From Czechia, to Toronto and Japan, the Brady family leaves a legacy

George Brady

The Brady family, originally from Nové Město na Moravě, has an inspiring story that spans generations and continents. George Brady, immigrated to Toronto, Canada after surviving Auschwitz and fleeing communism. Having promised himself as a prisoner that he would never turn his back on people in need if he survived the war, he assisted expats and helped to educate young people about the Holocaust.

On a recent visit home to Toronto, I met with Lara Hana Brady, daughter of George Brady, to find out more about his life story, going right back to his idyllic early childhood in Moravia.

Nové Město na Moravě

“He had a really normal Czech life. He grew up cross-country skiing and going to school. His family was very invested in the town because they ran the general store and so they were involved in exporting coffee across the province, they had a gas station, so they were very tied into the town life. George and his sister Hana, who was born in 1931, were the only two Jewish children in the town at the time.”

Brady's family store in Nové Město na Moravě | Photo: Archive of George Brady/Paměť národa

In the early years life was good for the two siblings, but as war clouds gathered over Europe in the late 1930s, the family’s fate began to change and restrictions on the Jewish community began to creep in. Lara says George was about 10 at the time.

“The first disaster that befalls them was when they were no longer able to go to school. Not only did they lose all of their friends, but they lost their education. Overnight, Hana and George were stuck at home. Their parents really valued education, so they hired someone in the town to teach the kids at home.

“Then, my grandmother – George’s mother, sent money to her brother, who had escaped the country. It was probably the equivalent of $50, but a list was found of the people who had helped him escape. She was sent to prison and ended up in Ravensbrück, which was a terrible concentration camp for women, and eventually she was deported to Auschwitz. So suddenly she was sent away overnight – and it was devastating for the family.”

Hana and George with their mother | Photo: Archive of George Brady/Paměť národa

George and Hana were still reeling from the loss of their mother when, shortly after, the town of Nové Město was declared “judenfrei”, meaning free from Jews. The afternoon that the new rule was declared, their father was arrested, leaving the children completely alone. But as Lara told me, a knock on the door changed their fate.

“It was a small town, and news travelled fast. There was a knock on the door, and it was their uncle by marriage who was Catholic and not taken away. At a great risk to himself, he took the children in without a question. They stayed with their aunt and uncle for a couple of months, and in May of 1942, Hana and George got their deportation notice and they ended up in the Terezín ghetto.

“It was a scary thing because they had no idea what they were packing for or how long they were going to be gone for. Their uncle who they were staying with was so traumatized about the idea of sending the children into the unknown, that he could not even take them to the train station, he had his brother take them.”

Hana and George Brady | Photo: Archive of George Brady/Paměť národa

Hana celebrated her 10th birthday on the transport train to Terezín. George snuck some candies from their general store onto the train to give to Hana, in order to achieve some normality in the midst of the fear of heading into the unknown. The siblings were separated upon arrival, with George being sent to bunk with the other boys. Lara explains to me that the adults in Terezín kept a watchful eye on the children, even organising covert schools for them. She recalls Hana’s experience.

Terezín | Photo: Terezín Memorial

“Terezín was this boiler of incredibly educated intellectuals from the Czech community. Violinists, musicians, philosophers and scientists. These adults actually organized secret schools for the children – so we have my Aunt Hana’s report cards from Terezín. She was learning geography and history, and she had an incredible art teacher. Terezín itself was an interesting place for children – it was particularly brutal for the elderly, but kids were a little more protected by the grownups.”

At the end of 1944, after two years in the ghetto, George was on the first transport train from Terezín to Auschwitz, and was put into slave labour at the death camp. Liberated from one of the death marches, he returned home in 1945. But the status of his sister was unknown.

“When George got home, he ran into a girl who he knew from the camps who said she went with Hana to Auschwitz. She said she had done her hair thinking that she would be reunited with her brother in Auschwitz, but instead as soon as she arrived, they shaved her head and sent her to the gas chambers.

Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp | Photo: Yad Vashem,  public domain

"George was keen to live up to the legacy of his parents."

