The Writing On The Wall
What started with anti-Semitic graffiti on her classroom doors turned into a living nightmare that drove Georgia Gabor from her job
From the outside, Huntington Middle School looks like a dream. Located just minutes away from downtown Los Angeles in the affluent community of San Marino, the school—a 75-year-old Mediterranean-revival jewel with red ceramic roof tiles and beige stucco walls—is postcard perfect, shaded by palm trees and surrounded by neatly trimmed shrubbery.
It's a long way from Budapest, Hungary, where mathematics teacher Georgia Gabor was born in 1930. Gabor, a Jew whose entire family perished at the hands of Nazis during World War II, immigrated to the United States in 1947. On an April morning of that year, standing on the deck of the Marine Perch, Gabor first set eyes on the Statue of Liberty. She was 16 years old, utterly alone, and full of joy and fear.
Life in the New World wasn't easy: the foster homes the struggle to learn Englisht he two disastrous marriages the night classes at UCLA. By the time Gabor began teaching at what was then called Huntington Junior High School, in 1969, she felt as if her roller-coaster life had finally stabilized. Huntington seemed like a good place to teach, the kind of school where a teacher could spend her entire career if she wanted to.
But Gabor, now 62, walked out of Huntington on Oct. 28, 1990, and she hasn't been back since. Last year, Gabor filed a lawsuit against the San Marino Unified School District alleging that she was subjected to years of anti-Semitic harassment at the school, and that officials failed to do anything about it. And she says it all started not long after she published her autobiography, My Destiny: Survivor of the Holocaust.
Gabor believes the city of San Marino, itself, is partly to blame for her troubles at Huntington. “San Marino in general is very bigoted,” she asserts, a charge strongly denied by city and school officials.
It will be up to the Superior Court of the State of California to decide whether Gabor's claims of discrimination against the school district are valid. But the fact remains: Gabor was the victim of anti-Semitic graffiti scrawled on her classroom door and on desks in her classroom. On that point, Gabor and the school district agree.
An editorial in the Pasadena, Calif., Star News summed up Gabor's story this way: “To have survived the Nazi attempt at genocide, to head for the land of the free, and then to have to put up at all with swastikas carved on her classroom door? It sickens the soul.”
Georgia Gabor is sitting in the living room of her condominium, located on a quiet street in Sierra Madre, just a short drive from San Marino. The room is immaculate, with modern furnishings done in gold tones. Gabor, a tiny, attractive woman with well-coifed brown hair, pulls out a stack of photographs from a manila folder.
The first photograph, dated September 1982, shows a door to Room 307, where Gabor taught 7th and 8th grade math. Carved into the door, in large, menacing letters, are the words “Jewis [sic] Pig.” The second photograph shows a swastika carved into Room 307's other door.
“I chose to simply ignore it,” says Gabor, who speaks with a strong Hungarian accent, “because it would have been difficult to trace who did it. But let's suppose I could have tracked down who did it. I have to grade these students. I have to look at these students every single day. So, from a teacher's point of view, it is much wiser to simply try to ignore it. I did report it to the [principal's] office, but I tried mentally to tune it out.
“I felt very bad about it,” she continues. “I come to a free country after surviving the Holocaust, and now I have to be facing these kinds of things? I had an emotional reaction, but it wasn't nearly as strong as later on, when it started happening again.”
Gabor brings out more photographs, each one carefully dated. March 1984: A swastika was carved into her classroom door. Gabor says she reported the incident to then-principal Tom Parisi, but the graffito remained until October. April 1984: Gabor found swastikas carved into or written on desks in her classroom. “Whatever I could scrub off, I would,” she says.
The photographs begin to pile up on her coffee table. October 1985: Gabor found “Jewish Pig” carved into the classroom door. She says the slur remained until January 1986. December 1985: Someone wrote “Jewish Pig” on a locker next to her classroom. She says the words were still visible nine months later.
“I tried to tune it out as fast as I could,” Gabor says. “After I reported it, I felt from there on in it was up to the administration to do something about it.” But, Gabor contends, the administration failed to investigate the incidents or take any action that would discourage them from happening again.
Gabor pulls out another photograph, this one from March 1990. It shows the back of a classroom chair with “I Hate Gabor” and two swastikas written in black. Gabor suspected that one of her students was responsible for the slur, and she passed her hunch onto principal Charles Johnson. As far as Gabor knows, Johnson never investigated the matter.
