Meet the Polish neo-Nazi skinhead couple who discovered they are JEWISH - and turned their lives around
A married couple have revealed how they turned their backs on their violent neo-Nazi past – after discovering they were both Jewish.
The one-time skinheads grew up as part of a hate-filled white power gang in Warsaw, the capital of Poland and once the site of the largest Jewish ghetto in Nazi-occupied Europe.
But now they are devout members of an Orthodox Jewish synagogue.
The truth about their roots had been buried by their parents to escape persecution from first the Germans and then the Soviet-controlled post-war government.
Shocking discovery: Pawel and Ola, in an undated image, were part of the neo-Nazi skinhead movement - until they discovered they were Jewish
'I love my husband': Ola tells her story to CNN's World's Untold Stories
Even when the couple started spewing anti-Semitic slogans and attacking Jews, their parents still kept silent about their heritage.
Pawel and Ola – who asked for only their first names to be used in a CNN documentary on their story - met at school when they were twelve and married at eighteen.
By then they were heavily involved in the neo-Nazi movement that was rife in Warsaw’s concrete jungle housing estates.
Just 350,000 Jews remained in Poland after the war, a tenth of the population from before the Holocaust, and many fled in the quarter of a century that followed.
For those that remained, parents often decided it better to keep their true faith a secret.
But Ola remembered something her mother once let slip about her Jewish heritage.
And when she checked at Poland’s Jewish Historical Institute she learned the truth – that not only was she a Jew, but so was her husband.
She told CNN of her shock. ‘Something told me to do it. 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 she did not know how to tell Pawel the truth.‘I didn't know how to tell him. I loved him even if he was a punk or skinhead, if he beat people up or not.'
When she did, a disbelieving Pawel confronted his parents.
He said he had been a skinhead and a nationalist '100 per cent'. '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,' he told CNN.
Belief: Chief Rabbi of Poland Michael Schudrick, who helped the couple turn their lives around
It was difficult to describe the emotions he felt at learning he was Jewish, he said.
‘My first thought was what am I going to tell people? What am I going to tell the boys? Should I admit it or not? I was angry, sad, scared, unsure.’
He was unable to look in the mirror, he said, because he hated what he saw - a Jew.
But as he came to terms with his identity he approached Chief Rabbi of Poland Michael Schudrich, who became a mentor to the couple.
Pawel, now 33, added that he does 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,' he explained. 'The people who I hurt can hold a grudge against me.’
Today, the couple are active members of the Jewish community in Warsaw.
Pawel is studying to work in a slaughterhouse killing animals according to the Jewish Kosher requirement and Ola is working in the synagogue's kitchen as a kosher supervisor.
Rabbi Shudrich paid tribute to them for having the courage to turn their lives around.
‘The fact that they were skinheads actually increased the amount of respect I have for them,’ he said to CNN.
‘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,’ he added.
The white power skinhead revival in the seventies and eighties became closely identified with racist and anti-Semitic attacks and spread to Europe and parts of North America.
According to a 2007 report by the Anti-Defamation League, skinhead groups have becoming more active in the U.S. in recent years, with a particular focus on non-white immigration.
- 'Secret Jew' will air on CNN International's 'World's Untold Stories' in the UK on Tuesday, September 28 at 12.30pm and 5.30pm. Check the CNN website for listings in the U.S. at www.cnn.com/worldsuntoldstories
See video here
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