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The Arduous Struggle of Elsa Hategan: from Neo-Nazi Recruiter to Anti-Racism Jewish Activist

By Penny Jones Square March 16, 2020

At Winnipeg Limmud on March 1, Elsa Hategan delivered two intensely affecting presentations: “Hearts of Hate: A Former Neo-Nazi’s Journey from Hate to Hope” and “Remember Your Name: A Journey into Time, Memory, and Epigenetics.” In them, she recounted her painful struggle from childhood abuse in an extremely dysfunctional family to her traumatic experience as a member of the Heritage Front, the leading Neo-Nazi white supremacist group at the time. Following her eventual defection from the Front, Elsa achieved her redemption through a journey to recover her past, one which led to her conversion to Judaism.


Elsa was born in Bucharest, Romania, a totalitarian state at the time. As a Communist Pioneer for the first eleven years of her life, she was defined by conformity, her only identity the one given her by the state. Her family was exceptionally unfit, uncaring, and neglectful. Her father was seventy-years-old when she was born and had no use for children. When Elsa was seven years old, her mother abandoned them and defected to Italy, leaving her with her father who did not want her. The family reunited when they emigrated to Canada, but her parents’ relationship resumed its former violence, and within two years, her father returned to Romania (dying shortly after).


Elsa lived in a violently abusive relationship with her mother (she was beaten regularly) until she ran away from home for the first time at thirteen. At fourteen, she left again to spend the next two years in Children’s Aid group homes where she suffered further abuse. She was bullied at one group home for her “whiteness,” her accent, and the way she dressed and wore her hair. At fifteen, she dropped out of school. At sixteen, filled with anger, without family or friends, Elsa was ripe for recruitment by the Heritage Front, which exploited her rage and justified her hate with an appeal to pride in her race. Wolfgang Droege, the leader of the Front, became the father figure she lacked, his group the family she longed for, and its cause the purpose she sought. She would also find a grandfather figure in Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel, becoming his “girl Friday.”


As a “journalist” for the group’s publication Up Front and as its speaker and recruiter, Elsa became the “poster girl” for the Front. She helped “clean up” the Front’s image, which was changing from “skinheads in boots to men in suits.” As “the new female face of the Heritage Front,” she projected “a sexualized image of white supremacy.” Being young, she could take the Front’s message to its primary target—youth—as she could blend in when she distributed flyers at high schools.


By eighteen, Elsa began to question the Front. What “made the shift” for Elsa was the “It Campaign,” brainchild of the Front’s ntelligence chief, Grant Bristow, who was a CSIS mole. According to this campaign of terror, anyone in the social activist community became a target for harassment through psychological terror. The acts of domestic terrorism committed by the Front elicited no police response.  When Elsa saw friends and “family” committing acts of violence against innocent people with impunity, and when she herself was forced to terrorize a gay rights activist, she knew she had to get out. She realized she was starting “to identify with those targeted.”


Seeing no way out, Elsa attempted suicide. When she woke in the hospital, she realized there was no one she could call except, ironically, “Ruth,” the gay rights activist she had been forced to harass. It was Ruth who helped deprogram Elsa, which led to her decision to “shut down” Droege and Bristow and the Heritage Front itself.  She went on to secretly collect evidence against them and approached the OPP and RCMP with it, but to no avail. She was denied witness protection, and after being threatened at knife point by Droege when he suspected her of informing on the Front, she was forced underground for one and a half years, living under assumed names and identities outside Toronto with anti-racism activists and other enemies of the Front.


Elsa returned to Toronto to testify at the Canadian Human Rights Commission trial against the Heritage Front that began on March 15, 1994, as the star witness against Wolfgang Droege and two other Front members. This resulted in convictions and jail sentences along with the subsequent revelation that Front co-leader Grant Bristow was an undercover CSIS agent, leading to the Heritage Front’s dissolution the following year.


Elsa’s recovery from hate involved attaining a double degree in criminology and psychology at the University of Ottawa, where she was introduced to a love of Jewish poetry and a “feeling of affinity with Judaism”—which she felt “unworthy” of as a former Neo-Nazi—by her creative writing professor, Seymour Mayne. Her journey continued during a summer of travel through Spain to Auschwitz. In Spain, she experienced another serendipitous “feeling of familiarity” upon hearing a Ladino melody while standing on the wall of the Alhambra, and in Auschwitz, she once again “felt something” profound. “ It was “as though everything was alive and dead at the same time” and that “these were my people.” She traveled on to her father’s village in Romania, where she “let her feet guide” her. She came upon a synagogue and “felt [she] had been there before.” In the place of her father’s house, there was a Jewish cemetery. In Transylvania, people on her mother’s side helped her find the village she grew up in where she found among her grandmother’s belongings a box with the name Kohn on it—another instance of serendipity as Cohen was one of the names Elsa used when in hiding.


After DNA testing, Elsa discovered she has Jewish ancestors from Poland, Galicia, Ukraine, and Romania. No longer needing “permission to convert,” Elsa underwent Conservative conversion in 2013, achieving the redemption she was always worthy of. She now lives out the Jewish commandment of Tikkun Olam, repairing the world through her anti-racism activism. She is a writer, speaker, and educator on Far Right extremism, Executive Director of the Changemaker Project, and an affiliate of the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security, and Society. She also serves as Regional Coordinator for central Canada and the US for Against Violent Extremism (AVE)—a global network of former extremists and survivors of violence who educate against radicalization and empower others to leave hate groups.


Elsa believes the recurring “feelings” she experienced throughout her healing journey are the result of the transmission of past memories, and past traumas, across generations and that it is her “duty” to tell the story of her family and acknowledge its collective trauma. As she insisted, “Our pain is inherited, and we honour our ancestors by not ignoring it.” An audience member commented that what sets the Jewish community apart is its constant honouring of memory within the family and community through ceremony and ritual. She gave Passover as an example of a re-telling and re-remembering of the trauma of enslavement, but also of redemption and freedom. Elsa broke down at this point, overcome by having “no family at all.” Although she has surmounted her lived and inherited traumas, she still suffers the wounds left in her body and soul.  

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