John Daly and Kevin Connell, ex-neo Nazi skinheads, reconnected over social media 20 years after they left the movement.
Then, they together visited the Terezin and Auschwitz concentration camps in Prague and Poland. The two men have become friends in their journey to find redemption for their past grievances.
Director Daniel Brea showed his documentary film on Daly and Connell, “Escape from Room 18,” at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee Student Union on Wednesday, Nov. 29. Daly and Connell were there with Brea, to talk with the audience after the film. It chronicles their travels to the camps and becomes a story of the transformative power of change.
The screening was hosted by Hillel Milwaukee and co-sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center, both of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation. Fifty people were in attendance, both students and others from the larger community.
Daly and Connell were skinheads in Florida in their late-teens. As an adult and out of the movement, Daly moved to Israel and became an observant Jew. The catalyst for this change was the night Daly’s gang found out he was Jewish and beat him, with the intent of murder, in Daytona Beach, Florida, according to the film.
He was found nearly dead in the ocean. “I am alive through G-d’s grace, no other reason,” Daly said.
After a stint in prison, Connell decided to reform from the skinhead movement.
“It was time to make amends in my life, and there was nobody else I’d want to do it with, but with John,” Connell said.
One audience member asked about the importance of education in combating hate.
“I think it is just as easy to teach love as it is to teach hate, but where do you start? You can’t reprogram people, unfortunately…. Education is the driving force behind it,” Connell said.
The talk veered into present-day concerns, specifically, that there are still Holocaust-deniers in the world and memory is dissipating as Holocaust survivors die daily.
The three men agreed that defeating ignorance demands patience, because that’s what it takes to change a prejudiced person who is convinced of false ideas and is ready to commit hate-crimes. “Don’t tell them they are wrong, hit them with actual true, verifiable fact that they can’t dispute,” Brea said.
Connell and Daly both live now with neurological disorders. Connell has found a new social network, the multiple sclerosis community. Daly has had two brain surgeries due to a small bleed in his brain, what he says is from the beating at Daytona Beach decades ago.
Given his near-death experience and brain tumor, one audience member asked Daly the role spirituality plays in his life. “Spiritual life is just – Baruch HaShem,” Daly said.
Both Connell and Daly indicated they will hold the burden of their shame and regret for having been neo-Nazis for the rest of their lives. Daly continues to speak of his story to audiences. “My life has been dedicated to trying to give back to the community,” Daly said.
Connell said that all he can do now is, “do what is right.”