WARSAW — 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.”
Pawel, who also uses his Hebrew name Pinchas, asked that his last name not be used for fear that his old neo-Nazi friends could harm him or his family.
Twenty years after the fall of Communism, Pawel is perhaps the most unlikely example of the Jewish revival under way in Poland, of a moment in which Jewish leaders here say the country is finally showing solid signs of shedding the rabid anti-Semitism of the past.
Before 1939, Poland was home to more than three million Jews, more than 90 percent of whom were killed by the Nazis. Most who survived emigrated. Of the fewer than 50,000 who remained in Poland, many abandoned or hid their Judaism during decades of Communist oppression in which political pogroms against Jews persisted.
Today, though, Michael Schudrich, the chief rabbi of Poland, said he considered Poland the most pro-Israel country in the European Union. He said the attitude of Pope John Paul II, a Pole, who called Jews “our elder brothers,” had finally entered the public consciousness.
Ten years after the revelation that 1,600 Jews of the town of Jedwabne were burned alive by their Polish neighbors in July 1941, he said the national myth that all Poles were victims of World War II had finally been shattered.
“Before 1989 there was a feeling that it was not safe to say, ‘I am a Jew,’ ” Rabbi Schudrich said. “But two decades later, there is a growing feeling that Jews are a missing limb in Poland. The level of anti-Semitism remains unacceptable, but the image of the murderous Pole seared in the consciousness of many Jews after the war doesn’t correspond to the Poland of 2010.”
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.
Pawel’s metamorphosis from baptized Catholic skinhead to Jew began in a bleak neighborhood of concrete tower blocks in Warsaw in the 1980s, where Pawel said he and his friends reacted to the gnawing uniformity of socialism by embracing anti-Semitism. They shaved their heads, carried knives and greeted one another with the raised right arm gesture of the Nazi salute.
“Oy vey, I hate to admit it, but we would beat up local Jewish and Arab kids and homeless people,” Pawel said on a recent day from the Nozyk Synagogue here. “We sang about stupid stuff like Satan and killing people. We believed that Poland should only be for Poles.”
One day, he recalled, he and his friends skipped school and took a train to Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp, near Krakow. “We made jokes that we wished the exhibition had been bigger and that the Nazis had killed even more Jews,” he said.
Even as Pawel embraced the life of a neo-Nazi, he said that he had pangs that his identity was built on a lie. His churchgoing father seemed overly fond of quoting the Old Testament. His grandfather hinted about past family secrets.
“One time when I told my grandfather that Jews were bad, he exploded and screamed at me, ‘If I ever hear you say such a thing again under my roof, you will never come back!’ ”
Pawel joined the army and married a fellow skinhead at age 18. But his sense of self changed irrevocably at the age of 22, when his wife, Paulina, suspecting that she had Jewish roots, went to a genealogical institute and discovered Pawel’s maternal grandparents on a register of Warsaw Jews, along with her own grandparents.
When Pawel confronted his parents, he said, they broke down and told him the truth: his maternal grandmother was Jewish and had survived the war by being hidden in a monastery by a group of nuns. His paternal grandfather, also a Jew, had seven brother and sisters, most of whom had perished in the Holocaust.
“I went to my parents and said, ‘What the hell’? Imagine, I was a neo-Nazi and heard this news? I couldn’t look in the mirror for weeks,” he said. “My parents were the typical offspring of Jewish survivors of the war, who decided to conceal their Jewish identity to try and protect their family.”
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.
“When I asked a rabbi, ‘Why do I feel this way?’ he replied, ‘The sleeping souls of your ancestors are calling out to you.’ ”
At age 24, he was circumcised. Two years later, he decided to become an ultra-Orthodox Jew. He and his wife are raising their two children in a Jewish home.
Pawel noted that he was still singled out by the same anti-Semites who once counted him among their ranks. “When younger people see me on the street with my top hat and side curls they sometimes laugh at me,” he said. “But it is the old ladies who are the meanest. Sometimes, they use the language I used when I was a skinhead and say, ‘Get out and go back to your country’ or ‘Jew go home!’ ”
And now he is studying to become a shochet, a person charged with killing animals according to Jewish dietary laws. “I am good with knives,” he explained.