Pre-meeting Talk at October 30, 2005, Meeting

Contributors: Sol Sylvan, Pamela Weisberger, Linda Cantor, Susana Leistner Bloch,
and Mel Comisarow, for information taken from his infofile on shtetl travel on JewishGen

Published in the Syllabus for the IAJGS International Conference on Jewish Genealogy in Las Vegas, Nevada, July 2005, and updated in December 2005.

BEFORE YOU GO: Advance planning is essential !—best to begin the process at least six months prior to your travel date. Decide if you prefer group or independent travel, or a combination of both. Contact relatives who might be interested in joining you, or those not related to you, but who are researching common regions in Eastern Europe. Read books, web sites, and the JewishGen Archives for advice from those who have gone before you. Post specific queries on the appropriate JewishGen discussion group lists. For independent travel it is highly recommended to hire a well-qualified guide, who can also act as a translator and driver, if necessary. Sometimes you will need more than one person to fulfill these duties, and good, reliable people are booked early. Personal recommendations from former travelers will help you decide if you are hiring the right person for your needs. Be specific on what you want see and do, and what you hope to get out of your trip, especially if it involves advance work, such as contacting archives or town halls for information or to alert them that you will be visiting. Insist that the tour organizers/private guide contact the mayor's office in every town on your itinerary to gather information before you make your final schedule. Allot more time than you think you will need! If you plan to conduct research in archives, check when they close for vacation.

GETTING THERE : The most convenient connecting airports when flying to Lviv, are Warsaw, Frankfurt, Milan, Kiev and Vienna. One can also fly to London, and find a variety of connecting flights. In addition to U.S. Airlines, LOT Polish Airline, and its smaller subsidiary, EuroLot, are highly recommended. Ukraine has a good, if not luxurious, railway system. Traveling by train from one of the counties west of Ukraine will take longer, as you have to go through customs and the process of changing undercarriage on railway cars. Buses run every day to Lviv from Warsaw and Krakow—a 10 hour journey involving a lengthy border crossing at night, but this is the cheapest way to enter Urkraine, short of hitch-hiking. Ukraine has a fairly well-developed system of major roads, but they are not well marked and the signs may be difficult to read in Cyrillic. Tourists can become a target for car thieves, so leave your car in watched car parks and never leave valuables inside. 

PASSPORTS: Make sure your passport will not expire within six months of taking your trip (as a precautionary measure), but visas are no longer required for travel to Ukraine, and never were for Slovakia or Poland. (If, however, you are hiring a guide residing in one of these countries, always check to see that their passport and visas to travel are current.) Prior to traveling, make three copies of the front pages and visa page of your passport. Leave one at home and place one copy in your carry-on bag and the other in your suitcase. If it is lost or stolen this will expedite the replacement process and you will also have the copy of your visa.

HOTELS : In the larger Polish and Ukrainian cities there are some good hotels. Krakow has an abundance of excellent accommodations, and The Grand Hotel is a luxurious choice. In Ternopil, the Hotel Ternopil is rundown, seedy, and has unreliable water and electricity whereas The Galician is up to date and quite adequate. For other locales, best to do your research online, or through a reputable travel agent, but know that you may have to “rough it” when visiting certain regions—a small price to pay for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!

MEDICAL/HYGIENE: If you have any health problems, bring a medical history. Bring over-the-counter medications you normally use, in addition to prescriptions regularly taken, or sometimes needed. Having a ten-day supply of Cipro is recommended for various maladies that often occur on trips. Pack some disposable syringes and needles as in certain countries hospitals often recycle syringes and needles.  Make sure your guide knows that you have these available in case of accident or sudden illness.  Consult your countries heath advisory about vaccines recommended for the area you are traveling to, and ask your physician for his/her suggestions prior to travel. Lavatory conditions in Ukraine—especially in small towns - can be quite primitive, missing toilet paper and toilet seats , are the norm, so bring supplies or tissues, anti-bacterial hand cleanser, etc.

INSURANCE: Have appropriate travel medical and accident insurance and carry your insurance information and physicians’ phone numbers. Check with your insurance provider prior to travel on what options you have if you become ill abroad in Ukraine and Poland and need to see a doctor or go to a hospital. You might also want to consider adding medical evacuation insurance coverage.

MONEY/CREDIT/DEBIT CARDS : Bring a combination of US dollars, travelers checks and two major credit cards (in case one gets lost or stolen) - preferably Visa or MasterCard (American Express and Discover are not as widely accepted.) Check with your bank to find out if your debit card has any limits overseas, and notify all card companies that you will be utilizing these cards out of the country, including your dates of travel. They can also provide you with their exchange rates to assist you in evaluating whether cash or credit card is the best to use. Travelers checks can be exchanged in the large city banks and most hotels in Lviv, Krakow, etc. Denominations of $20s are best and provide you with the most flexibility. Keep your numbers separate from your checks. And make duplicate copies. Good idea to have a money belt or security necklace.

