"Are you Jewish?"
Fourteen-year-old Hungarian Boglarka Palko stared back at her teacher in utter shock. Curious about the teenager’s fiery red hair and Jewish features, the teacher posed the seemingly innocent question — never dreaming that it would transform Palko’s life. She rushed home and immediately asked her parents about the odd remark. Young Palko, who had been raised as a Christian her whole life, was stunned by their answer: yes she was, by law, Jewish.
That pivotal moment spurred “an identity crisis," says Palko, now 25. "I was brought up in a primarily Christian environment. I was baptized and went to Catholic school. Suddenly, I find out that I am a Jewish and have this whole new part of me I didn't even know existed."
Once her true religious identity was exposed, Palko faced a challenging decision: Judaism or Christianity? Delving into her Jewish roots, she soon discovered her family's deep connection with the religion when her grandfather shared his story with her for the first time. After growing up in the Hungarian countryside, he settled in a Budapest ghetto, where he worked for a labor camp until escaping through an underground movement. He then spent two years in a British detention camp in Cyprus before making his way to Israel.
"My grandfather taught me everything I know about Judaism," Palko tells The Jerusalem Post. "He sat me down and told me all about my family's history. He also taught me Hebrew and introduced me to Jewish traditions. Because I had such a strong interest in learning about my Jewish identity, the two of us connected through religion."
According to Palko, moving out of the Hungarian countryside saved her grandfather’s life. The rest of her family was sent to Auschwitz. Many of her relatives perished in the gas chambers, including her grandfather’s grandmother, aunts and uncles. Only two of her relatives survived the camps.
"The aunt and uncle of my grandfather both survived Auschwitz," Palko says. "I saw my grandpa’s aunt's tattoo of the numbers growing up as a child, but I never understood what it meant. I visited her with my mom. As a kid, she spent a lot of time with her."
After the Holocaust, her family assimilated into Christian culture. Due to the struggles of living a Jewish life in that part of Europe, her mother married a Christian and turned away from her Jewish roots. Once Palko decided to pursue a Jewish identity, her mother supported her decision but refrained from leaving her Christian lifestyle.
"My mother was raised in the generation after the Holocaust. It was the generation where they did not even want to speak about it. They wanted to forget," Palko explains. "You need to know that my mother was also not raised as a Jew; therefore, letting me decide whether I wanted to follow the Jewish or the Christian path was a very brave act of hers."
Palko explored her Jewish roots while in high school and later, doing her Master’s degree program, signed up for a Taglit-Birthright trip in order to to surround herself with Jewish peers. And she embarked on her first trip to Israel.
"I had heard a lot about Israel from my grandfather after our family history was exposed, but I can still recall that very first moment in Israel when my Taglit group's plane landed at Ben-Gurion Airport," Palko tells the Post. "I had that unmistakable sense of coming 'home.' It felt like getting up from a deep sleep, or stepping out into the real world for the very first time. I have travelled a lot in my life, ever since I was a toddler, and still Israel took my breath away and has been keeping me spellbound ever since our first encounter."
After her Birthright trip, Palko brought little pieces of Israel back to her grandfather in Hungary. She brought him his favorite Israeli food and gifts. They went through all her pictures together and shared stories about their Israeli experiences. The more she connected to Israel, the deeper their bond grew.
"I was the only grandchild to return to the religion," Palko notes. "That made our relationship special. I felt like coming to Israel was preserving his legacy."
After her first trip to Israel, Palko could not stay away. She enrolled in a summer Ulpan at the University of Haifa to study Hebrew. In addition, she led Birthright trips to cultivate and inspire Jewish identity. Since she chose Judaism, she wanted to spread her story to as many people as possible.
"Leading Birthright trips has exposed me to so many Diaspora Jews," Palko gushes. "Many people take their Jewish identity for granted. As a Central European, it is a lot harder to be a Jew. Being a Jew has become so important to me, and I want to inspire others to feel the same."
Palko landed a job at the Foreign Ministry of Hungary, where she worked for two and a half years, but she could not shake the feeling that something was missing from her life. After weighing her options, she decided to quit her job in Hungary and signed up for a MASA program—Israel Government Fellows in Jerusalem. She currently holds a full-time government position as the International Spokesperson of the Ministry of Public Security, and attends weekly seminars and lectures on a variety of topics — from the history of Zionism to the Israeli political system and economy - at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center.
"I wanted to come to Israel for both very personal and professional reasons," says Palko. "I worked as an intern and later as a diplomat of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Hungary. During my Master's studies at the University of Hamburg, I specialized in the Middle East; thus, I knew from the first moment on that there is no better place on earth than Israel for me to improve my professional skills and widen my horizons in Israeli domestic politics and foreign policy."
On a more personal note, she wanted to live in Israel to get closer to her new-found Jewish roots. "I needed to live here," Palko stresses. "I feel a newly developed sense of responsibility to strengthen my connection to the Promised Land by learning Hebrew on a higher level, getting to know in depth the history and the culture of the Jewish people. I am building new relationships and getting immersed in the world of Jews from all over the world and most importantly Israelis."
Her grandfather could not wait for her to live in Israel. She informed him in January that she’d soon be leaving for Israel to participate in the one-year Masa program. He wanted to have one proper Shabbat meal with her before she left. Unfortunately, he passed away at the beginning of April before they could share that last meal.
"My grandfather's death was very emotional for me," Palko mourns. "He taught me everything I know about Judaism. Now, I'm the only Jew left in my family. It is very important for me to raise my family Jewish. I want to give my family what my grandfather gave to me.”
Living in Israel is everything she dreamed it would be. "My Jewish connection has been growing stronger with every second spent in this country," Palko says. "It involves memories of and respect for my grandfather, and a commitment to learning more about Judaism and inspiring others to do the same. I found my way finally and I am happier than ever, not just because I chose this path, but because I found true happiness in it."
Photo: Allie Freeman