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...
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…
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