(Johnson, who resigned as principal of Huntington last spring, declined to comment on the lawsuit. He now lives in Colorado Springs, Colo., and is editor of a forthcoming magazine, Teachers in Focus, published by the evangelical Christian organization Focus on the Family. The purpose of the new magazine, Johnson says, is “to encourage teachers who support Judeo-Christian values.”)
At some point (she doesn't remember the year), one of Gabor's students handed in a test with two swastikas and a gun-toting Nazi drawn on it. Gabor decided not to confront the student about it. “What am I supposed to do? If I ask the child, two things can happen. Either she will deny it, and I have no proof. Or she will admit it, and I still have the child to grade for the rest of the year, and to face every single day.” (In court documents, the school district denied “for lack of information and belief” that the incident ever happened.)
The harassment reached a fever pitch in the fall of 1990. The morning after a back-to-school night for parents, Gabor found that someone had left anti-Semitic propaganda on her desk. It was a flier from a group calling itself the Christian Educational Association Inc., and it accused Jews of performing acts of “ritual murder” on unsuspecting Christians.
Gabor takes out a copy of the flier from her folder. It says: “This most horrible crime against Christianity is practiced by murdering a Christian, then letting their blood and drinking it by the Jews and Rabbis taking part in this MOST EVIL ACT. By doing this it is supposed to be the same as the Jews actually have [sic] taken part in the CRUCIFIXION OF CHRIST who all Jews hate and are sworn to destroy Christianity through their Godless Communism. This is why the victim has to be a CHRISTIAN, and preferably small Christian children because their innocence makes the ceremony more meaningful to the Satanic Jews and Rabbis taking part in it.” And so on.
Gabor believes the inflammatory newsletter was placed on her desk by a parent, though she has no proof. But complaints about Gabor had apparently been circulating for some time among a group of Huntington parents. “Georgia had her detractors in the community,” says Selma Sax, a former school board member and longtime San Marino resident. “There were lots of folks who were not happy with the way she taught youngsters.” (Sax, who is Jewish, can't understand why Gabor never contacted her about the graffiti. “There were occasions,” she says, “when it would have been very easy for her to have done that.”)
But others praised Gabor's teaching abilities, and she has the testimonial letters to prove it. “Dear Mrs. Gabor,” wrote one student at the end of the 1989-90 school year. “I just wanted to thank you for being such a great teacher and such a great friend. It's funny because I've always been terrible at math, but for some reason I was inspired to do my best this year. I regret to say that it wasn't math that inspired me, it was you.
“That may sound strange because some of my classmates are even afraid of you. I'll admit that, at first, I was, too, but then I realized I was learning a lot in your class, not just about math, but about life. Every time you told us the stories about the war, it really made me sad. It made me wonder how any human being could go through so much and come back as a great math teacher, and somehow come into my life as a hero. I realize that next year I'll just be another student struggling in a math class. I'm afraid I won't survive it, but I'm one step ahead of a lot of those math geniuses, because I survived your class and I loved it the whole way. Thanks for being my inspiration.”
Even Gabor's defenders concede that she rubs some people the wrong way. “She's a very intense person, and that can put a lot of people off,” says Robert Lutes, a friend and former colleague of Gabor's who now teaches Spanish at San Marino High School. “She tends to polarize people. She's loved by some people, but she's also hated by others.”
“I did have the reputation of being a tough teacher,” Gabor admits. “Kids had to work in my class. I didn't care who the father was or how much money the family had. The students had to earn their grades.”
During the first week of October 1990, six parents sent letters to principal Johnson complaining about Gabor. One of the letters, which Gabor later obtained from her personnel file, said:
“When our oldest daughter was about to enter Huntington in '84, we had heard a lot of negative publicity concerning Huntington teachers, particularly Mrs. Gabor. We were advised by numerous students' parents to send our children to private schools.
“Neither our eldest nor middle daughter had Mrs. Gabor as a teacher. However, the horror stories continue to circulate and worsen with each passing year.
“This year our youngest daughter got Mrs. Gabor. The very first day Mrs. Gabor asked various students in the class whether they were German or Dutch. The same day I requested that [my daughter] be taken out of [Gabor's] class.
“Because we do not have a German last name, I was willing to take a wait-and-see approach. For the record, my mother's family is Swedish, and they assisted Jews during World War II. Mrs. Gabor's being Jewish is not the issue, as she would like it to be.
“The issue is, Mrs. Gabor is a misplaced, odd, impatient, angry, bizarre, miserable person. She enjoys a perverse role reversal of playing captor to her captive students. She has instilled fear in them. She is not only sly and cunning, she denies and lies about any accusation she does not want the administration to hear.”