“For my father, it was a really tough blow. But he was keen to live up to the legacy of his parents. There was a family store to run, and he got it up and running again. He was only 17 and really knew nothing about the business, but he had a lot of friends and a lot of former employees around him who helped him figure it out.”

After getting the family business back up and running, another blow hit Czechoslovakia that pushed George to leave his homeland.

George Brady | Photo: GEN/Czech Television

“And then the communists rolled into Czechoslovakia. He [George] decided that he had lived under enough dictatorship and difficulty. He managed to get on a train that was supposed to be going to Israel, even though he had no interest in going there. He jumped on the train in Vienna, and escaped into the free American zone. He stayed there for a few months and tried to figure out how to get to the US – but their quota was full. But he had a relative who lived in Toronto, and he was able to go. As soon as he arrived, he knew it was going to be a good, fresh start.”

While starting a new life in Toronto kept him busy, Lara says George never forgot about Nové Město and the place would always be “home” for him.

"What was interesting was that he never looked backwards, but he always had very strong ties to home."

“What was interesting was that he never looked backwards, but he always had very strong ties to home. Every time we went back to Nové Město, his family’s original house was still referred to as “The Brady’s”, because they were so well liked in the town. The moment that everything opened up after 1989, it was really important for my dad to support free speech, and so he was really involved in the opening of newspapers that were bastions of free speech. They had really old printing presses at the time, and my dad fundraised here in Toronto so they could have new ones in order to have access to news that is printed. Helping democracy was really important to him.”

Brady’s efforts to support and help his country didn’t go unnoticed. In 2016, he was notified that he would be the recipient of the Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk award on October 28 for his life’s achievements. This award is given to individuals who have made outstanding achievements in the developments of democracy and human rights. But while the family prepared to make the trip to Prague for the award ceremony, a wrench was thrown into the plans.

“It’s one of the highest civilian awards you can get. At the time, my cousin was in politics, he was the minister of cultural affairs. He had been meeting with the Dalai Lama, and the president at the time was good friends with the Chinese government. They rescinded the invitation, and then lied about it– which was just bananas. We had everything booked because we knew when the ceremony was. It ended up leaking to the press that he was no longer getting the award. Suddenly, all of the Czech Republic opened up their hearts and my father got every single major award that year. His relationship with Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic stayed strong, and as a family we’ve kept strong ties as well.”

Toronto | Photo: Anna,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

Canada is known as a ‘melting pot’ for its cultural diversity, especially cities like Toronto who have neighbourhoods like Little India, Little Italy, and Korea Town. I was curious what it was like to grow up Czech-Canadian, so I asked Lara.

"Being Czech was such a part of my childhood. The community in Toronto was not only survivors but also Czech expats. It was a super warm, familial environment."

“Being Czech was such a part of my childhood. The community in Toronto was not only survivors but also Czech expats. It was a super warm, familial environment. There were many funny moments in my family, because my brothers don’t speak Czech. There were often terrible miscommunications about buchty and buřt. The former means sausages, while buchty is a dessert. The two of them would go to the Czech deli and order the wrong thing – instead of ordering sausages, they brought dessert.”

While life went on for the Brady family in Toronto, in August of 2000, a discovery was made about George’s late sister Hana who died in Auschwitz. Lara recalls that the family received a letter that came in from a museum director in Japan.

Fumiko Ishioka | Photo: GEN/Czech Television

“This museum director, Fumiko Ishioka wrote to us and said ‘I have your sister's suitcase here in Japan, and I’m teaching children with it’, and we went ‘what?!’. It turned out that she was trying to counteract the rise of bullying and suicides in Japanese schools, and she was trying to figure out different ways to help kids learn about other children in difficult situations and history. She was working at the Holocaust Museum in Tokyo, and wrote to all these museums asking to borrow artefacts. Finally, one museum relented and sent her a suitcase, an empty clan of zyklon B, which was used in the gas chambers, a child’s sock, sweater, and shoe.

