Elisa Hategan’s morning presentation March 1 at Limmud, Winnipeg’s annual festival of Jewish learning, is certain to draw a large and curious crowd. After all, she will be speaking on a topic that is particularly relevant at a time when both anti-Semitism and alt-right adherence are on the rise.
Hategan’s presentation will be about her teenage involvement with the extremist neo-Nazi group, the Heritage Front.
"I joined the Heritage Front at age 16, in 1991," Hategan says candidly.
She was living in Toronto at the time, reeling from years of family dysfunction, abuse, bullying and loneliness.
Hategan had emigrated with her mother from then communist Romania, but coming from an extremely regimented country where individuality was discouraged, she had struggled to feel she belonged in Canada, where diversity and individuality were celebrated.
That feeling of not belonging was exacerbated by the abuse she suffered at home. After running away at age 14, she lived for a while in a group home, returned to her mother’s care, dropped out of school, and continued to struggle with feelings of alienation and anger.
"One day I watched a TV program where they were interviewing a clean-cut young man in a suit who was speaking about European pride and that resonated with me," she recalls.
Hategan called the organization’s hotline and left a message requesting more information. The leader of the group called her back right away, arranged to meet her, and instantly took her under his wing.
As the only girl in the core of the movement at the time, Hategan was easily accepted and quickly rose through the ranks. Within a month of her recruitment, she was writing articles for the group’s magazine, recording messages for their hotline, and representing them at rallies and on television. She also began working closely with Holocaust-denier Ernst Zundel, who became a grandfather figure to her.
"I was groomed to become the softer, female face of Canada’s most powerful and dangerous hate group in the 1990s," Hategan says. "...their leaders understood that a message of xenophobia and hate was much more palatable if it came from the mouth of an innocuous, innocent-looking teenage girl."
But even as Hategan was being groomed, she became increasingly bothered by the group’s misogyny and escalation of violence. Deciding to leave the group, she spent the next four months gathering information from the inside and turning it over to the police. Then, in 1994, she testified at a human rights commission tribunal against the man who had recruited her.
"It was a frightening time in my life, being barely 19 and facing the man who had groomed and exploited me," she says. "But I knew that I had to do it in order to protect other victims, as well as kids like myself, who might be similarly used by an unscrupulous movement."
Following her testimony, Hategan went into hiding, moving from one safe house to another, often staying with people who had been targets of the hatred espoused by the Heritage Front. She eventually enrolled in university under an alias, and a few years later travelled back to Romania to explore her roots.
It was there that she discovered that her father, who had remained in Romania and passed away years before, was Jewish. Upon returning to Canada, Hategan decided to convert to Judaism.
"If I had known about my father’s roots, I can’t imagine how I could have been seduced by an anti-Semitic ideology," she says.
Hategan’s conversion — the impetus for it and the salvation she has found through it — will be the topic of her second Limmud presentation that same morning. She will also delve into the science of epigenetics and how intergenerational trauma is passed down between generations.
In the years that have passed since Hategan’s tumultuous youth and discovery of Judaism, she has become an expert on anti-racism initiatives, extremist political movements and terrorist recruitment tactics. She has been interviewed about and spoken about her experiences countless times, and in the process has always reminded audiences that although almost 30 years have passed since she was recruited into the Heritage Front, the intolerance and hate that characterized that group remain endemic today.
Sharon Chisvin is a Winnipeg writer.
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