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Courage and Cowardice in San Marino

Mar 10, 2015
city data

San Marino, California. (Photo courtesy of City-Data.com)

 

It was such a frightful torrent of abuse that it made her physically ill – sick enough that she had to retire from her job as a math teacher at Huntington Middle School in San Marino.

“Filthy Jew – drop dead,” threatened one anonymous late-night phone call. “Jew, get out of San Marino,” read a message scrawled on her car window.

It could have been Germany in the 1930s—but instead it was San Marino in the 1980s. According to her own account, Georgia M. Gabor, a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, whose parents had both perished in Nazi death camps, had endured roughly six years of anti-Semitic terror from San Marino residents. Swastikas had been carved on her classroom door, assignments handed in with swastikas drawn on them, and anti-Jewish obscenities drawn on school lockers. Multiple threats greeted her by phone.

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Holocaust survivor Georgia M. Gabor, 1983. (Courtesy of the 1939 Society.)

Gabor lived nearby in Sierra Madre and began teaching math at Huntington Middle School in 1969. She was, by all accounts, a much-loved teacher. Students would often listen with rapt attention to her gripping story of life as a teenager in Hungary during WWII, where she escaped the Nazis three times.

In 2014, a former student wrote, “I knew Georgia Gabor. She was my inspiration as a child, my math teacher in 7th grade. She was passionate and honest. She was my friend. Her story resonates with me. I recently visited the Jewish Quarter in Hungary, and she was always in my mind during the trip.”

Another former pupil, Leon D. Dame, once wrote to 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.”

The San Gabriel Valley Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution named Gabor “Outstanding Teacher of the Year” in 1987.

And yet, in 1981, when she published a harrowing memoir of her WWII years called My Destiny: Survivor of the Holocaust, she began receiving harassment in San Marino that brought back chilling memories. “Every day I had to go to work and be reminded of what I lived through during the Holocaust,” she told the L.A. Times in 1992.

Until the mid-1960s, discriminatory real estate practices may have barred Jews (as well as blacks, Latinos, and Asians) from living in San Marino. The San Gabriel Country Club did not admit Jews until as late as 1975, and possibly into the 1980s.

In 2000, Uri Herscher, now 73, founder of the Skirball Cultural Center, recalled in an article for the Washington Post that San Marino was “truly a racist little community. It was packed with oil lords, and no Jews and no Italians lived there.”

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General George S. Patton, 1943. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

Former Republican Congressman Pete McCloskey, who grew up in San Marino in the 1930s and ‘40s, similarly remembered that there were “no blacks in San Marino, and there were no Jews. They kept Jews out of San Marino by asking, ‘What’s the maiden name of your mother?’ The real estate people had a conspiracy. As with blacks, Jews in your neighborhood were supposed to make property values drop.”

A 1976 article from the L.A. Times notes that Jews only began to move in “about ten years” ago, and in 1971 the Western States Jewish Historical Quarterly remarked, “the Hillcrest Country Club [in Cheviot Hills] was started by two or three Jews who had belonged to the San Gabriel Country Club and had some sort of unpleasantness there.”

Gabor’s experience seemed to be a continuation of this long, unpleasant tradition. In 1992, when she approach an L.A. Times reporter about her mistreatment, Tom Brown, a consultant for the California Teacher’s Association, asserted: “definitely there is anti-Semitism in San Marino.”

So where did it come from?

The answer may lie in the founding fathers of the city. George S. Patton Jr., the celebrated WWII general and San Marino resident, was a closet anti-Semite, once calling Jews “lower than animals” and writing in his diary, “The Jewish type […] is, in the majority of cases, a sub-human species without any of the cultural or social refinements of our times.” His father, who served as San Marino mayor from 1913 until 1924, might have been equally prejudiced.

Tony Platt, a San Jose State University professor who did a fellowship at the Huntington Library in the early 2000s, found anti-Semitism rampant among the early trustees of the library, including Caltech’s Robert Millikan.

And then there was the anti-communist John Birch Society, who maintained its West Coast headquarters in San Marino from the early 1960s until 1989. The organization was, and still is, plagued with accusations of anti-Semitism by the Anti-Defamation League and Southern Poverty Law Center.

San Marino’s anti-Semitism kept pace with its unspoken policy of excluding minorities from the city. As late as 1970, according to the L.A. Times, there was only one black family in the city. One commenter on ILW.COM, an immigration law website, writes: “In the 1940s and 1950s, Asians were supposed to leave [San Marino] after dark, and only whites were allowed to buy homes there.”

