Packing Hana’s bags

08/18/2011 23:57   By BARRY DAVIS

Howard Rypp’s emotive and acclaimed Israeli production about the efforts of a Japanese instructor to teach the Holocaust, and what they led to, is in the running for a prestigious national award next week in Givatayim.

Photo by: Courtesy

Howard Rypp set out his stall as an exponent of Jewish tradition and social-minded theater back in his native Toronto. In 1978, along with Gabriel Emanuel, he founded Nephesh Theater which, says Rypp, “was the only professional Jewish theater operating in Canada at that time.” On Monday, Rypp’s acclaimed Israeli production of Hana’s Suitcase is in the running for the Children and Young People Interdisciplinary Award for 2010-11. The event will take place at Givatayim Theater (starting 8:30 p.m.) in the presence of Minister of Culture and Sport Limor Livnat.

The competition encompasses 22 shows from 14 theater companies and independent producers across the country. Awards in several categories are in the offing, including writing, acting, directing, design and best show. The awards are the brainchild of the Ministry of Culture and Sport, and the Israeli branch of ASSITEJ – the International Association of Theater for Children and Young People, which has 83 centers around the globe.

Rypp calls Hana’s Suitcase one of the most emotive shows he has worked on in his three-and-a-half-decade career, during which he has directed and acted in such productions as Children of Night, about renowned Jewish educator Jansuz Korczak; Einstein, Nephesh’s first Hebrew production, co-produced with the Habimah National Theater; and his one-man show Gimpel the Fool, with which Rypp periodically tours abroad.

“We were just in Prague with Hana’s Suitcase. It’s a very inspiring story,” says the 56-year-old director-actor. “It has been very gratifying to work on it because I was able to meet all the people that are still living.

Obviously, a lot of the characters perished in the Holocaust, but I have met Fumiko [Ishioka], the Japanese teacher who started the whole thing.” Ishioka attended the premiere of Hana’s Suitcase, which took place in April 2010.

Indeed Ishioka, the 40-year-old director of the Tokyo Holocaust Education Center, is “guilty as charged.” Around 10 years ago, she was working with a bunch of Japanese youngsters who were looking into the Holocaust and, as a means of conveying some of the impact of the time to her young wards, she decided to try and track down various personal items that had belonged to children who had been in the Holocaust. After investing quite a lot of effort in the venture, she eventually received a number of artifacts from the Auschwitz Museum in Poland. Among them was an empty suitcase bearing the name “Hanna Brady,” her date of birth – May 16, 1931 – and the word “waisenkind” (orphan). The original owner’s given name was misspelled. “That set Fumiko on a hunt to find out who Hana Brady was,” Rypp continues, adding that he has a more direct connection with the heroine of the play. “I also met Hana’s [older] brother, George Brady, who survived and lives in Canada – and, it turns out, was a good friend of my late aunt.” Hana Brady was born in Nové Mesto, Czechoslovakia.

She and George watched their parents being arrested and taken away by the Nazis. The children were sent to the concentration camp and, in 1944, Hana was deported to Auschwitz. George survived by working as a laborer, but Hana was sent to the gas chambers a few hours after her arrival at Auschwitz, on October 23, 1944.

Rypp says that George’s part in the play, both as a character in the storyline and as a real-life contributor to the story, is something of a miraculous turnabout, in several senses. “For a start, his survival of the Holocaust is amazing..

“About 10 years ago, George gets this letter from Fumiko Ishioka, saying that she doesn’t want to hurt his feelings, but she’d like him to write to her students about Hana, [about] who she was,” continues Rypp,” and George did write back to Fumiko with Hana’s story.” Word got out, and the amazing story subsequently spawned a book by Ottawa-based author Karen Levine, called Hana’s Suitcase: A True Story, which won the 2002 Sydney Taylor Award for Older Readers. The book has obviously hit a universal nerve and has been translated into 40 languages. The play, written by Emil Sher, has been performed all over North America, in Europe and also in Japan.

Rypp says that among all the globe-trotting he has done with the play, last month’s performance in Prague was very moving. “We were chosen to do the Czech premiere of the play, in Hebrew, with Czech subtitles. I was very proud to do that.”

Mind you, Rypp confesses it took him a while to get up and running with Hana’s Suitcase. “The idea was thrown at me a few times, and I kept saying it won’t go well in Israel. I read the book and I was very moved by it – but I thought that Israelis were so saturated with the Holocaust, what would we care about some Japanese woman doing something with her school in Tokyo? I didn’t think it suited the Israeli mentality.” Rypp had a change of heart three years ago, when he went to visit his aunt in Canada.

“The playwright, Emil Sher, is a good friend of a good friend of mine, and he heard I was in Canada and came to meet me. I told him I really liked the story, but that I didn’t think it would go down well in Israel, in Hebrew.

He said I should read his adaptation, and then decide.” That did the trick. “I was blown away by the drama-turgy. The play was developed in such a way that Hana and all her family appear at the beginning as ghosts and, as the Japanese learn more and more about Hana, and get closer and closer to her, it becomes less stylized and more natural and real. That’s really excited me theatrically.” The roles gradually interchange as the play progresses, with the Brady family members becoming corporeal characters, while the Japanese turn into ethereal spectators.

“That was what prompted me to do the play, and I had so many wonderful experiences during the process, and meeting all these incredible people.” Besides providing gripping entertainment and, hopefully, winning an award here and there, Rypp is also very keen to convey important messages through his work. “When I first moved here, I started doing theater in English but, after a while, I realized that I didn’t come to Israel to do plays for tourists, I came here to make an impact on society. That’s when I started working on doing plays in Hebrew, and that’s what I’ve been doing – directing – for the last 30 or so years. “It is only recently that I started acting in Hebrew, with Gimpel the Fool, which I have done in Romania, Russia and Prague – at the Nine Gates Festival, at which Hana’s Suitcase was also presented.

The Nephesh Theater website credo states that the theater’s productions “reflect a plurality of beliefs, depicting different communities within Israeli society that must develop a common language and achieve mutual respect.” The plays also aim to emphasize common bonds rather than dwelling on differences.

Rypp’s eventual enthusiasm for producing a Hebrew rendition of Hana’s Suitcase has evidently been conveyed to the theatrical powers that be, and the play is a strong contender for this year’s Children and Young People Interdisciplinary Award. Judging by the kudos the play has garnered across the world, the universality of the Nephesh Theater message is hitting home.