A slice of Slovakia: Local Polish-Americans find popular cultural getaway with Slovakia Heritage Tours

By DOMENIC POLI

Staff Writer

Published: 04-07-2023 7:42 PM

At least 8.8 million Americans reported Polish heritage to the U.S. Census Bureau in 2021. And members of this community who visit their ancestral homeland will find themselves in a nearly 125,000-square-foot nation separated from neighboring Slovakia by the majestic Carpathian Mountains.

This makes Slovakia Heritage Tours, established in 2010 by New Salem resident Judith Northup-Bennett, a popular service among Polish-Americans and others throughout Franklin County and the rest of the United States.

“The culture is very similar,” said former longtime Deerfield resident Mary Lou Reid, whose four grandparents came from the Krakow, Poland, area. “Going to Slovakia felt like going back into my grandmother’s house, and Poland even more so.”

Reid is one of dozens of people Northup-Bennett has escorted to Slovakia, and over into Poland, in the past 12 years. Northup-Bennett’s maternal grandparents hailed from the landlocked central European country and grew up with an appreciation for the history and culture, visiting for the first time with her mother in 1967 and returning many times to connect with her roots.

“I grew up with my grandmother in my house,” she said. “My mother and grandmother spoke [the dialect] Šariš, which is … more like Polish.”

Northup-Bennett visited Slovakia for three weeks in 2008 to study the Slovak language at a university in Bratislava, the nation’s capital and largest city, and attend a relative’s wedding. She realized other Americans were likely equally anxious to retrace their heritage and she returned to the country in 2010 with her oldest son. This year’s trip will be the first since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Slovakia Heritage Tours are held in September.

“That’s worked out well,” Northup-Bennett said. “It’s around the festivals, the wine festivals and harvest festivals.”

She explained she and her clients typically fly into Vienna, Austria, and drive the roughly 50 miles into Slovakia. The federal republic of Czechoslovakia split into the independent countries of the Czech Republic and Slovakia at the end of 1992.

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According to the Slovakia Heritage Tours’ website, the 2023 adventure from Sept. 8 to 17 includes nine nights in three- and four-star hotels and inns, admissions to festivals, historic sites, museums and cultural activities, and the 24/7 services of a native Slovak guide/interpreter and professional driver. Round-trip airfare, as well as medical and travel insurance and other costs, is not included.

That guide/interpreter is Northup-Bennett’s Slovak counterpart, Peter Blazicek, the CEO and founder of Best Slovakia Tours. Northup-Bennett connected with Blazicek years ago in hopes of getting help making arrangements such as hotel and restaurant bookings. They conducted their first tour together in 2011.

“Judy contacted me. She found us on the internet while she was searching for Slovakian tour guides,” Blazicek said in a phone interview from Budapest, Hungary, while in the middle of a 25-day tour around four countries. “We talked about an hour and everything was very good and we started then thinking about how to organize a tour.

“She really liked to talk to people and talk about Slovakia,” he continued.

Northup-Bennett said the collaboration has gone so well that Blazicek takes over her company this year.

“I’m a consultant now,” she said.

Satisfied customers

Reid, who recently moved to Florida after 49 years in Franklin County, said she went on one tour and is thinking about bringing her whole family “because it’s really kind of a family-friendly tour.”

“The tour was wonderful because it was small,” she recalled. “I believe there were maybe 12 people and the two tour guides.”

Reid said the group visited Northup-Bennett’s uncle, who owned a restaurant. Reid said he closed the restaurant for his niece’s guests and brought in food and musicians to play accordions.

“We danced the polka all night,” she recounted. “Just like we used to in my grandmother’s living room on Sundays. It was a great way to grow up.”

Reid, who was awestruck by the beauty of the Carpathian Mountains on both sides, said she visited Poland and was sitting in a cafe in Limanowa when she saw a passing tour bus with her grandfather’s surname on it. She also said Krakow felt “like a big hug.”

South Deerfield resident Irene “Reenie” Clancy, who grew up in Sunderland with the surname Grybko, has twice toured with Northup-Bennett and raved about the intimacy of the trips.

“We went to very low-key places. We got to know each other,” she said. “We became part of the communities. It was just such a personal experience, as opposed to a flamboyant or flashy ... experience. We learned how the people there enjoy and celebrate their lives.”

Digging for her roots

Northup-Bennett, who worked in marketing and promotions in New Hampshire before becoming a Spanish teacher at Amherst-Pelham Regional High School in her late 40s, grew up hearing Slovak in her Stratford, Connecticut, home but was always encouraged to speak English.

“I was surrounded by Slovak, but no one spoke [the language] to me,” she recalled. Part of the reason for this, she theorizes, is her father was not Slovak but rather the descendant of an old Rhode Island family.

Still, she has worked diligently to stay in touch with her Slovak roots. Her grandmother, Mary Zelensky, immigrated to the United States at 14 around 1900 and eventually met and married Josef Grich, a fellow immigrant who died of an enlarged heart at 30.

Northup-Bennett explained Slovaks have historically tended to move to Pennsylvania and Ohio to work in mines and steel mills.

Notable Slovak-Americans include Dave Grohl, founder of the rock band Foo Fighters and former drummer of Nirvana, actor Jon Voight and daughter Angelina Jolie, and singer Jon Bon Jovi.

More information about Slovakia Heritage Tours is available at: slovakiaheritage.com. More information about Best Slovakia Tours is available at: www.bestslovakiatours.com.

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