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Los Angeles Times, January 19, 1975.

When policeman-turned-author Joseph Wambaugh moved to San Marino in 1975, he joined the San Gabriel Country Club—the elite links that serve San Marino, San Gabriel, and neighboring wealthy communities. When he asked a member if the club restricted Jews, the man replied nervously, “Are you only part Jewish?” (Asked if the San Gabriel club had any Latinos, another golfer responded: “Well sure, we have some Mexicans—the caddies!”)

Things did begin to change slowly when Asians started to settle in San Marino in the 1980s, adding to the diversity of the city, but this led to further tensions: in 1984, a 17-year-old Chinese-American youth was assaulted at Huntington Middle School in a racially-motivated attack by three white teenagers. Asian businesses were vandalized throughout the decade, and one resident even petitioned to have English made the official language of the city in 1986.

As late as 1988, a study conducted by the City of Sacramento concluded that the San Gabriel Country Club may have been one of several golf courses statewide that still excluded Jews and non-Caucasians. (Even today, the club faces occasional discrimination charges.)

When Georgia Gabor released her memoir in June 1981, she embarked on a national tour to promote it, with stops in Oklahoma and elsewhere. In the book, she recounted her experience as a teenager in Budapest, Hungary during WWII. After the Nazis overtook the city in 1944, she saw her entire family killed, and she herself escaped three times—once by climbing over a pile of dead bodies that were being devoured by rats. She also witnessed the torture and killing of scores of other Jews. Later, she escaped the Soviet army as it overtook Hungary following the war. Fleeing Europe in 1947, she was adopted by foster parents and eventually settled in Southern California, where she graduated from UCLA.

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Georgia M. Gabor’s book, released by the Amen Publishing Company in June 1981. (Courtesy of AbeBooks.)

Her story inspired countless readers and students, but it also provoked unexpected hostility. Even as San Marino’s John Birchers railed against the assault on American freedoms by a phantom communist army, unknown citizens peppered Gabor with threats over the phone. On a routine visit to the post office, Gabor returned to her car to find the message “Jew, get out of San Marino” written in magic marker.

Then there were the swastikas. They greeted her everywhere: on school desks, lockers, homework assignments, and a white supremacist flyer left anonymously on her table. Was it the work of students? If so, who were their parents?

When Gabor complained to the San Marino school board, some accused her of being “obsessed with the Holocaust.” One letter from a parent called her “sly and cunning,” and, in 1990, 36 parents petitioned to have her removed from the school, according to the L.A. Times.

Gabor, who appears in a video interview for the Bay Area Holocaust Oral History Project in 1983, looking bubbly and cheerful—younger than her 52 years—was evidently exhausted by 1990, when her doctor ordered her to go on medical leave from her teaching job. “The harassment had made her physically and emotionally ill,” reported the Times.

In October 1991, she sued the San Marino Unified School District, alleging discrimination and claiming they had offered her fewer benefits than she deserved when she applied for early retirement. Whether she ever received any benefits is unclear. According to her own account, she was forced to sign “an 11-page legal document that absolved the district of any future liability.” Tom Brown of the California Teacher’s Association said he “had never heard of a teacher being asked to sign such a statement.”

The result of the lawsuit remains uncertain—only one newspaper account seems to have reported her story—and the Social Security Death Index says that Gabor died in Sierra Madre in 1994—at the age of 64. One has to wonder if the years of intimidation she endured in San Marino contributed to her early death. (Author’s note: I searched for surviving relatives online, but wasn’t able to locate any.)

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

Watch a 1983 interview with Georgia Gabor on her Holocaust experiences here.

Additional Sources:

– “Asian Broker Says 8 Teens Didn’t Steal Chinese Sign,” Los Angeles Times, March 5, 1989

– “Birch Society Named as Being Anti-Semitic,” Los Angeles Times, February 2, 1966.

– “Golf With the Club Set Not a Game for Ex-Cop,” Los Angeles Times, January 19, 1975

– “A Long Lesson in Hate,” Los Angeles Times, April 23, 1992.

– “No Community a Racial Island, San Marino Told,” Los Angeles Times, March 4, 1970

– “San Marino: A Low-Keyed Elegance,” Los Angeles Times, February 1, 1976

– “San Marino Youth Vows to Take English Issue to Voters,” Los Angeles Times, March 16, 1986

– “Victim’s Book Vividly Recalls Jewish Holocaust in Hungary,” Los Angeles Times, September 27, 1981




8 Responses for “Courage and Cowardice in San Marino”

  1. Everyone should read this.

  2. Nick says:

    The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.

