According to Frank Meeink, removing a large swastika tattoo from the neck is a long, painful process.
But to the former Neo-Nazi Skinhead leader from Philadelphia, no pain is greater than recalling the hatred and prejudice that shaped his life story.
Through the support of multiple interdisciplinary campus partnerships, Meeink was invited to share his journey with the greater University of Miami community at UM Hillel. Rabbi Lyle Rothman of UM Hillel welcomed Meeink and reiterated the importance of his visit.
“I hope that after hearing Frank’s story, everyone here tonight walks away with a renewed sense of purpose to heal the fractured world we are living in,” Rothman said before Meeink took the stage.
Although he has told his story many times over during the past 25 years, Meeink still fights back emotions as he takes the audience on his personal journey through a life full of angst and hatred.
Meeink, born Frank Bertone, was introduced to the world through a drug-addicted, Irish-Italian family in South Philadelphia. Soon after his birth, his mother and father divorced, leaving Meeink with a dependent mother and violent stepfather. At the time, his Italian birth given name still remained, causing anguish among his Irish stepfather and neighbors.
“As a child, my stepfather would tell me every day he was going to ‘beat the Italian out of me,’” said Meeink. “And he certainly tried.”
In some ways, he was successful. Upon starting elementary school in a predominantly Irish South Philadelphia neighborhood, prejudice transformed Frank Bertone into Frank Meeink.
At the age of 10, hate consumed Meeink’s life from every angle. The constant physical and verbal abuse continued at home and eventually, he sought solace with his birth father.
Upon moving-in with his father, Meeink was transferred to a predominantly black middle school where he was introduced to a new type of hate. He was one of 20 white students in the school, and for the first time, no one cared of his conflicting Irish-Italian heritage. They cared he was white.
Meeink explained that because he was an athlete, he was often “protected” from the daily physical abuse that the other white students endured. However, after witnessing a particularly brutal incident, he swore to himself that he would never return to school.
He went on to miss 49 days of school that year and still graduated.
That summer, he decided to visit cousins in rural Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he was exposed to farmland, Amish neighbors and a new form of hatred.
Through his cousin, Meeink’s introduction to skinhead subculture was swift and powerful. He felt accepted and supported by the comradery of the gang, but still had reservations about joining. One night outside of a club he watched as his newly acquired skinhead friends harassed innocent club-goers.
“I seen it,” said Meeink as he shared the exact moment his life changed forever. “Inside I was always a fearful kid and for the first time that night I saw the fear in someone else and I loved it.”
That night, he escaped the harsh reality of his life in Philadelphia and at the age of 13, Meeink was a preaching skinhead credos about anti-Semitism and God’s race war.
“At 15, I had a swastika tattooed on my neck and every day of my life was about violence,” he said. “I was either planning, preaching or inciting violence everywhere that I went.”
The skinhead leader traveled the country recruiting Neo-Nazi protégés, doing time in juvenile detention centers along the way. His continuum of violence eventually led to his arrest and conviction for the kidnapping and beating a rival skinhead gang member. Unlike his past experiences in “juvie,” 17-year-old Meeink was tried and imprisoned as an adult.
It was in prison where Meeink began to read the Bible and questioned the hate he had acquired throughout his life. He worked his way onto the all-black inmate football team and began to befriend people of different races—the same people he once hated.
After serving his time, Meeink recalls struggling with re-joining the skinhead subculture.
“I realized that I could no longer judge another human being on this planet because of their skin color,” he said. Although Meeink made peace with racial diversity, his hatred for Judaism remained. “I still hated the Jews—even though I had never met one,” he added.
Upon returning to Philadelphia, Meeink didn’t immediately re-join the gang. He remained in touch with a few members and continued to proudly display the swastika on his neck. In desperation for income, he took the first job he could find and began moving furniture for an antiques dealer.
The company’s owner was Jewish but didn’t care about Meeink’s past or his Neo-Nazi tattoos, only that he didn’t break the furniture. Despite their obvious differences, the swastika-bearing skinhead and Jewish antiques dealer worked well together and Meeink was hired full-time. However, the true value of their partnership wasn’t revealed until Meeink accidentally shattered an expensive marble tabletop during a pick-up. He panicked and profusely apologized but assumed he should start looking for another job. That night, his boss offered to drive him home.
He apprehensively accepted the ride and cautioned his boss about driving through the rough neighborhood he called home. In fact, he insisted that he be dropped-off a few blocks away to avoid any confrontation.
Meeink fought back tears as he shared details from the ride, “we got into the truck and he told me he wasn’t mad about the marble. He was upset that I called myself stupid after dropping it. The whole ride, he talked about my street smarts and said I was a smart kid who could do anything.”
As they approached his block, Meeink noticed that without much direction his boss had effortlessly navigated their journey through the unforgiving city roads. In that moment, he knew that he had a lot more in common with the Jewish antique dealer from New Jersey than he had ever thought.
That night, Meeink severed all ties with the Neo-Nazi skinhead movement and began his journey from hatred to harmony in hopes to inspire others along the way.
As he wiped away tears, Meeink thanked the crowd at UM Hillel and apologized to anyone offended by his harsh reality. The raw and unfiltered delivery of his lecture may have been unique compared to other events hosted on UM’s campus, but Haim Shaked, director of the Sue and Leonard Miller Center for Contemporary Judaic Studies echoed the importance of working with diverse partners like Meeink.
“It is important for the UM community to hear how prejudice can easily impede on our ability to live a life where we, as a society, can support each other and harmonize,” said Shaked.
The Frank Meeink lecture was presented as part of an ongoing effort through The Sue and Leonard Miller Center for Contemporary Judaic Studies and UM Hillel to unite various organizations and groups throughout campus, creating new synergies and ideas.
“We intentionally reached out to a very diverse group of partners in order to show the larger UM community that there is no place for hatred, bigotry, and racism on this campus. We are grateful to each of our campus partners who contributed to ensure the success of the program,” said Rabbi Rothman.
Co-sponsors and partners for the event included: The George Feldenkreis Program in Judaic Studies, University of Miami LGBTQ Student Center, Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, St. Augustine Catholic Student Center, St. Bede Chapel at UM, William R. Butler Center for Volunteer Service & Leadership Development, UKrikRPC, and the Intervarsity Graduate & Faculty Ministries.