Shout of ‘Heil Hitler, Heil Trump’ starts panic at Baltimore theater

Christina Tkacik, Sarah Meehan and Lillian Reed
The Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE — A man shouted a pro-Nazi and pro-Donald Trump salute during a performance of “Fiddler on the Roof” at Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre on Wednesday night.

Audience member Rich Scherr said the outburst during intermission prompted fears that it was the beginning of a shooting. The man, who had been seated in the balcony, began shouting “Heil Hitler, Heil Trump.” Immediately after that, “People started running,” Scherr said. “I’ll be honest, I was waiting to hear a gunshot. I thought, ‘Here we go.’”

Samit Verma was seated in the balcony when he heard shouting and saw a man holding his hand straight up in a Nazi salute, he said in an email Thursday. Ushers rushed over to the man while audience members quickly made their way out of the theater and into the hall, Verma said.

“The people around me appeared to be quite shaken by the incident,” Verma said in the email. “There were some people in tears.”

Police were called and security escorted the man out a few minutes later, a police spokeswoman said, and the show continued. Witnesses told the Baltimore Sun that the audience applauded as the man was removed.

Heart racing: But Scherr, 49, said it was hard to focus on the play after that. “My heart was just racing. I didn’t even really pay attention to the second act.” The man was not arrested, a police spokeswoman said.

“Fiddler” tells the story of a Jewish family as it faces persecution in tsarist Russia. It’s based on “Tevye the Dairyman,” a fictional story originally written in Yiddish. The play opened Tuesday and runs through Sunday in Baltimore.

In a statement, Hippodrome officials said they would not tolerate behavior like the theater saw Wednesday.

“The France-Merrick Performing Arts Center takes the security and safety of its subscribers and patrons seriously. We employ a full team of professional security personnel, who are always on premise during live events to implement bag checks, provide screening and metal detection, and to monitor cameras throughout the venue,” the Hippodrome’s statement said. “We apologize to those patrons who were affected by this unfortunate incident. Our venue has a proud tradition of providing shared experiences to people from all walks of life, right in the heart of this wonderfully diverse city, and we intend to continue that tradition in the spirit of bringing people together, not dividing them.”

Hippodrome President Ron Legler declined to comment.

‘Hateful and hurtful’: Howard Libit, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, said the incident was concerning to the Jewish community, and he understood why theatergoers worried the outburst could have signaled the start of a more violent episode.

“Things like that anywhere, much less crowded theaters, is a really potentially dangerous thing, you know. We’re all very sensitive and concerned in the wake of the recent shootings,” Libit said. “Shouting that seems to be the equivalent of shouting ‘fire’ in a theater, or shouting ‘bomb.’

“I’m certainly grateful that it wasn’t the start of some broader, more violent incident,” Libit added. “Whatever he was intending to say was hateful and hurtful and potentially very dangerous … it sounds like some of the people were kind of moving quickly to get out of the way.”

The outburst occurred during intermission, immediately following a scene that depicts a wedding interrupted by a pogrom — an attack on Jewish people which can range from destruction of homes or property to outright massacre.

Audience member Theodore Casser said the incident at intermission made the following act all the more poignant for him as a person of Jewish faith.

“It is a story inherently about Jews being made not to feel welcome, and here is this bozo who decided to express that he felt we should not be welcome here either,” Casser said.

Emily Wilson has tickets for an upcoming performance of “Fiddler” this weekend. News of the incident alarmed her, but would not deter her from attending, she said Thursday. Friends have called though, asking her to be careful. One relayed a similar experience of anti-Semitic comments shouted in a grocery store, Wilson said.

“I didn’t think I’d be comparing notes about a Nazi on a Thursday morning,” she said, adding that she’ll be more alert at the Hippodrome this weekend.

Other incidents: The United States has seen a recent surge in anti-Jewish incidents, including a shooting last month at a Pittsburgh synagogue that killed 11 people inside.

Anti-Jewish incidents reported to police in Maryland jumped 47 percent in 2017 to 78 incidents, according to a Baltimore Sun review of records. That was amid a 35 percent increase of overall hate or bias incidents reported to police statewide last year.

Earlier Wednesday, a swastika and anti-black graffiti were found in a bathroom at Goucher College in Towson.

The Baltimore Jewish Council was slated to hold its annual “Lessons of the Shoah” event on Thursday, bringing together 80 students from five high schools to explore lessons from the Holocaust and foster tolerance, understanding and respect among diverse students. The annual event, which was canceled because of inclement weather, is part of the council’s effort to curb anti-Semitism through education.

“Can you necessarily fix someone’s heart? I don’t know,” Libit said. “But I think if you get to people, get to teach our children young, at a young age, and continue to reinforce those values … hopefully we will stamp out anti-Semitism and racism and hate.”

Audience member Alan Brigida, a school teacher, said the incident reminded him of moments in history when people unified together following the persecution of one group. Brigida said he is not Jewish, but for a moment Wednesday night he felt pain for those of Jewish faith in the audience.

“We don’t feel that pain every day, but I felt it then,” he said. “Although I’m not Jewish, I felt Jewish when I heard those words at that performance.”

Casser said he felt comfortable with the Hippodrome’s security measures Wednesday, but was uneasy about an anti-Semitic incident happening in a city with a sizable Jewish population.

“It’s a little sobering because it’s getting closer and closer to home,” he said. “How safe are any of us anyway?”