  3. Nick says:

    It’s a sobering reminder of universal fears, dreads and hatreds that lie buried in all of us:
    “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”
    – Hannah Arendt

  4. Irina says:

    What a powerful story… and to think, that only 20 or so years ago, there was such pervasive anti-semitism in San Marino. The ugliness that some carry within them never ceases to shock.

  5. Unfair rumors of anti-Semitism plagued The John Birch Society for years, even though the Society had Jews on its governing National Council from the very beginning, even to today. JBS Founder Robert Welch asked the California Senate to conduct an investigation into the Society to determine once and for all if the Society was anti-Semitic. The investigation took two years and Mr. Welch gave them unprecedented access to the Society.

    On June 12, 1963, the subcommittee filed its 62-page report and released copies to the press. Opponents of the Society were shocked to discover that what they hoped would destroy the Society once and for all turned out, instead, to be a wholesale exoneration of the many charges against it.

    About charges of secrecy and fascism, the subcommittee’s report stated: “We have not found the Society to be either a secret or a fascist organization, nor have we found the great majority of its members in California to be mentally unstable, crackpots, or hysterical about the threat of Communist subversion.” (Page 61)

    Regarding charges of anti-Semitism and racism, the report offered: “Our investigations have disclosed no evidence of anti-Semitism on the part of anyone connected with the John Birch Society in California, and much evidence to the effect that it opposes racism in all forms.” (Page 39)

    In its concluding paragraph, the report stated: “Our investigation and study was requested by the Society, which had been publicly charged with being a secret, fascist, subversive, un-American, anti-Semitic organization. We have not found any of these accusations to be supported by the evidence.” (Pages 61-62).

    You can still find copies of the report online. The JBS welcomes all people of good character who believe in its mission of less government, more responsibility and — with God’s help — a better world.

  6. George says:

    Asian sundown town uh? Now the town is majority Asian. What goes around comes around. White people should be thankful that Asians are not like them.

  7. K.B. Forbes says:

    Ms. Gabor was a wonderful and inspiring teacher who would greet you with her delightfully accented, “Hello, darling!” Matt Hormann failed miserably in this piece because Ms. Gabor, an anti-communist, was a member of the John Birch Society. She confirmed that fact to me. Her book was sold at their then-Western Headquarters on Mission Street in San Marino. Her book was a damning indictment against the Nazi atrocities and Soviet occupation (and I hope Hormann takes the time to read it.) Besides the silencing of her hour of lifetime stories on the Holocaust in the late 1980s by the San Marino Unified School District, she wrangled with school administrators, one specifically who went on to work for Christian conservative Dr. James Dobson. A chain smoker, Ms. Gabor also went through a bitter divorce that took a steep toll on her in the late 1980s. Her warm memory survives.

  8. Donny Brook says:

    I grew up in San Marino in the ’60s and ’70s and it was a GREAT place to live back then. San Marino never had any problems that other wealthy communities had like Beverly Hills and Bel Air and part of that was because people valued the standards that made San Marino a great place to live.

    This article makes it sound like San Marino was run by the KKK which is not even close to being true. I remember Ms Gabor and her problem was she just couldn’t stick to the subject she was supposed to teach which was MATHEMATICS and not social science and history. Wasting valuable class time hearing her long sob stories of her youth was a waste of our time when we were trying to learn math and she REFUSED to stop with her lectures on history which prompted only and handful of other idiots to single her out. Not saying it was right what they did, but she just kept up with her off topic social justice lectures in the wrong forum.

    BTW, the local chapter of the John Birch Society was a great organization, their main push was anti-communist and getting the United States out of the United Nations, a theme that WAS NOT a racist theme, and one that most Americans in that era agreed with. San Marino was where wealthy conservatives industrialist/business people lived, Beverly Hills was wealthy liberals pro socialists lived. Now San Marino is where wealthy Chinese communists industrialist from mainland China live… oh the irony.

    Sadly, San Marino is no longer the crime free peaceful city it once was. Most of the crime— some of it very violent including rape and drug offenses are being perpetrated by the children of these Chinese communists who now live there and in Arcadia. San Marino had fewer problems when the demographics was what the writer of this article feels the need to disparage and that is the TRUTH.

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