Keep at least 100 single US dollar bills -  new, unblemished, current issue - to use as tips, for cab fare and bartering in the markets.  "Hard" currency is valuable and often preferred. Tens and twenties are also useful as “tips” for cemetery caretakers, town hall workers who assist with your research, etc. Let your itinerary and activities be your guide.

GIFTS - Personal: People in even in the smallest shtetlach are delighted by a small souvenir, trinket from " America” like souvenir pens and key chains, small plastic bottles of maple syrup (not readily available overseas), hometown postcards, Jack Daniels and Johnny Walker, and T-Shirts with western logos (cities/universities/sports teams/ NYPD and NYFD.) For women, make-up and perfume are appropriate, but money is always the most welcome “gift."

Town Hall, Library and Archival: Current and old maps of the area would be appreciated presents as might genealogical materials—a binder with memoirs/family histories, including town photos. Many smaller towns are writing brochures or town histories, and these items might be surprisingly welcome.

MEMOIRS, ARTICLES, PHOTOGRAPHS, MAPS : Acquire typewritten copies of memoirs of people from the area you will be visiting and leave them with mayors or librarians. Many young Jews in Ukraine have no knowledge of their history but are eager to learn. These can be paper copies or in CD/DVD format. (Many mayor’s offices and archives have desktop computers.) Don’t store digital files using proprietary formats. Use the generic RTF (Rich Text Format) for word processing files and the generic tiff, jpeg or PDF format for photos. Considering printing and donating articles or books that you think might be of interest to these institutions. Even written in English, there may be someone in town who can translate written material. Photos of family members (8"x 10" - the elderly have poor eyesight). There is a dearth of photographs and historical records in smaller towns, partly due to Stalinist repression during the nineteen thirties and forties (when anyone with Western relatives was suspect) due to the Nazi occupation. Bring copies of family photographs, including photos of buildings, as well as individuals, who were from the towns and villages that you will visit.

DICTIONARY : Whether electronic or soft cover: essential and phrase books such as Lonely Planet's Ukrainian Phrasebook, even if you are working with a guide.

BUSINESS CARDS : Useful timesaver when you want to give someone your name, address, email, phone number and surname/town research information.



Video : A higher quality, small, palm-sized digital camera will provide excellent images (even in low light) that you can later edit on your home computer. If you are considering purchasing a new camera for this trip, do thorough research based on your expected needs and budget. Most mini-DV cassettes last 60 minutes and while it is best to travel with enough film supplies to last throughout your trip, these can be bought overseas in larger cities with electronics stores. If you plan to interview people, purchase a clip-on microphone in lieu of the camera’s directional mike, as it will greatly improve voice quality, especially when shooting outdoors. Consider that video taping requires continual concentration on the videography and not on the associated conversation and action being taped.  You may be so focused on the videography that you may miss the conversation…or the opportunity to ask an important question. If two people from the same family are traveling together, the more knowledgeable/ observant person should handle the still photography while the other handles the interview.

Audio : Some people are reluctant to speak “on camera” but won’t object to being audio-taped, so as a back-up, bring a small voice-recorder.

Still Photography : Digital cameras are the way to go. Moderately priced, 3-5 megapixel, 3x zoom, digital cameras will probably be adequate for 95% of your photos, but purists may still want to bring their 35mm cameras. Carry a disposable camera for emergencies--battery goes dead, camera breaking, etc. A tripod is a nuisance to handle but makes slow shutter photography possible in museums and archives where flash photography is prohibited or you need to angle down to photograph record books and documents. (Small portable mini-tripods are a good alternative.)

ELECTRONICS : Poland and Ukraine use 220v AC, 50 Hz. Plugs are 2 prong "round" so an adapter from our "square" prong is necessary.  If your home voltage is 120 then a traveling voltage converter will also be necessary. Most important: make certain you have a battery charger for your video and digital cameras that will work overseas. Many hotels will have larger, industrial transformers.

WHEN YOU GET TO THE VILLAGES: Here's a list of questions for gathering information about ancestors and other residents of towns.

