MONTREAL — Pawel Bromson needed to down the shot of whisky Rabbi Yossi Shanowitz brought him before he could overcome his nerves and begin to speak.
In his youth, Bromson was a neo-Nazi skinhead in Poland. He hated minorities and foreigners, and Jews – although he didn’t know any – were especially loathsome to him. Bromson, 37, is today a black hat-wearing Orthodox Jew, working as a shochet and mashgiach in Warsaw.
He was in North America for the first time last week to speak about his remarkable transformation, through an interpreter, at a fundraiser for Chabad of Westmount.
His gang sometimes went to Auschwitz, vandalizing the site and shouting at visitors that the Nazis had not killed enough Jews.
Then, one day when he was in his early 20s, he learned that he was Jewish, that all four of his grandparents were Jewish, a fact that had been completely hidden.
Alcohol was his initial way of dealing with the staggering news.
When his wife came home 15 years ago with the documentary proof of his Jewishness, Bromson said he took a week off work and spent the first four days drinking.
“It was almost the end of the world for me,” he said.
Bromson appeared overwhelmed by the crowd that turned out to hear him.
He was visibly uncomfortable talking about his skinhead days, which he wants to put far behind him and declined to go into details “about the horrible things I did.” More than once he put his head in his hands to express his shame.
He said he grew up in a very patriotic family – his grandparents had been officers in the army.
His explanation – but not justification for his falling in with a racist “subculture” – was the turmoil that ensued after the fall of communism in the early 1990s, which coincided with his own rebellious adolescence.
He married early, incredibly learning from his mother-in-law on his wedding day that his bride was Jewish, although the family was completely assimilated.
“I thought she was just trying to be mean, so I reciprocated by saying, ‘Some people keep a dog or other pet at home. I’ll have a Jewess,’” he recalled.
Soon after their marriage, his wife began delving into her Jewish roots and then started going to synagogue every Friday night.
“I thought, ‘This is great – two or three hours every week without her, beer in the fridge and a football game on TV and friends over.’
“That was the first time I appreciated Shabbat.”
While researching her genealogy in the Jewish historical archives, his wife, unbeknownst to him, dug into his family tree, triumphantly brandishing a sheaf of papers that proved he was also Jewish.
After getting over his shock, Bromson began going to the synagogue with his wife and meeting with the rabbi, learning about Judaism and undergoing conversion. He thought his biggest sacrifice would be keeping kosher, but then he learned about circumcision. He underwent a belated brit milah, and is able to joke today that everything in his life has been relatively easy since. He and his wife were remarried under the synagogue’s chupah.
Devorah Shanowitz, co-director of the Chabad centre with her husband, stressed how difficult it was for Bromson to come here, confess his past and allow strangers to probe him.
But she believes it was worth it, to show that it’s possible for people to change, even radically so.
“He won’t let his children use the word ‘hate,’ not even about food,” she said, “because he knows its toxicity.”
Today, Bromson credits his wife with his transformation. “If I had not learned that I was Jewish, I think my life would have been wasted on nonsense.”
Bromson elicited some guffaws when he said he does not think there is antisemitism in Poland today. He also said he himself has not experienced antisemitism.
He raised some hackles when he refused to say how he felt about the state of Israel. “I am not a politician,” he said.
Pressed on whether he believed Israel is the home of the Jewish nation, he only responded that “every people deserves a nation.”
Some found it incredible that his wife’s parents would have allowed her to marry him. Bromson said that, while his wife knew of her Jewish ancestry from the time she was a child, her parents spoke little of it. “The fact was belittled, not taken too much into account by them,” he said.
If he could speak to his younger self, his advice would be: “Be proud of who you are, but everyone has to live together.”
As many regrets as he has, the greatest, he said, is “I lost 22 years, not knowing I was Jewish. I am still catching up.”