“All of it was interesting, but the suitcase had a name on it – Hana Brady. It had what looked like her date of birth, and had this big German name written across it – ‘waisenkind’, which means orphan.”

Hana's suitcase | Photo: Archive of George Brady/Paměť národa

But how did a museum director in Japan find the rest of the Brady family in Toronto? Pressure from her pupils to learn more about Hana Brady, made Fumiko dig deeper for answers.

Hana Brady | Photo: Archive of George Brady/Paměť národa

“The Japanese kids were wondering about this little girl and wanted to know more. Fumiko started to research, and her research ended up taking her from Auschwitz where the suitcase started, to Terezín, to Prague and to one of the experts at a museum who said the name Brady looked familiar. Fumiko got her hands on a list that had a checkmark next to all the people who had died, and just above Hana’s name, was George’s name with no checkmark.”

Fumiko was desperate to know if George was still alive, and a woman that was assisting her on the case recognized the name George Brady. By finding one of George’s bunkmates from Terezin, Fumiko was able to get in touch with the Brady family. This sent them on a trip across the world.

George Brady | Photo: Kristýna Maková,  Radio Prague International

“It was before the internet and google, and my father’s bunkmate said he knew George Brady from Terezín. We connected with Fumiko and flew to Japan to meet her and the kids. It was a life changing event, and we realised that kids want to know about history, but also other kids who are in similar circumstances.”

The trip to Japan inspired Lara and her dad to speak more about their family’s story. They began visiting schools and giving talks to a broader audience, as Lara explained.

“We started speaking in schools, and a reporter from the CBC created a radio documentary about the story that was later made into a book. It’s also a documentary in both English and Czech now.

George Brady | Photo: GEN/Czech Television

"My dad lost everyone and started fresh in a country where he had no one. But throughout his life, his mantra was ‘I have to help people in need’.”

“What we’ve realised is that this isn’t just a Jewish story, it’s a story about kids. Hana’s Suitcase is this incredible tool that we’ve been able to share where kids can learn about history, difficult circumstances, and what you can do with that. Here in Canada, especially for immigrants or those who are new to the country, they hear this story of resilience. My dad lost everyone and started fresh in a country where he had no one – only one uncle. He had to start over, but he created a whole life here. But throughout his life, his mantra was ‘I have to help people in need’.”

Photo: GEN/Czech Television

Helping people – a promise that George had made to himself after an event he witnessed during the war.

“During the war, there was one moment where my dad saw a group of prisoners being shamed, and no one could do anything about it or stand up for them. He made a promise to himself that day, that if he survived, he would never be one of those people or turn his back on anyone.

"His phone number was shared all across Czechoslovakia, and people knew that when they got off the plane as an expat or refugee, that there was one guy in Toronto, who had their back.”

“His phone number was shared all across Czechoslovakia, and people knew that when they got off the plane as an expat or refugee, they could call him. And hundreds and hundreds of people called my father and got a job, or advice, or a contact – or even just a familiar face, knowing that there was one guy in Toronto, who had their back.”

George Brady passed away on January 11th, 2019 at the age of 90. The family was flooded with stories of people George had helped throughout his life, and Lara recalled one in particular.

“One woman wrote to us that she got off the plane as a refugee in 1968, and there was a man waiting in the arrival section. He was handing out $25 gift cards to the Hudson’s Bay, and she bought her first pair of winter boots for Canada with that gift card from my father – that was just dad.”

George Brady and his daughter Lara | Photo: GEN/Czech Television

Even after the passing of George, keeping the family’s Czech roots and traditions strong is important to Lara, especially as she raises her three children today in Toronto.

George Brady's family | Photo: GEN/Czech Television

“Our lives are very meshed with Czech culture. If you come to our cottage, it’s really like a Czech chata. My father’s legacy in our family is so huge. We all look to my dad’s story of resilience, and his positive attitude.

“My dad always complained that there is one word missing from Czech vocabulary, a translation for the word ‘challenge’. In his life, he said nothing is a problem, everything is a challenge. That’s one thing that’s really stuck with us – nothing is a problem in life, you can always figure it out.”