Wednesday, March 28, 2012

From persecutor to persecuted 

Pawel Bromson grew up in Poland, where he and his skinhead friends
sometimes roamed the streets of Warsaw, terrorizing Jewish, Arab and
black children.
On one occasion, he and his mates boarded a train to Auschwitz and vandalized the former concentration camp.

They hurled insults at staff members, telling them "the genocide should have been bigger."

Bromson and his peers were suspicious of outsiders and disliked Jews, whom they blamed for Poland's economic troubles under the Communist regime.

"I wasn't just antisemitic, I was anti-everyone," Bromson recalled.

But Bromson's life changed forever 14 years ago, after his young wife
visited a genealogical institute in Poland. His wife suspected she had
Jewish roots and while sifting through papers, she noticed the names of
Bromson's maternal grandparents on a register of Warsaw Jews.

When a stunned Bromson confronted his parents with the news, they acknowledged their Jewish past.

"I thought my life was finished; it was a catastrophe," he said of the news.

Like many Jewish families who had survived the Holocaust in Poland,
Bromson's parents hid their religion from their children in order to
protect them from persecution.
Over time, Bromson accepted the
truth about his Jewish identity and began to explore the religion. He
went to synagogue and spoke at length with a senior rabbi about Judaism.

He eventually took the major step of converting to Judaism and became a Hasidic Jew.

Bromson, 36, will speak about his unlikely journey from neo-Nazi skinhead to
Hasidic Jew on Tuesday night at a fundraising event at the Chabad of
Westmount, an educational centre that teaches about Judaism.

Bromson buried his head in shame Monday afternoon when he was asked about his neo-Nazi past.

"Please, don't ask me," he said in halting English.

"I try to forget, but I can't."

Bromson said the Poland that he grew up in has changed dramatically over the
past 20 years. Over the past few years, some Jews in Warsaw have
rediscovered their roots, and Bromson said there are now about 600
Jewish families in the city.

Before 1939, there were 3 million
Jews in Poland. About 90 per cent of them died in the concentration
camps during the Second World War. Although he said he feels comfortable walking around Warsaw, his long beard and black hat sometimes draw
stares and comments from his fellow Poles.

About two months ago,
he bumped into an old friend from his youth. Bromson said the man's
children were baffled about why their father was talking to a Hasidic
Jew. "This guy is your friend?" they asked.

Deborah Shanowitz,
program director at the Chabad of Westmount, said the centre decided to
bring Bromson to Montreal because he has a very unusual story.
"He was a neo-Nazi who hated Jews and all minorities," she noted. "After
embarking on a path of finding out what it is to be Jewish, he decided
to go back and be like his great-grandfather."

The fundraising
event is part of the Chabad's lecture series. Tickets are $180 per
couple. Bromson's speech will be translated by a Polish interpreter. For more information, go to chabadwestmount.com or call 514-937-4772.


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