“They were chanting Heil Hitler, Heil Hitler. I was shocked and disgusted. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.”
These frightened words could have been scripted for young Alic Gluch, a 14-year-old King David Victory Park grade 9 learner, who had just performed the role of a little Jewish boy who perished in a concentration camp during the Holocaust.
But they weren’t in the script, they were part of a real life anti-Semitic incident to which he and his fellow actors were exposed. He was referring to chants of teenagers from other high schools in the audience while they were performing “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas”, a highly emotive play staged by King David Victory Park as part of the Grads One Act Play Festival at Waterstone College, Kibler Park, last Thursday evening.
The incident did not stop there and went on to people chanting at the Jewish pupils, their teachers and parents, when they were in the dressing rooms and as they were packing up early to leave to get away from the volatile situation.
By all accounts, the teenage ringleaders behind the incident are from Edenvale High School, which was also participating in the Festival.
Gluch played the title role of Shmuel who befriends Bruno, the son of the concentration camp commandant, and together these two little boys perish in the gas chamber. It was during this final smoke-filled scene when the mother looks for her dead son, students at the back of the hall started mocking the performance and shouting “Heil Hitler”, “Bruno Bruno”.
“I felt quite nauseous,” said Gluch. “I realised that the world hasn’t changed much since the Holocaust. People still think it’s fun to mock Jews and stereotype them, which is exactly what happened during the war. This episode made me feel insecure.”
The ugliness started when the King David performers were walking to the hall in their costumes and they heard loud chants of “Heil Hitler” from the Edenvale dressing room, which was next to theirs.
Renos Spanoudes, who is head of drama and arts & culture at King David Victory Park, did his best to keep the actors calm, telling them before they went on stage “to be strong and to present a powerful production, because these stories of the Holocaust need to be told because if we, as a Jewish day school don’t, who will?”
He told Jewish Report that other than the chanting during the performance, students in the gallery laughed and applauded through this very serious and poignant play.
After the performance – that was nominated for five awards, including Best Supporting Actor for Gluch – a high school pupil apprehended a King David actor who played a Nazi in the show and gave him the Nazi salute, shouting “Heil Hitler”.
Then outside the dressing room, where Victory Park was, teenagers again chanted “Heil Hitler, Heil Hitler,” Spanoudes said.
One of the King David fathers, Gary Goldberg, arrived to fetch his son and heard what happened. He tried to sort things out. He confronted one of the Edenvale High boys concerned, demanding he called his teacher. Goldberg said she didn’t seem to see the seriousness of the situation.
A verbal altercation ensued between Goldberg and the teacher, who said she had once taught history, and “knew about this type of thing”, adding that a distant relation of hers was Jewish.
Said Spanoudes, in an emotional WhatsApp group voice message he sent to fellow theatre people while driving away from Waterstone: “It was a very volatile situation. I made the immediate decision to pack up, we loaded the truck.
“I went to the adjudicators and told them what they were doing and they (the Edenvale pupils) said they were very, very sorry,” said Spanoudes. “They were very, very impressed with the play. It is astounding and heartbreaking, they told us. They gave us our nominations certificates.”
Spanoudes described the intense waves of emotion that swept over him before, during and after the event. “We were shattered and the incident threw us badly for the next 48 hours,” he said. “It was traumatic and terrifying for all of us.”
In his voice message, he described the school involved as “one of those schools that put swastikas on the knuckles of their rugby players”…
Spanoudes said in the message: “The matter is being taken up with the headmaster at the school. A woman from the Jewish Board of Deputies was also present. I am quite shaken as are the cast. This is really tragic.”
Wendy Kahn, national director of the South African Board of Deputies, said the incident was reported when it happened. “We have been in contact with the various people involved and affected by the anti-Semitic incident, and conducted a thorough debriefing.
“We are aware of the identities of the perpetrators. We are taking this matter very seriously, working closely with the principal of King David Victory Park and together we will be meeting with the principal of Edenvale High to address this issue and determine a constructive way forward.
“From our investigations, it appears that the response of the teacher accompanying the Edenvale students was unsatisfactory. This will also be addressed at our meeting with Edenvale School next week.
“From time to time anti-Semitic incidents of this nature occur during interschool events, both in the cultural and sporting arenas. We have in the past been involved in addressing these incidents. We do not believe that this is an indication of an upsurge in anti-Semitism.
“Comparative studies with other Diaspora communities continue to show that there are relatively lower levels of anti-Semitic activity in South Africa. This is something the SAJBD will continue to monitor and respond to issues when they arise.”
Vernon Rorich, headmaster of Waterstone College, said their school simply hosted the event and the incident was between King David and Edenvale High School. “One of our teachers tried to diffuse the situation between the two groups,” he said, “but our school was not involved.”
Jewish Report made several attempts – phone calls and an e-mail – to get comment from Dr Larry Harmer, headmaster of Edenvale High School, but he had not responded or returned calls by the time of us going to press.
Andrew Baker, headmaster of King David Victory Park, said he was having a meeting with Wendy Kahn next week and would release a statement afterwards. He did say he believed a programme was needed at the school to address this issue and prepare children for the reality they will face after they leave school.
“I have spoken to the head of the school concerned and set up a meeting together with Wendy to address and resolve this.”
He referred Jewish Report to his weekly newsletter in which he wrote: “It is ironic that during a week in which we are celebrating diversity, tolerance and deep understanding of one another, some of our students and parents were exposed to a nasty incident involving anti-Semitic behaviour… We sadly live in a world in which we are exposed to hurtful and insensitive things that are said, actions and gestures from people who either want to intentionally cause pain and suffering or who know no better. Most of the time, the school is able to shield our children from this behaviour, but sadly not always.”
Source: South African Jewish Report