Marta Jankowska grew up in Poland and learned at a young age that she is Jewish. She made aliyah and lived in Israel, but then moved back to Poland and then to London, where she studied Hebrew and Jewish studies at University College.
Back in Poland, she became involved in the revival of Jewish culture there. Now 39, she is studying at George Washington University’s Experiential Education and Jewish Cultural Arts Master’s Program.
How did you find out you are Jewish?
We’re starting out with the heavy stuff! I was 8 and my mom decided to tell me her father is Jewish. [Jankowska later found out her maternal grandmother was also Jewish.] The idea was that I should know in case someone said something. She said it’s OK and there’s nothing wrong with it, but don’t tell anyone. So of course what did I do? I told all my friends because I felt like, wow this is so exciting and strange, and I have a secret.
Tell us about your decision to make aliyah and to move to Israel.
Israel was my first exposure to Jewish life that didn’t come through books or history, but through individual people and a thriving community. I wanted to learn about being Jewish through a living organism. At that point, I didn’t want to be in Poland with people like me who were learning to be Jewish.
I wanted to explore Judaism first-hand with people who were in love with the tradition. And I fell in love, basically, with the country. I just decided I’m making aliyah. I decided that’s the way to be Jewish. But then I discovered that there’s many ways to be Jewish in Israel and outside Israel, and within Israel everyone had different ideas on how I should be Jewish.
At the same time I felt like I was missing something. I came to Israel because I wanted to connect to my past, but I felt like I’m not going to do it in Israel. I had this longing for the Yiddish world and culture and language. It wasn’t very popular to study that in Israel at the time. I think it’s trendier nowadays.
So I went back home to Poland to try to recover from this intensity and to try to understand who I am and what the hell was going on. It’s not so easy to find your identity from scratch and to be honest to yourself as well.
What was it like to go back to Poland after you finished school in London?
I am very Polish and I’m also very Polish-Jewish. I want to understand what that means because that’s something that’s getting lost. People know a lot about the Shoah. We learned about the Holocaust in school. But I didn’t know who was killed and what culture my great-great-grandparents came from. You know, what was that world about? That’s something I didn’t find in Israel, and I don’t think I could find anywhere else.
We commemorate the crime that was done against the Jews of Europe, but we’re not learning about the Jews of Europe themselves. There’s so much that we could take from them and our heritage that is inspiring. It’s not just tragedy. They lived for centuries and they created a culture that is inspiring and beautiful and that’s something I want to try to recover.