Archive for the ‘Poland’ Category
Pawel Bromson was a neo-Nazi skinhead who attacked ethnic miorities and vandalised Auschwitz. Then one day he discovered the secret that his family had buried – he was Jewish. On the eve of the anniversary of the Jedwabne massacre, he tells his story
The skinhead thug who became an Orthodox Jew
Ten years ago, when the President of Poland apologised for the 1941 massacre of the Jews of Jedwabne by their Polish neighbours, a controversy flared up. Much Polish public opinion supported the views of controversial Polish MEP Michał Kamiński, who opposed the apology, stating that “all of Jedwabne is being spat on and the entire country is being put on trial.” Most of the citizens of Jedwabne boycotted the memorial service, and the local Catholic church even rang its bells in attempt to drown out the prayers.
Now, however, as the seventieth anniversary of the massacre approaches, it is clear that Poland has changed. A memorial service is being planned at the site of the killings, led by the Chief Rabbi of Poland, the former Polish Foreign Minister and former Auschwitz prison inmate Władysław Bartoszewski, and a senior Catholic figure, Bishop Mieczyslaw Cislo. This is an unequivocal demonstration of Polish sympathy for the Jews.
“Ten years ago, Poland was still in shock,” says Robert Szaniawski, spokesman for the Polish Embassy in London. “Especially the people of Jedwabne. They couldn’t believe that their parents or grandparents had carried out this massacre. But now everyone accepts the facts. As a nation, we are coming to terms with it.”
In 1938, three million Jews lived in Poland. By 1945 ninety per cent had perished, and more were butchered in the communist pogroms that followed. But since the collapse of the Communist regime, attitudes in Poland have been changing. A quiet Jewish revival is taking root. In Warsaw, for example, the number of Jewish families has increased by over 150% in the last six years.
Poland’s difficult journey is, perhaps, embodied in a man called Pawel Bromson, one of a tiny handful of ultra-Orthodox Jews now living in Warsaw. Bromson has not always been an Orthodox Jew. For many years, he was a nationalist skinhead.
I meet Bromson in Oxford, at the David Slager Jewish Community Centre. This is his first interview outside Poland. With his beard and black hat, he could undoubtedly blend in anywhere from Jerusalem to Brooklyn. Yet it is surprisingly easy to imagine him as a thug. He is unusually boisterous, almost laddish; he gets me to buy him cigarettes, talks enthusiastically about drinking, and claps me too hard on the back.
He is thirty-four years old, he tells me. He grew up in the bleak tower blocks of Warsaw during the final decade of the communist regime. So far as he knew, his was a Catholic household; he had no idea that his parents were really Jewish. This was not by any means unusual. Like many others, his parents had kept their Jewishness a secret from their children for their own protection.
During Bromson’s teenage years, the Polish skinhead movement was in full swing, gaining popularity partly as a reaction against the repression of communism. “Life in Poland was stifling for young people at that time,” he tells me. “Becoming a skinhead gave us back our pride. The sense of power was intoxicating.”
Bromson and his friends would roam the streets with baseball bats, attacking people from ethnic minorities and setting fire to foreign-owned schools and shops. He was arrested many times for violent offences. Once he and his gang travelled by train to Auschwitz where they intimidated the staff, shouted that the genocide “should have been bigger,” and carried out some acts of vandalism. As he speaks, Bromson has been looking increasingly uncomfortable. “These are things I would like to forget,” he says. “I apologise if I can’t look you in the eye.” Read more on the Times website (subject to paywall restrictions)