It was springtime in Vienna, the kind of morning when hope didn’t seem naive.
Lisl Porges was 10 years old in 1938 and attended a Catholic school with a crucifix prominently displayed on the classroom wall. That she was Jewish mattered not at all to her, nor seemingly to her friends.
But then German troops marched across the border and declared Austria to be under the domain of the Third Reich. The crucifix came down. A photo of Adolph Hitler went up.
The children were told to acknowledge the photo each time they entered the room. For Lisl, who had heard adults talk ominously about Hitler, this seemed like a poor swap.
So she declined.
"The teacher looked at me, but didn’t say anything,’’ said Lisl, who has lived in Pinellas County under her married name Lisl Schick for more than 50 years.
"So I started to walk over to the other children, and one of my Christian friends said, "Don’t speak to us. Don’t ever speak to us again.’ I said, "Why? We didn’t have a fight. Why won’t you speak to me?’ And she said, "You’re just a dirty Jew, and we don’t want anything to do with you.’ ’’
• • •
Every day, we seemingly get a little smarter. We have breakthroughs, creations and epiphanies around the clock. We go from here to there faster than ever, and have rid ourselves of all manner of disease.
And yet our capacity for hate has never been adequately diagnosed or solved.
Democrats and Republicans. Black and white. Christians, Muslims, Jews and atheists. And, lately, anyone hoping to cross a nation’s borders.
Too many of us are quick to hate those who think, look or worship differently. Too many of us blame all of life’s ills on nameless and faceless proxies for our own shortcomings.
Even when we think time and experience have softened the anger, our most vile tendencies return.
A white supremacist in Kentucky randomly shot and killed two black shoppers at a Louisville grocery store. Days later, pipe bombs began showing up in the mailboxes of politicians, journalists and entertainers. And then Saturday morning, the unspeakable horror of 11 murders in Pittsburgh simply for the perceived transgression of being Jewish in America.
• • •
Jerry Rawicki should have been hiding. By now he should have known better.
His father had been machine-gunned in the streets of Warsaw, and his mother and one of his sisters later died in a concentration camp gas chamber. He had been on his own since his early teens, and was living in the ghettos of a small Polish hamlet with other young Jews in the early 1940s.
On this particular day, he was hungry and wandering the streets when he was spotted by a merciless German soldier. For no reason at all, he was grabbed and marched into a nearby pub.
Maybe the solider just wanted to scare him, or maybe he wanted to kill him. Maybe he hadn’t yet decided when he pulled out his gun and pointed it at Rawicki.
A lady behind the bar intervened before the soldier could decide. She shouted that she had just mopped the floors, and then quickly shooed Rawicki out before pouring the soldier a drink.
"That kind of hatred? It is impossible to describe,’’ said Rawicki, a retired optician in St. Petersburg. "Unfortunately, it will never disappear. Hate never goes away forever.’’
• • •
Watch young children at play, and you’ll understand lives lived without hate. Kids may get angry, and they may even fight. But they do not hate indiscriminately. That’s reserved for the rest of us. Which means it’s something we are taught along the way.
Let that sink in.
"I’m 90 years old, I don’t have to worry about myself, but I do worry about all of these beautiful grandchildren and great-grandchildren,’’ Lisl Schick said the day after the Pittsburgh shootings. "I see too much anger, too much egging on, too many people using ugly, nasty names.
"This is not what this country was meant to be.’’
Schick had just turned 11 when her parents put her and her 7-year-old brother on a train for England to escape Nazi occupation in Austria. Her father eventually made it to England, and her mother escaped to New York but it would be six years before they were all reunited.
All these years later, Schick says the only answer to hatred is education. It is ignorance that makes people afraid, and fear that makes them hate. So Schick works with the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg, and talks often at Pinellas schools.
Before beginning her story, Schick has a child crumble up a piece of plain white notebook paper and set it aside. When the presentation ends, she has the child unravel and try to smooth out the paper.
This, she tells the children, is what bullying does to a person. You might unravel yourself, but you will never be the same as you were before.
Hate often works the same way.
If we’re not careful, it will crumble us all.