Rediscovering Your Ancestry: Bridging the Past and Present through Genealogical Travel
By Teh Chin Liang
When Tomasz Szymkowiak first visited the USA in the early 2000s, he was amazed by the immense interest and curiosity shown by Polish descendants towards his homeland, Poland. Heritage tourism was almost unheard of back then, especially in Poland.
Complicated logistics and language barriers dissuaded travelers from visiting their ancestors’ countries.
A lightbulb went off in his head.
‘Why don’t I start a tour business to bring people to explore their heritage in Poland?’
He saw an opportunity and founded Genealogy Tour – a company that offers tailored tours to connect people with their roots and discover their family history.
Szymkowiak shared with me in an interview how his tours have helped people to reconcile and come to terms with their roots.
Growing Interest in Heritage Tourism
Heritage tourism is gaining popularity due to the growing awareness of its potential. Family tree tours give people a chance to really delve into who came before them.
Szymkowiak said, “Genealogy tours have been on many people’s bucket lists, but back in the days, many people had no knowledge of how to go about planning a trip like this.”
The language barrier compounded with logistical challenges made navigating a foreign country much more daunting. However, with private genealogy tours now available that handle the entire process, traveling to trace one’s roots has become more accessible than ever.
According to Szymkowiak, “Coming out of the pandemic, people are eager to take the trips that have been put on hold. Additionally, the shift towards purposeful travel makes genealogy tours an excellent option.”
“We believe that there is a difference between taking a standard tour to the country of your ancestors and fully experiencing it through a “heritage tour” like ours.”
Customized Research for Family History Adventure
Each research project is unique. There is no standard protocol to follow. To begin, Szymkowiak conducts an interview with his client to gather information about their ancestors and their knowledge about them.
Szymkowiak explained, “Some of them have already done their own research and know a lot about their ancestors, including their ancestral towns and villages. This has saved us a great deal of work and made our jobs much easier.”
Though some people have extensive knowledge about their ancestors, others only know that they’re from Poland.
To help people learn more about their genealogy, Szymkowiak usually gauges the client’s knowledge, confirms their information, checks for record availability, and estimates potential data that may be found during the research.
Then the actual research starts. This usually involves visiting one of the state or parish archives in Poland, Ukraine, or Lithuania (which was considered part of Poland in the past).
The team went on to search for various records – from certificates (birth, marriage, or death) to property records, censuses, military documents, and more, to go deeper into the family’s background.
Szymkowiak explained, “There are nearly 50 places around the country and a few abroad that we use as our sources. Additionally, we often visit local registries of vital records that keep records not older than 100 years.”
When conducting research, Szymkowiak also searches local parish offices or town halls and consults the oldest person in a local community as they sometimes have valuable information about the people travelers search for.
The final step involves compiling a report that summarizes all the findings. This includes copies of original records and translations into English.
Another type of research the company conducts is called ‘on-site research’. This is done by visiting the town of the client’s origin and searching for the exact place where their roots lie (such as the location of the household), graves, or even living relatives.
“Throughout our almost two decades of experience, we have continuously refined our methods to enhance the quality of our tours with each new iteration,” Szymkowiak explains.
Crafting an Itinerary
With research findings in hand, Szymkowiak is now ready to include everything in his client’s genealogy tour.
According to Szymkowiak, the company’s goals is to bring their “clients to the exact town or village where their ancestors once lived. In many cases, we drill down to the exact location of their ancestral home.”
Genealogy Tours are usually complemented by other activities, such as sightseeing planned in accordance with the client’s preferences. Excursions often include anything from art and history to culinary, hiking, sports, or more niche activities like mushroom picking or off-roading.
Szymkowiak hopes “the tours will foster a deeper connection to their ancestry and the places they visit.”
Finding Common Ground to Keep Everyone Happy
In some instances, finding the right mix of activities to suit everyone on a tour can be tricky. Szymkowiak occasionally finds himself in a dilemma where everyone on the trip has different interests, making it difficult to please everyone and keep the tour on track.
Szymkowiak explains, “Being caught in the middle is common during the tour. While most of the family members expect you to take them on the tour, there is one among them who needs your help in exploring the archives.”
As a tour guide, Szymkowiak strives to provide a well-rounded experience that appeals to all participants. The deadlock is often solved by splitting the group and promptly enlisting help from other tour guides.
Tracking Down Distant Relatives
According to Szymkowiak, “Every single tour is unforgettable! Even though I’ve personally guided hundreds of them, I could probably rattle off each one from the top of my head. Do you know why? Because each of them was incredibly unique and special.”
What excites Szymkowiak the most is when he manages to track down living relatives for his clients.
They are usually those second or third cousins. Moments like these make the trip truly exceptional.
Getting ahold of these people prior to our visit is recommended – it gives both parties sufficient time to prepare for the visit, such as retrieving the old photos from the attic or bringing along other family members who are also interested in meeting their cousins from across the ocean.
Szymkowiak said “Some of our clients enjoy participating in research. In this case, our visits and meetings are a big surprise for their Polish cousins.”
The ‘Great Polish hospitality’ is clearly visible in most cases. The visit would turn into a huge fest. The meeting begins with tears of happiness, followed by laughter as they share amazing family stories.
“When they first meet, the way they lock eyes – you can feel the joy. The reunion feels as if they are a long-lost family finally coming together,” Szymkowiak reminisced.
He recalled a couple who “brought a small carved wood piece, a gift inspired by their son’s hobby. Imagine their astonishment when their Polish family surprised them with a similar present. It turns out, both families shared a passion for wood carving.”
There are poignant moments too, particularly when visiting sites where the client’s ancestors tragically lost their lives.
Szymkowiak shared “I remember a 98-year-old watchmaker, from a small town near Łódź, who remembered my clients’ grandfather as his neighbor and told us the story about how he was forced to bury him in the woods during World War II…Listening to the stories from eye-witnesses of World War II is especially unforgettable.”
Tracing Lineages Beyond Poland’s Borders
In the 17th century, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was one of the largest countries in Europe, spanning modern-day Lithuania, Belarus, portions of Ukraine, and even small regions of Moldavia.
GenealogyTour.com cover all territories, depending on the availability of records, and extends beyond Poland’s borders to include regions like northern Czechia, Slovakia, and eastern Germany. For example, many tours either start in Krakow and end in Budapest/Vienna or start in Warsaw and end in Berlin.
Many Records Are Still Accessible
It is a commonly held belief that a substantial number of records were lost during the wars, leading to no trace or lead that can be found or recovered. However, many records are still available as long as you know where to look.
Do it Sooner Rather Than Later
A genealogy tour is important to participate in sooner rather than later. As time goes by, there will be fewer and fewer people who have information about the past.
“If you’d like to meet someone who remembers your grandmother, has great stories to share, and perhaps even has pictures of her before emigration, it’s better to do so within the next few years,” Szymkowiak shared.
Discovering your roots is like unearthing a mysterious chest tucked away in the attic. As you brush off the layers of dust, break the heavy-duty chain, and pry open the chest, a beam of enlightenment shines through and illuminates your journey into the past.
And this transformative, genealogical travel journey can be truly life-changing.