Did Cultures Clash Over ‘Schindler’s’? : Movies: Some say Oakland high schoolers evicted from theater for laughing were ignorant of Holocaust, others say kids are too used to violence.


When a group of Oakland high school students went on a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday field trip to see Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” their teachers hoped they’d learn about hatred and compassion. Instead, the 69 students were evicted from the theater because some of them laughed and talked while Holocaust horrors were on screen.

The incident has set off heated debates across the Bay Area--from classrooms to radio talk shows.

Although perspectives of what happened in the theater last Monday differ wildly, most agree that these teen-agers know too little about the Holocaust and too much about violence. Some members of the matinee audience were so offended by the jeering during scenes showing Nazi atrocities, they demanded refunds. Although theater staff say they repeatedly asked the students to be quiet, the interruptions continued. The final straw, some say, was when about 20 students laughed at a scene where a Nazi guard shoots a Jewish woman in the head.


“About 30 outraged patrons stormed into the lobby, complaining about the derisive laughter and offensive comments during the atrocities--when Jews were murdered on screen,” said Allen Michaan, owner of Oakland’s Grand Lake Theater. “I’ve never seen such furious, hurt customers. Some were Holocaust survivors and one woman was sobbing.”

Michaan ordered the movie stopped and asked all Castlemont High School students to leave. As they filed out, many of the 450 patrons applauded. School officials say few students understood why they were evicted.

One patron called the students “rowdy and offensive, loud troublemakers” who “were talking over the movie and laughing at the sight of Jews being assassinated on screen. What a strange way to celebrate Martin Luther King Day, by insulting the memory of Holocaust victims.”


Was it callous insensitivity or ignorance about the Holocaust and a clash of cultures? Dean of Students Tanya Dennis, one of four chaperons on the ill-fated field trip, agrees that her students were unprepared for the movie, but maintains they were “evicted unfairly, with no warning.” She said: “A few students giggled and talked only because they were affected by the Nazi killing or thought that a woman was contorting in death in a way that looked strange to them.”

Dennis believes friction began before the movie started. “Some elderly white people were wondering what black kids were doing at the movie. Our kids have seen more violence and suffered more oppression than these people.”

Michaan takes issue with Dennis: “It’s disgusting that some people are cloaking this incident in a mantle of racism. . . . Few people saw the students because they entered the theater only minutes before the film started.”

Another chaperon, math teacher Aaron Grumet, who lost relatives in the Holocaust, said: “Most of my students have seen people shot, so they laughed when the shooting didn’t look realistic. They’re not Afro-American kids laughing at Jewish horror, they’re the inner-city, hip-hop generation, desensitized to violence because they see it everyday.” Grumet said while he doesn’t blame the patrons “for being so upset, these kids are 14 to 16 and unfortunately know almost nothing about the Holocaust.”

Shalon Paige, 14, explained, “When the Jewish girl got shot in the head, she moved weird so some kids laughed. They didn’t have to kick nobody out. Maybe they’re so upset at us, prejudiced because they’re white.” Many students say they went on the field trip only because it included ice skating afterward, and some sneaked into adjoining theaters to see “Pelican Brief” and “Grumpy Old Men.”

Said Paige: “They didn’t want to see a three-hour movie in black-and-white. We don’t know about that war. It was long ago and far away and about people we never met.”

Paige’s sentiments are indicative of a widespread nationwide problem. One of her classmates thinks the Holocaust was the bomb dropped on Japan during World War II; another believes Hitler is still alive. Many, like Paige, have never met a Jew. “We don’t know about those concentration camps, but I do hear a lot of Jew jokes,” Paige said.

A Roper poll of Americans last year found more than 50% of high school students didn’t know what the word Holocaust means and 22% said it seemed “possible” that “the Nazi extermination of the Jews never happened.”

Marvin Levy, spokesman for the “Schindler’s List” producing company Amblin Entertainment, said: “This is not a movie people can just walk into. People, especially high school kids, need some background, so that’s why we sent ‘Schindler’s List’ study guides to over 30,000 high schools. Obviously, these students never got them.”

Spielberg, via Levy, said: “If the only thing that comes out of ‘Schindler’s List’ is that there are more Holocaust study courses in high schools across the country, we will have accomplished a great deal.”