• Where is the mayor? The mayor's secretary?
• What is the name of the town historian? Can you take me to him/her?
• Are there any elderly people with a good memory of the old days?
• Are there any Jewish people in town? How many?
• What are their names? Can you take us to them?
• Where is the synagogue? What is it used for now? What is its condition?
• Where is the Jewish cemetery? What is its condition? How many visible gravestones?
• When meeting people (including the Mayor and his/her staff) -- Please print (type if possible) your name, address and phone number.
• What is your name? Your (your wife's) maiden name? When/where were you born?
• Where were your parents from? Your grandparents? What were their names? Maiden names of mother and grandmothers?
• Where are your siblings? Your children? Your grandchildren? Their names? When/where were they born? Do they know English?
• Do you have relatives in the Americas? In Europe or Israel? Or Australia? What are their addresses?
• Do you know the family names XXX? YYY? ZZZ?, etc.? (Bring a written list of names.)
• Where did they live in town? • What happened to these people? Do you recognize these people? (bring photographs).
• Was there a cheder or Yiddish school in town? When did it operate? Where was it located? Did gentiles attend?
• Show aerial photo enlargements of each town that you visit and ask about the location and history of features in the photo: Synagogue, cemetery, town hall, who lived/worked in which buildings, old roads to neighboring towns, and so on.

For older people:
• What do you know about WWI? What happened in 1933 when Stalin killed the Kulaks (successful Ukrainian farmers)? What happened in 1941 when the Nazis invaded? To where were you evacuated?
• What was left in town when you returned after liberation?
• Is there a Yizkor book for this town?
• Who did/didn't return from evacuation or his/her war service?
• What happened during the 1947 famine?

• For soldiers -- Where did you train? What battles were you in? Some of these questions will raise painful issues for the people so be sensitive and back off as appropriate.

ARCHIVAL RESEARCH : Consult Miriam Weiner’s Routes to Roots Foundation website [] and JRI-Poland’s database to learn which archives hold records for the towns you are visiting. If these records held in Poland have already been indexed by JRI-Poland and can be ordered through their shopping basket system, or are available on the LDS microfilms, there is no need to get copies at the archives, unless you have a desire to view the original book. For records held in the Lvov archive, for example, which have not been filmed or indexed, you may want to schedule several days to look through these record books.

(Please note! Currently the Lviv Archive is closed for inventory and are tentatively scheduled to reopen in May 2006—but this date is NOT definite.) Whether going with a guide or on your own, it is helpful to write ahead to the director of the archive with details of your impending visit and the books you wish to look through. On the day of your visit, take an interpreter to smooth the way and to help you decipher what you are looking at. This particular archive (as opposed to the one in Ternopil) is quite user-friendly, but they may still charge you to look at books they bring out for you, as well as for making copies or allowing you to photograph the records. (Approximately $10 per book or copy.) You can pay in Ukrainian or American currency. While this might prove to be a costly visit, the good news is that you will be able to look at almost every Jewish record that they hold, although some of the notary and land records are in storage and cannot be accessed. Remember to investigate the cadastral maps for your towns—another excellent resource. With the other, smaller archives, start writing to them early in the game—and in Ukrainian! With advance planning, it may be possible to make some breakthroughs.

CEMETERY VISITS: Many Jewish cemeteries in Ukraine and Poland did not survive. In other places you will be lucky to find a headstone or two, or a neglected gathering of stones overgrown with weeds. In some cases, however, a fully restored cemetery or Holocaust memorial may exist. Check with JewishGen’s cemetery database for information about your shtetl. If a cemetery exists, find out ahead of time if you need a caretaker to let you in. Many old gravestones have sunken and are only partly visible. It might be prudent to purchase a sickle to cut down any foliage that obscures a gravestone. Many tombstones are worn and do not photograph well, so you might want to bring materials (charcoal and large paper) to do a rubbing. Another option is covering the stone with shaving cream, and wiping the surface. The foam remains in the crevices making the writing and markings visible. To restore an ancestor’s headstone use permanent black paint and a fine brush to fill in the carved lettering. For the sophisticated traveler, a global positioning satellite (GPS) receiver can be a great aid when photographing tombstones, as a cemetery map can later be prepared by connecting each photo to its corresponding GPS reading.


Consulate General of Ukraine :
Ukrainian Archives Information :
Ukrainian Archives/Genealogy :
Addresses for Archives in Ukraine :
Polish State Archives :
JG Discussion Group :
JewishGen Databases :
All Poland Database – Over 3,000,000 entries from a variety of Polish databases, including areas of Galicia that were in Poland between 1918 and 1939
JewishGen Shtetl Seeker – Locate towns in Eastern European or Central Europe, by name or location
Jewish Records Indexing Poland
Roots to Routes Foundation - Miriam Weiner’s informative index of holdings of the archives of Eastern Europe, searchable by town, including explanations and information on where to get documents .

Last Updated January 24, 2006, 2005
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