Since 1929, The Jewish Agency for Israel has helped millions of Jews from around the world make Aliyah, many of them from war-torn countries. And this is the story of one, notably and surprisingly, from Ocala, Fla.
John Daly, a Jew from Northern Florida who became a high-ranking officer in a neo-Nazi skinhead organization, called on The Jewish Agency to help him escape from the other skinheads who tried to kill him. Now living in Israel, his story is emotionally told in the documentary “Escape From Room 18,” which makes its world premiere at the Twin Cities Jewish Film Festival.
The film, which runs on March 23 at the St. Paul JCC, includes a post-show question-and-answer session with producer/director/editor Daniel Brea, producer Kas, composer Mat Teofilo, and producer Yan Fisher Romanovsky. The post-show event will be moderated by Steve Hunegs, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas.
The film chronicles Daly’s troubled youth, his near-death experience and the reunion with another former skinhead in Prague, where they went on cathartic visits to Terezin and Auschwitz. Brea met Daly when he was a teenager after his family made Aliyah, which paved the way for the project to take place.
“My mother had read an article in the Jerusalem Post about this guy and she saw him walking down the street in Ashkelon and asked if he was John Daly,” Brea said. “We hit it off. He and I hung out a little bit before I went into the Army. After that, he wanted to talk to me about the Army, I wanted to talk about his past.”
Daly e-mailed Brea out of the blue to let him know about the message he got from Kevin Connell, a friend from his previous life.
“He said ‘This guy hit me up out of the blue and got a hold of me. He wanted to meet in Prague to make amends for his past,” Brea said of Daly’s email. “He was having justifiable PTSD had this reaction where it could be them trying to” kill him or could it be a legitimate meeting. “He asked if wanted to come along – partially for security but also to document it. That’s how it came together.
“I don’t know if I’d have the same level of trust if I didn’t know him”
Daly said he was terrified that his religion would be discovered by those he led, but “I found safety in the embrace of Nazis and was a Jew.”
However, his identity was discovered, which led to his near-death experience on October 6, 1990. He was lured to Daytona Beach and was savagely beaten, dragged into the Atlantic, and sat on in the attempt to drown him. He was left for dead, but washed ashore and managed to be saved by doctors.
“I believe god washed him back out to the beach and saved him,” Daly’s mother, Ruth said in the film. “Doctors said he wouldn’t survive. They said there’s no medical reason he should’ve survived.”
That experience itself wasn’t what led him to Israel.
“The last threat I got,” Daly said in the film, “was ‘when the last guy gets out of prison, we’re going to have a reunion.’ I called The Jewish Agency and said I need to get out of here. Now.”
Brea had conducted many interviews with Daly and his mother in Israel, and all of the interviews with Connell were done in their Airbnb in Prague.
The name of the film comes from Room 18 at Terezin, which was the mortuary of the camp.
“It’s not a page from a history book. It’s real,” Connell said. I can’t undo what I’ve done and said, but I can try to stop it and do my best to try and educate people to the truth.”
Filming in Terezin, the concentration camp 30 miles south of Prague, brought the most intense filmmaking challenge of the documentary, including an unbelievably tricky walk through a narrow, 500-meter-long tunnel that led to the site of where the prisoners were taken to be killed. Brea walked behind Daly and Connell for the entirety of the 15-minute walk, holding the camera as steady he could, knowing he wouldn’t get another opportunity to shoot that moment.John Daly and Kevin Connell at Terezin in the Czech Republic.
“I’m literally just trying to ply all my years of practice doing steady-camera operating,” he said. “You have an ominous feeling that with all the things we’ve seen there it would be pretty heavy scene. At that entrance, we know what lies at the end.”
The intensity of that shot happened in many other scenes, Brea said, because of the spontaneous emotional responses of the two.
“It was kind of a challenge in general in this was to anticipate when there would be film-worthy moments,” Brea said. “It was a bit of a shot in the dark, the whole thing. Whatever energy, Hashem, or whatever, was wanting to get this done, made sure the record button was on.”
“I often wonder why God chose me,” Daly said. “Why did I, a punk 17-year-old deserve a second chance? It wasn’t my time to go, and I’ve used the time to try and improve as a human being. I’ve been available to talk to people about the power of change. You can’t expect society to change. It begins with you.”
Brea said that point is one that he hopes audiences take away from the film.
“Change comes from the individual. You have to change to help society change. Whether or not we can, you can have some doubt,” he said. “Second chances, you can always start over and change who you are. It shouldn’t be by means of almost getting murdered.
“And for parents: Pay attention to your kids. Who are they hanging out with? This will cause them to look at their kids’ mannerisms.”
What was left on the cutting-room floor, Brea said, was the link between ISIS and other militant groups have to neo-Nazi groups and other hate groups.
“The recruiting movement is exactly the same: Always the young, downtrodden, parentless kids or outcasts,” he said. “An entity comes that says ‘we’re with you and everyone out to get you.’ Poisoning your head with unverifiable crap like ‘defending your bloodline.'”
Brea is happy that the film is making its debut in the Twin Cities. He was born in Rochester, his wife has family in the area, and they have a home in New Richmond, Wis.
“It’s coming full cycle,” he said. “This is my first documentary and the first time I’ve fully produced and been involved with from beginning to end. And it’s nice to have the premier right there where all my extended family is and wife’s family. It’s really exciting from that aspect.”