Anti-Semitic pol who discovered Jewish roots faces tough road away from hate

Liz Goodwin
The Lookout

What if you're not who you think you are? Earlier this month, a Hungarian politician who used "Jewishness" as an insult and floated conspiracy theories about Jewish people buying up his country's property resigned all his political positions after his colleagues realized he was secretly Jewish. He had been trying to cover up that fact for two years.

An ex-convict reportedly confronted Csanad Szegedi in 2010 with evidence that his grandmother was Jewish and survived the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II. A shocked Szegedi tried to buy the man's silence, but was eventually exposed in June and forced out of the far-right Jobbik Party, in which he was considered a rising star. (The party says it was Szegedi's attempt at bribery, not his Jewish heritage, that motivated them to kick him out, according to the AP.)

But now Szegedi has to live with an identity he's spent years railing against. Changing one's beliefs and leaving a racist movement is no simple feat.

Szegedi denies he was anti-Semitic, but apologizes for any offensive statements he made in the past. In an interview with Hir TV, he seemed to still be struggling to come to grips with the news, saying he doesn't call himself Jewish but rather, someone with "ancestry of Jewish origin-because I declare myself 100 percent Hungarian." Half a million Jews were killed in World War II's genocide in Hungary, spurring many remaining families to change their names and hide their Jewish roots.

Szegedi has sought out the help of a rabbi, who told the AP that Szegedi is in "a difficult process of reparation, self-knowledge, re-evaluation and learning."

The process is anything but easy, according to T.J. Leyden, a former skinhead who says that it can take years to leave behind hateful beliefs, even when one's faith in them is shaken. Leyden remembers the moment he first thought that perhaps his racial hatred was wrong—when his 2-year-old son called a black actor on the children's show "Gullah Gullah Island" a racial epithet. At first he felt proud that his son was following in his footsteps, but then a disturbing feeling came over him—he didn't actually want his son to become like he was. "If I didn't want them to grow up and be me, what was wrong with me?" he says he remembers thinking.

But even after this epiphany, it took 18 months for Leyden to leave the skinheads. "Everything about my life was about the movement," he says.

Leyden reinvented himself as an anti-racism advocate, and he estimates he's pulled out about 100 people from the Neo Nazi movement in America.

There is usually a common thread among people who manage to leave racist movements, says Heidi Beirich, who tracks racist groups for the Southern Poverty Law Center. "Usually it's a personal connection to someone of a different race or religion that makes them realize that the path that they had taken was unfortunate," she says. Finding out one's family is Jewish or of a race or ethnicity you despised can spark soul-searching that finally spurs a person to rethink those original beliefs.

Pawel Bromson is one such example. Bromson joined a band of skinheads in Poland in the '80s and '90s, even taking trips to former concentration camps to deface them and yell at staff members that the genocide should have been larger. Then one day Bromson's wife, Ola, researched her and her husband's genealogy and discovered they were both Jewish. While Ola had suspected her family may have been Jewish, the discovery was a total shock for Bromson. As in Hungary, many Jewish families who escaped death in WWII in Poland changed their names to avoid persecution, leaving a generation of Jews who didn't know their own backgrounds.

"The mirror was a big problem. I couldn't look at myself. I saw a Jew," Bromson told CNN. "I hated the person in the mirror, then I grew accustomed to it, came to terms with it somehow."

Bromson is now an Orthodox Jew and works as a kosher butcher in Warsaw.