Spinelli's young adult novel features a protagonist who is an orphan with no knowledge of his real identity, navigating his way through Occupied Poland during the reign of Nazi terror. He inadvertently places himself in grave danger when he latches on to a Jewish family who is relocated to a ghetto, ultimately destined for a concentration camp from which there will be no return.
Although Spinelli's themes are tied to the Holocaust, they can easily be connected to hate crimes in general, because the characteristics and conditions that lead to them are generally somewhat the same: fear, ignorance, stereotyping, need for a scapegoat, to feel superior, or to go along with the crowd and avoid attracting attention to oneself. Prejudice against Jews was nothing new when Hitler came to power; he simply capitalized on a prejudice that had developed, ebbed and flowed since the crucifixon of Jesus of Nazareth. Jews were blamed by some for the crucifixon; their status as money lenders later on led to stereotyping them as "loan sharks" and "cheapskates"; when a scapegoat was needed to explain away Germany's economic problems in the years between World War I and II, the Jews were a convenient target. Similarly, in the American South in the years between the ending of the Civil War in 1865, and the beginning of the Civil Rights movement about a century later, hate crimes against blacks were directly connected to their former status as slaves. Many Southern whites had convinced themselves over the years that the Bible and Christianity condoned slavery; some believed, or professed to believe that blacks were inferior to whites and thus needed to be taken care of in a master-slave capacity. An undercurrent of fear of slave revolts led to a lasting fear among some of anyone with dark skin, and in terms of scapegoating, freed blacks competing with whites for jobs in the war-devastated South were an easy target.
In terms of hate crimes in today' contempoary society, one need look no further than innocent Muslims who were targeted by hate mongers after September 11. Again, the same factors prevailed: fear, ignorance, stereotyping and the need for a scapegoat. Israelis and Palestinians know something about hate crimes, of course, as did the Irish in the American Northeast during the Industrial Revolution--and Protestants and Catholics in Ireland during the Troubles. Sadly, hate crimes are not new in human history, and Spinelli's novel can easily teach lessons that can be generalized to problems all over the world.