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Mapleshade students contact Holocaust survivor

Date: 3/9/2009

By Courtney Llewellyn

Reminder Assistant Editor

EAST LONGMEADOW -- It began with a book.

In December, Susan Kingston, a fourth grade teacher at Mapleshade School, read "Hana's Suitcase" by Karen Levine to her class. The book tells the story of Hana Brady, a young victim of the Holocaust, and Children's Holocaust Education Center curator Fumiko Ishioka, who works diligently to track down the story of Hana's life after her empty suitcase generates a lot of interest from center visitors.

"The story takes place in the past and in the present," Kingston explained. "Hana's suitcase had the German word 'waisenkind,' or orphan, on it. People wanted to know more about it."

Ishioka's research intrigued the students in Kingston's classroom as well. Ishioka had discovered that Hana and her parents had both perished during the Holocaust but her brother, George Brady, had survived.

"They wanted to know more about Hana and her brother," Kingston said of her students. She took it upon herself to find George, but the only thing she and her class knew about him was that he lived in Canada.

"I called every George Brady I could find," Kingston said. "At 4:45 that day he [Hana's brother] called me back. I talked to him for a half-hour." George told Kingston about his life before and after the concentration camps, how his sister had always wanted to be a teacher and how she is now teaching children all over the world about tolerance.

Kingston's class sent a letter to George just before Christmas, thanking him for speaking with their teacher. The class sent him pictures and poems to illustrate how his story had affected them and asked him to write back.

After the holiday break, George responded to the students: "Learning about the impact that Hana has had on so many people is an incredible phenomenon for our family. Nothing can change the loss of my sister but knowing that she is remembered and perhaps even improving the world makes an enormous difference."

In addition to his letter, George also sent the class signed copies of a photograph of himself and Hana when they were young children and copies of "the Brady Bunch 2008." George is now 80 years old.

"It was awesome," student Peter DeStephano said of the experience of corresponding with a Holocaust survivor. He added that writing to George was different than writing to a pen pal, because he didn't know if George would write them back.

"With a pen pal, you never really know anything [at first]," student Kate Baker said. "We knew about his whole life."

The class agreed the book has made them more interested in learning about their own family histories.

"We learned about the history of that time [World War II]," Emily Goggin said.

"We learned to treat everybody the same," Nina Fazio added.

Principal Brenda Houle said she was excited about what Kingston and her class did.

"Their teacher really listened to them," Houle said of the students. "She helped them pursue it. I was almost in tears when I heard about what they had done."