Pawel must have never imagined those words would mean something special to him. He was a Neo-Nazi skinhead, and The New York Times used his story to illustrate a most unique portion of the Jewish revival in post-Communist Poland:
When Pawel looks into the mirror, he can still sometimes see a neo-Nazi skinhead staring back, the man he was before he covered his shaved head with a skullcap, traded his fascist ideology for the Torah and renounced violence and hatred in favor of God.
“I still struggle every day to discard my past ideas,” said Pawel, a 33-year-old ultra-Orthodox Jew and former truck driver, noting with little irony that he had to stop hating Jews in order to become one. “When I look at an old picture of myself as a skinhead, I feel ashamed. Every day I try and do teshuvah,” he said, using the Hebrew word for repentance. “Every minute of every day. There is a lot to make up for.”
This is a very promising start, followed by a few contextual paragraphs that indicate the tectonic shifts underway in a nation that was once home to 3 million Jews, and then for half a century home to almost none.
The small Jewish revival has been under way for several years around eastern Europe. Hundreds of Poles, a majority of them raised as Catholics, are either converting to Judaism or discovering Jewish roots submerged for decades in the aftermath of World War II.
In the past five years, Warsaw’s Jewish community had grown to 600 families from 250. The cafes and bars of the old Jewish quarter in Krakow brim with young Jewish converts listening to Israeli hip hop music.
Michal Pirog, a popular Polish dancer and television star, who recently proclaimed his Jewish roots on national television, said the revelation had won him more fans than enemies. “Poland is changing,” he said. “I am Jewish and I feel good,” he said.
To be sure, anti-Semitism hasn’t entirely disappeared in Poland. And the Jewish community, though rebuilding, can’t even be called a skeleton of its former self. Further, Jews becoming skinheads, and making the transition back, is not unheard of. In fact, Israeli has a bit of a problem with immigrants from the former Soviet Union embracing skinhead ideology.
But Pawel’s story shows how changes in the religious landscape at the national level can have profound and surprising effects at the personal level. Though the headline was “Changing Face in Poland — Skinhead Puts on Skullcap,” the real story was the changing face of Pawel.
(P.S. Catholics can wear skullcaps too.)
Pawel, whose photo leave little question that he davens daily, sprinkles a little Yiddish as he recalls a childhood of beating up Jewish and Arab kids and skipping school to take the train to Auschwitz, which was more a national shrine to him than a memorial. And then we get the twist: Pawel discovers that his maternal grandmother was Jewish, which means his mother was Jewish, which means — you guessed it — Pawel was Jewish.
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.
What next? Well, at age 24 Pawel made the rare choice of undergoing an adult circumcision. Abraham would be proud.
And so should NYT reporter Dan Bilefsky. The way he revealed Pawel’s journey was so brilliantly structured and so emotionally attached that I felt cheated when I got to the end. I wanted this to be not an 1,100-word newspaper feature but an 8,000-word magazine profile.