Skinhead to ultra-Orthodox (UPDATED)


The New York Times gets it exactly right when they describe the story of Pawel, a Polish neo-Nazi turned ultra-Orthodox Jew, as one of the strangest manifestations of the Polish Jewish revival. 

But while extreme, it remains a potent manifestation of a self-discovery that happens virtually every day in Poland. 

Here’s the Times account:

Pawel joined the army and married a fellow skinhead at age 18. But his sense of self changed irrevocably at the age of 22, when his wife, Paulina, suspecting that she had Jewish roots, went to a genealogical institute and discovered Pawel’s maternal grandparents on a register of Warsaw Jews, along with her own grandparents.

When Pawel confronted his parents, he said, they broke down and told him the truth: his maternal grandmother was Jewish and had survived the war by being hidden in a monastery by a group of nuns. His paternal grandfather, also a Jew, had seven brother and sisters, most of whom had perished in Holocaust.

“I went to my parents and said, ‘What the hell’? Imagine, I was a neo-Nazi and heard this news? I couldn’t look in the mirror for weeks,” he said. “My parents were the typical offspring of Jewish survivors of the war, who decided to conceal their Jewish identity to try and protect their”

Shaken by his own discovery, Pawel said he spent weeks of cloistered and tortured reflection but was finally overcome by a strong desire to become Jewish, even Orthodox. He acknowledged that he was drawn to extremes. He said his transformation was arduous, akin to being reborn. He even forced himself to reread “Mein Kampf” but could not get to the end because he felt physically repulsed.

“When I asked a rabbi, ‘Why do I feel this way?’ he replied, ‘The sleeping souls of your ancestors are calling out to you.’ ”

Incidentally, the genealogical institute is most likely the Jewish Genealogy & Family Heritage Center, an organization in Warsaw that helps Jews and non-Jews alike trace their family lineage. It’s one of the stories that slipped through my fingers during my week in Poland. Did I mention it was really cold that week?

UPDATE: I was right. The institute referenced above is the Jewish Genealogy & Family Heritage Center of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. Yale Reisner, the center’s director, tells me the last few weeks have seen a spike in inquiries, so the phenomenon of which Pawel is among the most unbelievable examples, "is alive and kicking."

Recommended from JTA