“Now I’m going to take you back many, many years … April of 1939,” Lisl Schick said to a room full of students at the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg in 2015. For 33 minutes, they sat still as she spoke. Schick glanced at her notes now and then, but she didn’t need them. She’d been telling her story to students at least once a week at the museum for more than 20 years.
“It is one year since Hitler took over Austria. Picture a large railroad station. The train is filled with children. The parents are on the platform, some of them grandparents, and they’re saying goodbye to the children, not knowing if and when they will ever see them again.”
The children had numbers around their necks that showed where they were going, Schick told the students. They didn’t speak English.
“Among the children was an 11-year-old girl. Sitting on her lap was her little brother. He was only 7 years old. He was crying bitterly. He had no idea what would happen, why he was leaving his parents…and the little girl is holding him on her lap and says ‘Don’t worry. Don’t worry. Now we’re going to a land of freedom, and I will always take care of you.’ The little boy, remember, didn’t speak a word of English. At the end of his career, he was the vice president of ABC television news. Pretty nice job for a little boy who didn’t know any English. And you’ve all figured out, of course, I was the little girl.”
Schick, who lived in Largo, spent the last few decades of her life telling her story so that it would never happen again. She died at 94 on June 28 of natural causes.
Here are five of the lessons she lived.
Words are powerful
In Vienna, Schick’s father worked as an accountant. Her mother stayed home with the kids, her grandparents lived close by.
After Hitler came, things changed quickly.
“My Christian friends looked at me and they said ‘don’t ever speak to us again. We want nothing to do with you.’ Can you imagine your best friend saying that to you? I said ‘why? We’re not in a fight? What did I do?’ They said ‘well you didn’t do anything, but you’re a dirty Jew and we want nothing to do with you, and even if we did, our parents would get into trouble, so just forget it.’ That was just the beginning.”
At the beginning of her talk at the Holocaust Museum, Schick invited a boy up and showed the students a clean sheet of paper. She asked the boy to crumple it up, and later invited him back up with it.
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“OK,” she said to the students. “Is this the same piece of paper that I held up earlier?”
“No,” they said.
“Of course not, it has been badly damaged,” Schick said. “And that’s what happens when you bully somebody. That person is damaged forever. It doesn’t matter whether you do it on the computer or in person or if you say you’re sorry afterwards. That person has been damaged.”
You will speak up
Things in Austria got worse. Schick’s father lost his job and the family moved in with her grandparents. People started disappearing.
In November of 1938, Nazis arrested hundreds of Jewish men and destroyed synagogues and shops owned by Jews in what came to be known as Kristallnacht. Schick and her family didn’t hear any of it, but when they came outside the next morning, she saw hundreds of men on their hands and knees cleaning up the glass. Soldiers with whips stood over them.
“There are people standing around, they’re grinning and smirking and laughing, that was their morning’s entertainment. I remember, I adored my father, and I looked at my dad and I said, dad, can’t you do something? And my father shook his head, I’ll never forget it, and said ‘there’s nothing I can do.’”
He was helpless. The students at the museum were not.
“You look like a great group of young people. I know that you’re not going to bully anyone. But if you see something, don’t be a bystander. Do something about it. Tell a parent. Tell a teacher. Tell anybody who can help you. But the worst thing you can do is be a bystander…You will not be indifferent. You will speak up.”
They can’t take away your education
Schick was luckier than most, she said, because she and her brother were able to get out of Austria on the Kindertransport, which rescued 10,000 children from Nazi-controlled areas. The majority never saw their parents again. She was 17 when she and her brother reunited with their parents in New York City.
There, Schick met her future husband, Alfred Schick, who’d also fled Austria with his family. The two had four children, and for both the Schicks, education was critical.
“As I mentioned, Hitler took away all of our worldly belongings, anything we owned,” Schick told the students. “But the one thing nobody can ever take away from you is your education. That is the most important thing.”
Education has another power, too. Schick worried more recently about a rise in anti-Semitism, intolerance and bigotry in the country where she built her life. She used her time volunteering with the museum to help young people change that.
“She said the only tool we have is education,” said daughter Nancy Greenberg. “The only tool against prejudice, intolerance and bigotry is education.”
Family is forever
Schick’s grandparents did not survive the Holocaust.
“We heard rumors of concentration camps and deportations,” she told the St. Petersburg Times in 2008. “We didn’t know what to believe. We finally got proof from the Red Cross. They went to an area in Russia where they had to dig their own graves and were shot. That thought always haunts me.”
She lost more than 20 members of her extended family.
In 1959, she and her husband moved to Clearwater. Her father and mother moved to Florida, too. Her father, who’d spent two years in an internment camp in England and passed the time teaching chess, became the chess coach for Clearwater High School. Her husband was the chief of radiology at Morton Plant Hospital for 28 years and wrote guest columns for the St. Petersburg Times. He and his wife were founding members of Ruth Eckerd Hall.
Schick’s husband died in 1993, at 70, from leukemia.
She kept bringing her family together, gathering them for annual vacations at the beach. And every Tuesday, family who lived close enough met at her home for “Tuesday night Shabbat,” said Greenberg.
“You could just see all the joy she took in having this motley crew all together,” said granddaughter Dana Justus.
Schick had four kids, 12 grandchildren, six great-grandchildren, and her immediate family numbers about 30, Greenberg said.
“She often said it’s her revenge to Hitler.”
Value every day
There’s something to learn from everyone who survived the Holocaust, including from his own grandparents, said Mike Igel, the Holocaust museum’s board chair.
“But Lisl was one who really embodied the word light. There was a light in her.”
Her message and approach were full of life, he said.
That included throwing out the first pitch at a Ray’s game in 2019, raising money for the Holocaust museum, being named Tampa Bay’s Most Remarkable Woman by WFLA in 2021, and all the time she spent telling her story to Florida’s students.
“You are our future,” she told the students. “You are our hope. You’re going to make this a really good world. Better than it is now. Our museum’s aim is to wipe out hatred and racism and bigotry, and you will be able to do that.”
To learn more about Lisl Schick’s life, you can see artifacts and an exhibit on her that’s currently on display at the Florida Holocaust Museum. To support the continuation of her work, you can contribute to the Dr. Alfred and Mrs. Lisl Schick Memorial Fund at the Florida Holocaust Museum.
Poynter news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.
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