“Change begins with you” was the message delivered by John Daly and Daniel Brea on Thursday, November 16th at the Hillel at Texas A&M. Daly and Brea should know. As a teen, Daly was a non-racist skinhead at home in Ocala, Florida, when a group of neo-Nazi skinheads arrived unexpectedly to escort him to a waiting car. Inside the moving car, the thugs began the process of indoctrinating Daly into a world he never wanted to be part of but could not escape. They told him about stories of all the people who joined their white supremacist group and tried to leave. The consequences of parting ranks for those who questioned the hatred of the neo-Nazis were terrifying, ending in the escapee shot or badly beaten, his family terrorized.
Unbeknownst to the neo-Nazis who made Daly one of their own, Daly was Jewish. For a long time, he managed to keep his secret hidden from his new friends. Eventually, though, a member of the ground found out and shared his secret with the group’s leader. On October 7, 1990, the leader insisted that Daly come to a late-night meeting on the beach. That night, Daly was badly beaten and left for dead. His comrades struck him, kicked him, and held his head under water until he lay lifeless.
But that was not the end of the story for Daly. Miraculously, he was discovered on the beach and survived.
In 1997, as the last of the skinheads were being released from prison, Daly made aliyah to Israel where, in 2009, he was diagnosed a brain tumor. After two “awake” surgeries to remove the tumor, a piece of the tumor remains attached to Daly’s brain.
“Just as I refused to let the skinheads win, I won’t let this mass in my brain stop me from fighting for this country with my words, encouraging support of Israel from people abroad and helping people living here,” he told the Jerusalem Post in 2016 (http://www.jpost.com/Metro/The-Jew-who-refused-to-die-467912).
In the early 2010’s, Daly was contacted by Daniel Brea, a former neighbor of Daly’s in Israel. Brea was now a film director, producer and writer. He convinced Daly to let him make a documentary about Daly’s extraordinary life. Originally a tightly scripted docudrama, the film took a different course when a friend of Daly’s, who had also been a neo-Nazi skinhead, located Daly, asking him if they could meet up in Prague. Unsure whether his friend, Kevin Connell, was looking for revenge or for reconciliation, Daly took him up on the invitation. Brea and a camera man traveled with Daly to Prague to capture the reunion.
What followed profoundly changed both men, then around 40 years old. Connell had come to make peace with Daly in Prague, but upon Daly’s suggestion, the two left Prague, production crew in tow, to visit Auschwitz. In Poland, the men were confronted with the full horror of the Nazi Holocaust and vowed to never let such an atrocity happen again.
Nowadays, Daly, Connell and Brea tour the world with the film, exhorting people of all ages and religions to examine their beliefs, become educated, and take action when they witness hate. “It all begins with you,” Daly told the Hillel audience. “You have a choice.”
Daly could have gone into witness protection to testify against his attackers, he said. If he had gone quietly into hiding, though, he would have been letting his attackers off the hook. Instead, he feels he must speak out against hate. “I know that there are people who want me dead. I’m not afraid of them,” says Daly. “It’s more important for me to speak out and to teach others about hate groups and how to stop them.”
Brea, too, teaches his audiences to learn about the Holocaust and to speak up. “Don’t be silent,” Brea says.
Hillel at Texas A&M invited Brea and Daly to speak at A&M. “In the wake of Richard Spencer’s visit to campus last year and all that is happening in our world today, when I learned about Escape from Room 18, I felt it was important to bring the film and its makers to College Station. Maybe if we can understand why people like Spencer espouse hate, we can do something to prevent people from following them. This film and the discussion that took place afterward are a good beginning.”
The screening of Escape from Room 18 to the audience of 70 students and community members and Brea’s and Daly’s appearance was funded by Hillel’s Shirley Reiser Speaker Fund and by United Campus Ministries at A&M and the Texas A&M International Studies Department.