Ancestry tourism or roots tourism is an increasing trend in the travel industry thanks to genealogy websites such as ancestry.com and 23andme.com. The rise of popular TV shows such as TLC’s Who Do You Think You Are, PBS’ Finding Your Roots and CNN’s Roots has also sparked interest in genealogy, self-discovery and tourism.
Mount Kisco resident Ellen Portman who grew up in Armonk took a genealogy trip this summer with her parents, two sisters and brother-inlaw to Eastern Europe to the “Pale of Settlement”, a geographic area where Jews had flourished for many years prior to the Holocaust. They were accompanied by a genealogical tour guide based out of Poland, Adam Zalewski.
Portman visited cities such as Riga, Warsaw and Krakow which she noted were beautiful and had gorgeous town squares where European Jewry once thrived but today only a few hundred or thousand remain. “No one returned after the war.”
Although Portman’s immediate ancestors had emigrated to the US in the early 1920s, she had always thought that her family hailed from Russia but national boundaries evolved in the Pale of Settlement area and her ancestors actually came from the nations of present day Latvia, Poland and Belarus.
A major highlight of the trip was finding the home they believe where Portman’s maternal great grandmother lived in the town of Daugavpils in Lithuania. They also traveled to Ostrow Mazowiecka in Poland where Portman’s father’s ancestors lived. The town was once two-thirds Jewish and during the Holocaust was the site of a mass shooting on November 11, 1939 when 500 Jews were shot and buried in a mass grave.
Portman was also struck by the fact that there were many memorials to the Holocaust that were prominent in the cities that she visited but there would also be hidden memorials that would also pay tribute to victims of the war. “Some were down a woodsy path with overgrown grass that you would only know about if you were looking for them.”
Her trip included a visit to Auschwitz. “There were hundreds of people getting off buses to tour it. But actually being there as opposed to reading about it is something else.” She was glad to see that many of the visitors there were not Jewish and still eager to learn about the Holocaust. Ultimately the trip inspired her to learn more about her family’s past and when she returned home, she enjoyed telling her three sons about her family’s ancestral background and showing them photos along with historical documents.