Gabor calls the charges “ridiculous, totally false.” She says that when she read the class roster on the first day of school, she asked her students to pronounce their names to her. “I wanted to make sure that I pronounced them correctly,” she says, adding that she may have asked some of the students whether they had a German name, or a Dutch name, or a Japanese name, or whatever.
Some parents even went so far as to circulate a petition demanding that Gabor be fired. At that point, Gabor decided to turn to the San Marino Teachers Association for help.
On Oct. 17, 1990, Gabor arrived at her classroom one morning to find more graffiti. Someone had scrawled a huge swastika and “Fuck” on one door, and “Jew” on the other door. If the purpose of the graffiti was to scare Gabor, it worked. “Let's suppose that I find out who has done these things,” she says. “Am I safe driving home? Am I safe at home? Am I safe anytime? So I had to think about survival. Literally, survival. Because if it is an organization—the Ku Klux Klan, the Nazi Party, the skinheads, or whatever—they don't hesitate knocking people off.”
On Oct. 22, the teachers association's executive board wrote a letter to Johnson, asking that the graffiti be removed immediately and that a faculty meeting be called to discuss the situation. The board also requested that a program be presented to the students “with the purpose of raising their awareness of the need for tolerance of personal differences, whether they be ethnic, religious, racial, economic, or social.”
Two days later, Gabor says she told Johnson that she was too physically sick and emotionally distraught to continue teaching. “By this time,” Gabor says, “I was reacting severely. Stomach cramps, not being able to sleep, crying spells, diarrhea. I was down to 78 pounds. My doctor told me I had to take a sick leave.” She felt as if she was under siege. “Emotionally, I felt that there was no one to protect me, no support system to back me up as a teacher. I can't handle everything alone.”
On Oct. 28, when Gabor returned to Huntington to give some material to her substitute teacher, she saw that the graffiti still had not been removed. That was the last time Gabor stepped foot in Huntington Middle School. Her troubles, however, were far from over.
In February 1991, Gabor applied for early retirement. Gabor says the district responded by offering her retirement benefits at a lower rate than she was entitled to, and that the district insisted that her early retirement be conditioned on her signing a general release, absolving the district from any liability. (In court papers, the school district denied offering Gabor lower retirement benefits but admitted that she was asked to sign the release.)
To Gabor, the message was clear: The school district was retaliating against her for complaining about the religious harassment she had experienced. (The district denied the allegation.)
Gabor felt that her only recourse was to take the school district to court. So, with legal assistance from the California Teachers Association, Gabor filed suit in Los Angeles Superior Court last October. In the lawsuit, Gabor alleged that she was the victim of anti-Semitic harassment at Huntington, that the harassment created a “hostile work environment,” that she repeatedly brought the incidents to the attention of her supervisors, but that they failed to take “immediate and effective action” to correct the situation. Gabor is seeking back pay, emotional damages, punitive damages, and attorneys' fees.
“The issue is, they swept it under the rug,” Gabor says of the school administrators. “They did not try to identify the ones who were doing these things.”
In court papers filed in response to Gabor's lawsuit, the school district admitted that “on limited occasions” certain anti-Semitic words or symbols were found on Gabor's classroom doors and desks. But the district maintained that it used its “best efforts” to remove the markings and that it took “direct and specific action” to discourage any similar acts from occurring again.
In a brief statement released to the press, School Superintendent Gary Richards “vigorously” denied all of the allegations raised in Gabor's complaint, which he characterized as “unsworn” and “unverified.” In a telephone interview, Richards chose his words carefully, declining to go into specifics about the case. But he made the point that there are other Jewish teachers in the San Marino schools. “If this [harassment] is as rampant as Ms. Gabor says it is,” he asked, “wouldn't they have experienced it, too? They haven't.” He added: “I'm comfortable that we'll prevail on this thing.”
To make matters worse, Gabor began receiving anonymous phone calls in September 1991, and they continue to haunt her. A woman called Gabor at home late one night and said: “We finally got rid of you Jew pig. Don't ever come back to San Marino.” Ten days later, someone wrote, “Jew, get out of S.M.” on the back of her car.
Sometimes the phone voices sounded like kids, while other times they sounded like adults, but the messages were all more or less the same: “Fuck you, Jew bitch,” “Drop dead, Jew whore,” “Shut your mouth, Jew bitch. We are watching you.” Sometimes there was no voice at all—just a terrifying silence on the line at 2 o'clock in the morning. Gabor reported the calls to the Sierra Madre police.
Gabor's life story was no secret to the students at Huntington. Three times a year—the day before Christmas break, before spring break, and on the last day of school—Gabor would put mathematics aside and spend an entire class period recounting her experience in Budapest during the Nazi occupation.
