalent about reaching adulthood. On the one hand, being subservient and subordinate means complacency and ease of attaining necessary resources. On the other hand, slavery restricts freedom and inspiration and causes deep frustration and the death of a human soul. Coming of age is never easy, but it is surely necessary “without idealizing or mythologizing victims and without necessarily ascribing coherent meaning to their experiences,” (Rogers 1). The journey of childhood into adulthood requires no deep analysis or overanalyzing of events and experiences. It does, however, require compassion and empathy.
Children are consumed with curiosity, which is why Hana’s suitcase becomes a point of reference and interest for the Japanese students in Hana’s Suitcase. The curiosity that corresponds with coming of age is played out in parallel with the Japanese children eager to absorb and process information about Hana. Piecing together the fragments of Hana’s life, told through secondary objects, is a game and a puzzle that piques the interest of children and adults alike. “Fumiko had always been her protector, and she tried to imagine what she would do if her little sister were in danger,” (Levine 7). A sense of growing up means learning how to care for others and extend one’s locus of awareness and consciousness beyond the self-centeredness of childhood. Whereas children experience love for those close to them, adults have the capacity to expand their minds and hearts to encompass those they have never met, like Hana. Hana herself never had the opportunity to come of age, dying as she did as a child in the Holocaust. She was a victim of human cruelty so completely unfathomable to the children learning about her life, that the story of Hana as told through her belongings becomes a lesson and a warning extolling the virtues of ethical behavior.
Coming of age, transitioning from childhood to adulthood, means bridging the gap between self and others. While all people must ultimately grapple with the means by which to take care of the self while also acknowledging the needs and wants of others, the Holocaust raises greater questions about the evil in human nature. Are all people capable of unimaginable cruelty, or is the Holocaust a truly isolated event? As Levine points out, the Nazis portrayed the Jews as “evil,” leading to a massive campaign of mind control and brainwashing that enabled the perpetration of the genocide (“Nove Mesto, 1939”). The multitude of perspectives that are revealed through Hana’s artifacts adds maturity to the situation. When reaching adulthood, one must always remember that the world is diverse and heterogeneous. Hana has become the hallmark for innocence, like Anne Frank. The experiences of children during the Holocaust show that once human beings reach the age of maturity and become classified as adults, they may be capable of harm and annihilation that only the most brutal bully would appreciate.
Coming of age represents the tragedy of human existence, symbolized by the Holocaust. The ability to learn from the Holocaust and mature from it with wisdom epitomizes the ideal response to the tragedy. Moreover, coming of age is both a collective and personal occasion. Hana’s Suitcase represents the journey from childhood to adulthood in deeply symbolic ways. A suitcase symbolizes travel, but in the case of Levine’s story, the items contained therein also tell the story of humanity as it continues to unfold its tragic-comedy upon the world. The Japanese children depicted in the book had also witnessed tragedy and suffering, and the nation of Japan has had its own coming of age. Maturity means empathizing with those who might be different but who have also suffered, and through the collective consciousness can come to terms with how to live a life more ethical, whole, and just. The development of intelligence and human maturity evolves in Hana’s Suitcase, through the eyes of distant human beings, having a deep effect on the overall meaning of the story as readers contemplate cruelty, suffering, forgiveness, and growth.
Eichler-Levine, Jodi. “The Curious Conflation of Hanukkah and the Holocaust in Jewish Children’s Literature.” Shofar. Vol. 28, No. 2, Winter 2010.
Levine, Karen. Hana’s Suitcase. Morton Grove, IL: Whitman, 2002.
Rogers, Theresa. “Understanding in the Absence of Meaning: Coming of Age Narratives of the Holocaust.” Open Journal Systems Demonstration Journal Vol. 1, No. 1, 2005.
Rothberg, Michael. Multidirectional Memory. Stanford University Press, 2009.