More than 26 million people have taken an at-home ancestry DNA test, according to the MIT Technology Review, with the number of people joining databases such as Ancestry.com and 23andme.com increasing exponentially.
The travel industry, too, has been jumping on the bandwagon, with tour operators and cruise lines offering genealogy-based travel. While genealogy travel is new to many in the travel industry, Sophia Kulich of Sophia’s Travel, has specialized in heritage travel for more than 20 years.
Kulich’s specialty in heritage travel predates her entry into the travel business. Born in the Ukraine, Kulich’s interest in her Jewish heritage led her to explore synagogues and sites associated with Judaism during her journeys. “When I got into the travel business it was a natural progression for me. I saw that people wanted to explore their heritage, but they didn’t know how to do it,” she says.
Heritage Travel involves Detective Work
Building an individual heritage journey involves detective work, says Kulich. “Sometimes people don’t know much about their family, but they may know that their great grandparents came from a specific town. “
To uncover the past, Kulich works with local researchers who specialize in genealogy. “Through local archives they can find addresses, and sometimes even another branch of the family who lived in another town,” she says. Researching a family’s history sometimes involves additional clues like finding former neighbors or friends, and—as is the case with the Holocaust– people who may have sheltered a Jewish person or family during the war, notes Kulich.
“We take them to the sites associated with their family’s story, and adapt their travel itinerary to uncover these places,” she says, adding that a heritage trip is often the trip of a lifetime
Accordingly, Sophia’s itineraries incorporate traditional highlights along with her genealogical finds. For instance, in addition to the well-known ancient Jewish Cemetery in Prague, Sophia includes the town of Trebic, which has the best-preserved Jewish quarter in the country. In Ukraine, Sophia includes Kyev and Odesa, along with villages in the Carpathian mountains; while in Poland, itineraries may visit Gdansk, home of the Solidarity Movement, along with Auschwitz; and Germany trips may include the castles and the Berlin Wall in addition to sites associated with World War II.
Each Nationality has a Story
Sophia’s love of genealogical travel has led her to branch out. Today Kulich works with not only Jewish travelers seeking their roots, but those of Italian, German, Polish and other descents.
Recently she researched and planned a trip for travelers of German ancestry, whose family lived in what was once western Poland, but after World War II became Soviet-occupied East Germany. Sophia’s researchers looked through local archives and located the family’s old addresses.
For another couple, seeking their Italian heritage, Sophia planned a trip to a small village south of Rome, where the grandparents lived. “This was a little more complicated because the grandfather was adopted and had a different last name,” says Sophia.
Planning a Heritage trip
Kulich offers advice for travelers who may be planning their own heritage trip.
- Find out as much as possible about your family history. Research should be done as much in advance of your trip as possible.
- Locate a good resource or a local guide.
- Remember that former villages may be empty fields today. Without a guide you may not know that this empty field was once a village.
- A memorial, grave, or even parts of old cemeteries may today be on someone’s private property, so you may have to seek permission to visit.
- Be prepared for the possibility that your research may not yield results, even if you spend money hiring researchers. Research work is tedious, and may involve hours pouring through documents in archives, sometimes without guaranteed results.
Reservations and More Information
Founded in 1993, Sophia’s Travel provides cultural heritage tours for small groups, as well as specialized services including independent travel arrangements and shore excursions of Jewish interest.
Top: Sophia’s Travel group visits Auschwitz. Bottom: Church overlooks overgrown Jewish cemetery in Ukraine