WARSAW (JTA) — Fifteen years ago, Pawel Bramson was a skinhead shouting anti-Semitic and racist slogans during soccer matches. He hated Jews and blacks – simply, he says, because you need someone to blame for what’s wrong in the world.
These days he keeps kosher, wears the long beard and black hat typical of some Orthodox Jews, and assists Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich.
Bramson’s transformation — documented in the film "The Moon Is Jewish," which recently received the Warsaw Phoenix Award at the Jewish Motifs International Film Festival for the best film showing modern Jewish life in Poland — began when he was 22.
Co-written by Bramson and Michal Tkaczynski, the documentary takes its title from a Marcin Swietlicki song that tells of a fabricated Jewish plot to claim that everything — the pillow, the moon — is Jewish.
"The script for this film was written by life," says Bramson, 36, who discusses his life, past and present, in the documentary.
"The Moon Is Jewish," which has been screened at several festivals in the United States, “was like a confession on which I say some bad things I did in my life,” he says. “This film can be treated a bit like my public confession, a self-critical lynching."
As a young man, Bramson wasn’t particularly interested in his roots, having had no reason to think his family had hidden anything from him.
“I was an Aryan, maybe not the blond one, but for sure not Jewish,” he says. As far as he knew, he was the son of practicing Catholics. "The thought of being Jewish was not even on my mind.”
Not until his wife, Aleksandra, began researching her own roots.
“She started looking for her ancestors in the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. She was checking her roots and at the same time she checked mine,” Bramson says. “When she found out, she came home and showed me the documents” indicating that both their families had been Jewish.
Bramson sought verification from his parents. The information his wife had found was true, they told him. His maternal grandparents had been Jewish.
The young man began to turn his life around, saying that he realized he wasn’t the person he had thought.
Like other young Poles who have discovered their Jewish roots, Bramson began going to the Jewish Historical Institute, to synagogue, speaking with a rabbi to learn as much as possible about Judaism. He became increasingly involved in the life of Warsaw’s Jewish community.
“My father was delighted when I became Jewish because he always wanted me to be religious, no matter in which religion,” Bramson says.
Now he is a mashgiach, a kosher supervisor, and an assistant to Schudrich. The chief rabbi calls him a “unique human being.”
“Every day he tries to improve himself as a better human bring using his religion, Judaism, as a way to become closer to God and kinder to human beings," Schudrich says.
Przemyslaw Szpilman, who manages the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw, met Bramson 11 years ago at the city’s Nozyk Synagogue.
"The change in Pawel’s life is huge," Szpilman says. "It took him many years to become such person he is today. When we met for the first time in the synagogue, he wasn’t sure it is his way of life.”
But Bramson’s wife was going to synagogue daily, and he decided to join her, Szpilman says.
“Like every other Jew here, Pawel is important for Jewish community," he says. "Every new person is well welcome here.”
Michael Traison, an American lawyer who is involved in numerous projects commemorating Jewish history and culture in Poland, has known Bramson for years.
"Pawel Bramson has been the subject of numerous news reports around the world for several years. Each time his story appears it seems comparable to a news bulletin that life has been discovered on Mars,” Traison says. “Indeed, for much of the Jewish world, believing that all Jewish life in Poland was extinguished almost several decades ago, Poland is Mars and Jewish life is as unlikely as finding a thriving city on a remote planet circling a distant star.”
The symbolism of Bramson’s story, he says, “resonates much like the rebirth of Israel itself.”
There was a time, Bramson acknowledges, that he used to shout anti-Semitic chants at soccer games of his beloved Legia Warsaw club — much like the 18 Legia fans who were charged in March with inciting religious hatred for screaming slogans at fans of Widzew Lodz such as "Hamas, Hamas, Juden auf den Gas" ("Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas"). Several have admitted their guilt.
Despite the club’s rowdy and, in some cases, racist fans, Bramson stands with Legia.
“Yesterday I met a friend with whom I did some crazy things when we were younger," he says. "We talked about our memories and the fact that they are not the best. Now I see these things in a different way.”
His son, who attends the Talmudical Academy of Baltimore, is also a Legia fan. “I can’t even imagine he couldn’t be. It’s something that must be given in our family from generation to generation," Bramson says with a laugh.
"When he arrives to Poland and there’s soccer, he goes to the match. Just not on Saturday.”
Asked how difficult it was to change his former life to the one he lives today, Bramson says the evolution isn’t over.
“I’m still changing my life, and I think I will never stop," he says. "It’s not so simple.”