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A Long Lesson in Hate : Holocaust Survivor Sues School District Over Harassment

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Holocaust survivor who taught math in the San Marino Unified School District for 21 years has sued the district, claiming she was subjected to years of anti-Semitic harassment that school officials failed to stop or discourage.

Georgia Gabor, 62, a Hungarian immigrant whose entire family was killed by the Nazis in World War II, said she became the target of anti-Semitic attacks at Huntington Middle School after she published her autobiography, “My Destiny: Survivor of the Holocaust,” in 1981.

Gabor said she began finding swastikas, slurs and obscenities carved on her classroom door, nearby lockers and school desks. According to her suit, students turned in tests decorated with swastikas. Someone left a photocopied flyer on her desk referring to Jews as ritual murderers. She received late-night phone calls in which anonymous callers said things like “Filthy Jew drop dead,” and then hung up.

Gabor said she made repeated complaints to school officials but the district ignored her pleas and failed to investigate and discipline those involved.

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“Every day I had to go to work and be reminded of what I lived through during the Holocaust,” said Gabor, who has been on unpaid leave from the district since late 1990. “It’s unbelievable that administrators can be so irresponsible.”

San Marino Supt. Gary Richards and board member Robert Gayl declined to comment on the case, citing the pending lawsuit. Huntington Principal Charles Johnson could not be reached. But in court documents, the district denied Gabor’s allegations and denied liability for any incidents that might have taken place.

Gabor speaks regularly on the Holocaust at Los Angeles schools in connection with the Anti-Defamation League of the B’nai B’rith. But she said no educational efforts were made in San Marino. Instead, she alleges that the harassment continued for six years, with swastikas and obscenities sometimes remaining in public view for months before district officials removed them.

By September, 1990, Gabor said, the harassment had made her physically and emotionally ill and her doctor ordered her to go on medical leave.

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She applied for early retirement in January, 1991, but alleges in her suit that San Marino offered her a lower benefits package than she was entitled to. She said the district also demanded that she sign an 11-page legal document that absolved the district of any future liability.

Tom Brown, a consultant for the California Teacher’s Assn. who negotiated with the district on Gabor’s behalf, said he has never heard of a teacher being asked to sign such a statement.

Instead, Gabor sued the district last October in Los Angeles Superior Court. But until recently, she refused to discuss the suit, which alleges religious discrimination and seeks back pay, full retirement benefits and punitive damages.

Gabor, who kept notes on each incident and took photos of the anti-Semitic graffiti that appeared over the years, said she feels responsibility as a Holocaust survivor to speak out about anti-Semitism.

“It’s very important for me to convey that bigotry and discrimination are what causes man’s inhumanity to man,” Gabor said in an interview. “It can start out by little things but it can mushroom quickly. I know because it happened to me.”

Brown, who saw one of the swastikas at the school, said he believes district officials ignored the harassment of Gabor because they did not want to face up to discriminatory attitudes within San Marino.

“Definitely there is anti-Semitism in San Marino,” Brown said. “It’s hard for me to imagine ignoring a swastika on a school door when you’re a principal.”

The city has traditionally been a bastion of affluent and conservative whites. In the 1960s, one school board member was active in the John Birch Society, which had its Western regional office in San Marino until 1977.

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But civic leaders deny there is anti-Semitism in their community. “If anti-Semitism exists, I’m certainly not aware of it,” said Rosemary B. Simmons, a former member of the San Marino City Council. “One of my best friends across the street is Jewish and I don’t think they’ve had any problem.”

But Simmons added that she was surprised school officials allowed the graffiti to remain on doors and desks for so long, saying that such defilements are usually removed immediately in the city.

A spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations said there have been various reports of hate crimes in San Marino in the past 10 years, including one of a swastika drawn at an elementary school. But she added that most incidents are directed against the city’s growing Asian-American population.

Gabor says some of the anonymous phone calls came from adults. The hate flyer placed on her desk is typical of propaganda circulated in white supremacist circles. When she stopped at the San Marino post office one day, someone wrote in marker on her car: “Jew, get out of San Marino.”

Gabor was only 14 when the Nazis rolled into her hometown of Budapest. Both her parents perished in concentration camps and she saw others tortured to death. She escaped and, to stay alive, hid in abandoned buildings and at times impersonated Nazis. In 1948, she came to the United States to start a new life.

She earned a master’s degree in educational psychology from UCLA, married and raised a family and in 1969 became a math teacher at Huntington.

She was known as a tough grader who challenged her students. On days before vacation when students were restless, she would tell them stories about how she survived during World War II. Gabor says that students who did not want to listen were allowed to do extra-credit work in another room but that most students stayed, spellbound.

In 1987, she was honored as “Outstanding Teacher of the Year” by the San Gabriel Valley Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

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Some of Gabor’s former students remember her fondly, including Leon D. Dame, now a Fire Department official in Tucson, who wrote her: “Your class taught me a great deal more than mathematics. You taught me to have respect for all mankind. . . . In recounting your experiences as a young child, you were able to show me that prejudice and racism have no place in this world.”

But others thought Gabor was obsessed with the Holocaust, and they wrote letters critical of her to the school board. One parental letter accused Gabor of being “sly and cunning.” She said that in 1990, 36 parents signed a petition asking that she be removed from the classroom.

Gabor said she tried to ignore the deteriorating situation, but in October, 1990, she finally turned to the San Marino Teachers Assn. for help. The association wrote a letter to Huntington Principal Johnson, asking that the school remove the graffiti immediately, make it clear that such behavior was not acceptable and set up programs to teach tolerance.

Gabor, who received a copy of the letter, said she went to Huntington five days later and saw the swastikas still had not been removed. She never returned.


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