A Neo-Nazi Story, In Westport

A police car sat outside The Conservative Synagogue of Westport. A police officer stood inside the front door.

Those are signs of the times. Near-daily bomb threats have rattled Jewish Community Centers and Anti-Defamation League offices around the country.

But the only threat last night was to disrupt stereotypes and assumptions.

A full house heard Frank Meeink talk about his life.

Frank Meeink’s book cover shows a swastika tattooed on his neck.

At 13 years old, the Philadelphia native was a skinhead. By 18 he was roaming the country as a neo-Nazi recruiter. He hosted a TV show called “The Reich.”

In prison — convicted of kidnapping and beating a member of a rival skinhead gang — he befriended men he once hated. Slowly, his world view — and life — changed.

Today the 41-year-old is a noted speaker, author and founder of Harmony Through Hockey (he’s also a youth coach). He travels the country talking about tolerance, diversity and mutual understanding, in race, politics and throughout society.

Meeink — who has been featured in a film with Desmond Tutu, appeared in a music video with country singer Jamey Johnson and been interviewed by Katie Couric — was part of the inspiration for the movie “American History X.”

His talk last night was riveting. It was also preaching to the choir. I doubt anyone came to the synagogue hoping to have his or her neo-Nazi views reinforced.

But Meeink’s message of openness, and his story of how hatred can be turned to love, was powerful and inspiring. It was also eye-opening to hear his raw words spoken inside a temple, before an audience that included men in yarmulkes.

Frank Meeink speaking last night at The Conservative Synagogue.

Last night’s event was the culmination in a long day. Earlier, Meeink spent 2 hours with the sophomore and junior classes at Staples High School. They listened raptly as he discussed “The Truth About Hate.” After Meeink spoke, a number of students talked in an open mic session about their experiences with bullying — as bullies, victims and bystanders — and pledged to work toward greater acceptance for all.

Meeink later met with members of the Westport Police Department.

When he was 15 years old, Meeink tattooed a swastika on his neck. Two decades later, a resurgence of hatred sweeps our nation.

The police presence at The Conservative Synagogue last night served as a grim reminder of that. But Frank Meeink’s strong words — delivered to various Westport audiences all day long — overpowered every image of fear.

(Frank Meeink’s appearance last night was sponsored by The Conservative Synagogue, the Anti-Defamation League of Connecticut, TEAM Westport, Hadassah, the Federation for Jewish Philanthropy and the Westport Inn.)

 

14 responses to “A Neo-Nazi Story, In Westport

  1. We need stories of renewal and hope and positivity like that! Thank you!

  2. Dana McCreesh

    this sounds amazing. i wish i heard him speak.

  3. Adam Vengrow

    had the pleasure of listening to frank earlier in the week. he said something that requires thought. humans are nearly the only mammals in the world that can undergo a complete spiritual and holistic change of heart and 180 degree life change. it is never too late to turn your life around and do good and make your time on this earth a positive influence and support system for your friends, family and your society.

  4. I am sppechless. That must have been a very powerful presentation.

  5. Sorry to be a naysayer here. The guy began his attention-seeking career by pushing the most taboo buttons — neo Nazism — and now has reinvented himself as a “recovering” hater, still gaining attention by pushing all the buttons of [presumably well-paying] sponsors eager for a good redemption story.

    • Peter, when are you NOT a naysayer? When was the last positive comment you posted?

    • Seriously. Dan is right, ALWAYS negative. There’s hope for you too though.

    • I have empathy for you Peter. If you want to say I started my career off with a Hot Topic button-ups neo-nazis… really dude I was 13 years old trying to survive ,did I go in the wrong group ? absolutely ,but really do think I 13 methodically thought of that stuff I was just trying to survive. And by the way my career is I’m a three-time national championship hockey coach that’s my job not doing talks.

  6. Perhaps because I only feel motivated to respond when there is something very “off” being pitched. Honestly, how can one “recover” from being a skinhead? Nazism is not a disease, not even an addiction, just an evil ideology.

    • Eric William Buchroeder SHS '70

      I wasn’t at the event. Assuming you agree that Nazism, neo or otherwise, is a sin, you must also agree that repentance/redemption is possible even for skinheads.

    • Sharon Paulsen

      So, based on your comments, Peter, I conclude that you don’t believe that anyone can shift from one ideology to another.

      Or, that one cannot even ditch all said ideologies aside, and come from a place of relative neutrality. (Think … Gandhi … Mother Teresa … Buddha … for a few examples).

  7. I was unable to attend the event but I must say that I am rather curious as to how he got turned around. It’s usually a near death experience or major health crisis that genuinely changes one’s life so drastically. For those who were there, how did his change occur? Thanks
    Frannie Southworth

    • Sharon Paulsen

      Check out the movie, “American History X” to get a feel for it. It may provide some insight into his “turnaround”.

      Here’s a wiki summary:

      “American History X is a 1998 American crime drama film directed by Tony Kaye, written by David McKenna, and stars Edward Norton, Edward Furlong, Fairuza Balk, Stacy Keach, Elliott Gould, Avery Brooks, Ethan Suplee, and Beverly D’Angelo. The film was released in the United States on October 30, 1998 and was distributed by New Line Cinema.

      The film tells the story of two brothers from Venice, Los Angeles who become involved in the neo-Nazi movement. The older brother serves three years in prison for voluntary manslaughter, changes his beliefs and tries to prevent his brother from going down the same path. The film is told in the style of nonlinear narrative. Made on a budget of $20 million, the film grossed $24 million at the worldwide box office.

      Critics mostly praised the film and Norton’s performance, which earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. In September 2008, Empire magazine named it the 311th Greatest Movie of All Time.[2]”.

  8. Kerstin Rao

    I was there last night. I was riveted by his story. I posted this on my Facebook page when I got home: “Let me get deep with you all for a moment. In the past several months, I’ve felt pulled between love and hate more than ever before in my life. Do we love our enemies, as great religions advise us, or do we find peace through strength, and gear up for the fight of our lives? This tension is pulling at our country – in fact, around the world. So it was stunning to spend two and a half hours tonight at the Conservative Synagogue here in Westport and listen to the life story of Frank Meeink. Here is a man who went from being literally starved for affection and even physical safety as a child, to falling in with one wrong crowd after another, to becoming obsessed with fear, hatred, and committing violent acts. Then began a slow unraveling of his hatred through small encounters with kindness from individuals he’d sworn to hate. Ultimately, his is a journey to a remarkable spiritual reconnection with his own humility, love, and profound empathy. Rarely have I felt such a wave from one emotion to another as I did this evening. I’ve been pushed to reflect on the real meaning of forgiveness and love. In all honesty, this level of hard, real, gritty, and vulnerable reflection is what may be required to save us from a cataclysmic fate. Believe me, my next step is to read his book. I struggled with the thought of taking a photo with a man who had committed unspeakable crimes – but I decided to go with my reverence for his undeniable humanity, his choice to change, his actions to promote understanding through his work with the ADL, as well as being the father of five children (one of his children died two years ago in a car accident), and the power of forgiveness. May we all find it in our hearts to grant this to our neighbors, and to ourselves.