It was a horrific tale. The only child of well-to-do Jewish parents, Gabor seemed destined to a life of middle-class comfort and prosperity. But everything changed in 1944, “the year of pain and horror, beyond imagination,” as Gabor calls it. The Nazis seized control of Budapest, and they began issuing a series of anti-Jewish decrees. One such ordinance required Jews to wear a yellow Star of David, made of cloth, whenever they appeared on the street.
Eventually, both of Gabor's parents were taken away to Nazi labor camps. She later found out that her father, who had contracted cholera, drowned in the icy waters of the Danube after being thrown out of a boat, days after being released. Gabor never found out what happened to her mother, but she assumes she perished in one of the death camps.
Gabor, herself, was forced to move into an empty building in Budapest's Jewish ghetto, which was heavily guarded by Nazi soldiers. She managed to escape, however, and she ran straight to her maternal grandmother's apartment, a few blocks away.
“There was a very nice Christian couple supervising the building,” Gabor remembers. “When I looked for my grandmother and saw that her apartment was empty, I went to the couple to find out what had happened. And I'll never forget it because it made such a strong impression on me. The wife kneeled down and started to kiss my hands and my knees, hysterically crying, `Forgive me, child! Please forgive me!' When she calmed down enough to talk, I said, `What happened?'
“When the Nazis came into the building," she told me, "they rounded up all the Jews and took them down into the yard. Those who were bedridden, like your grandmother, they simply shot them on the spot, and I and my husband had to go and carry them down into the yard and put them into a big heap. They poured some gasoline over the heap, and they made me and my husband light the fire and burn these people. And not all of them were dead yet! Some of them were still moving! And we had to burn them alive because they were holding the submachine guns at us.'
Later, when Gabor went to the nursing home where her paternal grandmother lived, she wasn't prepared for the gruesome scene that she found. There, in the courtyard of the building, was a huge pile of unrecognizable corpses, surrounded by a pack of rats.
Using her wits and survival skills, Gabor managed to survive the occupation, as well as the postwar hardships after Budapest was “liberated” by the Russian Army. She eventually fled to Austria, where she lived in a series of refugee camps before coming to the United States.
At the urging of her students, Gabor decided to write her autobiography, which, after being turned down by a dozen major publishers, she published herself in 1981. Gabor and a friend spent the summer of 1982 driving around the country, promoting the book at every newspaper, radio, and television station that would give her the time of day. She lost money on the project, but she doesn't care. “I felt that I had paid back God for helping me survive,” she says.
Publicity, of course, can be a two-edged sword. Gabor believes that the recognition she received after publishing the book made her the target of anti-Semitism. “I became known, in a relatively bigoted area, as `the Jew,'" she says.
City officials deny that San Marino is a “bigoted area.” But for years San Marino has struggled with its public image, that of a stuffy, conservative bastion of affluent white Protestants. After police-officer-turned-crime-writer Joseph Wambaugh (The New Centurions, The Onion Field) moved to San Marino back in the mid-1970s, he wrote a scathing opinion piece about the city for the Los Angeles Times. “This is John Birch territory,” he wrote. “Some of these folks are resistant to any kind of change. They have a wait-and-see attitude on jet propulsion. And they're patriotic. Instead of poodles they promenade with eagles on a leash.” Wambaugh and his family eventually left San Marino and moved to Newport Beach, Calif.
Elena DeVos, who taught English and journalism at Huntington from 1974 to 1978, recalls San Marino as “a pretty cloistered environment.” She used to drive past the local John Birch Society headquarters (now gone) on her way to and from work. And DeVos, who is Jewish (though nonreligious), recalls several experiences at Huntington that still trouble her.
When DeVos first interviewed for a job at Huntington, the school superintendent (not Richards) asked her, “How would you feel being one of the few Jewish teachers in the district?” DeVos was shocked. “I'd never heard anything like that in my life,” she remembers. “I didn't even know he knew I was Jewish.”
Once she began teaching, DeVos recollects, some school administrators would refer to her as “our little Jewish girl” or “the little Jewish teacher.”
“I thought that was especially odd,” she says, “because I'm five eight.”
Another time, at a back-to-school night, a mother—with alcohol on her breath—came up to DeVos and said, “Now that I see you, I know what the problem is.” At first, DeVos thought the parent was referring to the way she was dressed. Later, however, she realized the comment was anti-Semitic. DeVos went to the principal and demanded that the woman's child be removed from her class unless the mother apologized. “He backed me up on that one,” DeVos recalls.
