a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

The enemy within

Posted by Thomas Nephew on September 26th, 2010

One of those fascinating human interest stories got kicked around tonight on Facebook, this one about a Polish couple, Pawel and Ola, who grew up in the projects of Warsaw and ran with neo-Nazi skinheads there as teenagers.  As neo-Nazi skinheads are wont to do, Pawel would beat up whichever minority he could — and in Poland, that includes a remnant population of Polish Jews.

And in a nice twist, Polish Jews included Pawel and Ola.  Kristin Cuff, Secret Jewish heritage converts neo-Nazi (CNN):

…Ola was nagged by a conversation with her mother that she barely remembered — something about Jewish roots.  She found her answer at the Jewish Historical Institute, which says it has collections documenting 10 centuries of Jewish experience in Poland.  While there she said she felt compelled to also check Pawel’s family history — and he too came from a Jewish background.  Something told me to… It was unbelievable — it turned out that we had Jewish roots. It was a shock. I didn’t expect to find out that I had a Jewish husband,” she said.


“I was a nationalist 100 percent. Back then when we were skinheads it was all about white power and I believed Poland was only for Poles. That Jews were the biggest plague and the worst evil of this world. At least in Poland it was thought this way as at the time anything that was bad was the fault of the Jews…” he said.

But now he was one.  And eventually, he approached a rabbi and joined his synagogue.  Rabbi Shudrich:

The fact that they were skinheads actually increased the amount of respect I have for them. That they could’ve been where they were, understood that that was not the right way, then embraced rather than run away the fact that they were part of the people who they used to hate.” “I think also it says on a personal level, never write somebody off. Where they may be 10 years ago doesn’t have to be where they are today. And the human being has this unlimited capability of changing and sometimes even for the better.

Now this really is an interesting story, but — on the basis of what’s in the article, at least — I respectfully disagree with the rabbi that it demonstrates any of that.  As one person commented in the Facebook discussion I noticed, Pawel seems to just be a guy who had never put himself in someone else’s shoes — and found one day he was in them.  Nothing in the story suggests he’s suddenly noticeably, actively more tolerant to other minorities, and given how obviously interesting that would have been, I’m guessing it didn’t happen.  Indeed, Pawel is at less pains to express regrets about his bad old days than to say how untroubled he is by them :

I’m not saying that I don’t have regrets but it’s not something that I walk around and lash myself over… I feel sorry for those that I beat up… but I don’t hold a grudge against myself. The people who I hurt can hold a grudge against me.

People undoubtedly do have the capacity to change for the better.  But — at least as told — this is not such a story, I think.  Pawel ran with the skinheads and beat up Jews; then he found out he was Jewish; then he joined a synagogue.  But joining a synagogue or becoming Jewish doesn’t magically confer virtue on Pawel, it just identifies his new group.  Told this plainly, all the story really suggests is that people stick with whatever group they can identify with, and find a new one if they have to.

And that doesn’t change them, that just changes their allegiance.  Pawel is presumably no longer anti-Semitic.  But he’s still the kind of guy who would join them.  There’s nothing to suggest that guy — the enemy within — has gone away.

One Response to “The enemy within”

  1. Lady Bouvier Says:

    Pawel and Ola : showing us all limitless possibilities of change by going from violent Nazi sympathizers to… a butcher and a soup Nazi at a Kosher deli counter?
    re not Pawel and Ola taking the same pleasures as before, satisfying the same hidden urges, only displacing them by embracing more acceptable social positions?

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