DeVos says there was a group of fundamentalist Christian administrators and teachers at Huntington who would hold prayer meetings at the school every morning before classes. Sometimes, she says, they would “pray for the souls of the `heathens.' At graduation ceremonies, she recalls, prayers would be offered “directly to Jesus Christ.”
Once, during the 1977-1978 school year, an evangelist spoke at a school assembly. DeVos remembers him telling the students that they were “sinners.”
“At that point,” she says, “I was aghast. I told my class that I was leaving, and they could leave with me.” She walked out of the assembly, and she quit her job at the end of the school year.
DeVos, who now runs an editorial consulting business, says she actually liked teaching at Huntington. It was the prevailing attitudes that drove her away. “I just thought these people were kind of behind the times,” she says.
By the time DeVos left Huntington, the times were starting to catch up with San Marino. Wealthy Asian immigrants began moving into the community, and racial tensions started to surface.
A 1984 article in the Pasadena Star News pointed out that, in three years, the proportion of Asian students in the San Marino Unified School District had leaped from 6.5 percent to 29.5 percent. Of 75 white high school students interviewed by the newspaper, about half expressed “strong anti-Asian sentiments.” About one-third of the 75 Asian students interviewed said they were unhappy about the way they were treated by their white schoolmates. Gary Richards, who at the time was principal of San Marino High School, told the Star News, “I'm not going to lie to you and say everything's rosy.” That same year, the city formed a Human Relations Commission in response to the growing problem.
(Ironically, it was San Marino's highly rated schools, in part, that attracted Asians to the city. San Marino High School routinely sends more than 95 percent of its graduates on to college.)
By 1988, nearly 40 percent of the children attending San Marino's schools were Asian, and about 50 percent of the homes sold each year were bought by Asians. Real estate agents began calling San Marino “a Beverly Hills for Asians.” Two years later, according to U.S. census figures, San Marino had a population of about 13,000, and its Asian population had grown from about 7 percent in 1980 to 32 percent. Its school population is now about 50 percent Asian.
Robert Lutes, the San Marino High School Spanish teacher, speaks of an “undercurrent” of racial tension at the high school. Just last year, he says, someone scrawled “Gooks Suck” and “Blacks Suck” on some lockers outside of his classroom.
But superintendent Richards says that tension between San Marino's Asian and white populations has largely disappeared. “This community has really come to terms with the changing demographics,” he says. “Are there isolated incidents of racism in the schools? Yes. Are they chronic? No.”
Gabor's lawsuit isn't scheduled to go to trial until next April. “We're always hopeful that it will be settled out of court,” says her lawyer, Della Bahan. “But right now, it doesn't look like that's going to happen.”
If Gabor wins, it won't be without precedent. Her case is remarkably similar to a sexual-harassment complaint filed by a Duluth, Minn., high school student. In 1988, Katy Lyle began hearing about graffiti in the boys' bathroom at Central High calling her, among other things, a “slut” and a “whore.” For the next 18 months, as the graffiti became increasingly vulgar and explicit, Katy and her family tried to get school officials to put a stop to the harassment.
Finally, Katy filed a complaint with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights. She charged that the school had done nothing to stop the graffiti, allowing an environment of sexual harassment to flourish and interfere with her education. Last September, the Duluth school system agreed to pay Katy $15,000 for “mental anguish,” post a sexual harassment policy in all schools, and explain to students what the policy means and how to report a violation. The district also agreed to check school bathrooms each morning for graffiti.
“None of this would have happened if they had cleaned the bathroom wall,” Katy's mother, Carol, told a reporter.
And that's pretty much how Gabor feels about her own battle. “If the administration had handled this situation differently,” she says, “they might have prevented this [lawsuit].”
Georgia Gabor is thinking about 1944, that terrible year. She remembers those first signs that something evil was in the air, something that would soon change her life forever. Then she thinks about the graffiti at Huntington Middle School, the anonymous phone calls, the anti-Semitic flier left on her desk.
“In the beginning,” she says, “it started very similar to this. I remember when I was back in Hungary, a child would elbow me in the stomach or push me over, and the teacher would just stand there and do nothing. I had an incident where a street kid just spit a mouthful of saliva into my face one day. A policeman who saw it called me a `dirty Jew.' That was the beginning of everything. Then, a year or so after that, we had all the deportations to the concentration camps.”
She pauses. “So what I am saying is, if you don't nip it in the beginning, there may be a time, God forbid, when we won't be able to do anything about it.”
Vol. 04, Issue 02, Pages 26-29