Who is Sophia?
**** A special thank you to my son, Michael, for helping me formulate my story for you on paper. This bio is compiled from an essay that he wrote about me for a college course.
My Mother, An American Dream, My Inspiration by Michael Kulich
Most people know the story of James J. Braddock, the topic of Ron Howard's 2005 film "Cinderella Man." In the 1920's Braddock was a successful boxer who had everything he could ever want in life. A wife whom he loved with all of his heart, three beautiful healthy children, and a pair of fists that brought home quite a hefty paycheck. He had it all. Then, when the Great Depression hit, he quickly lost everything. He was decommissioned by the Boxing Association, disabling him to fight, and he had a severely broken hand which he received during a boxing match. This prevented him from finding a hard labor job (which was all that was available at the time). Not being able to even provide enough food to feed his family, Braddock did everything in his power to make ends meet. Eventually, the Boxing Commission reinstated him and set him up to fight Max Bayer, the heavyweight champion of the world whom had already killed three men in the ring. Braddock, was a middle-aged man fighting with a broken hand, and an empty stomach, having not trained for almost a year. Braddock would go on to beat Bayer. His triumph was described as "The American Dream."
These "American Dream" stories are found everywhere. Most noticeably, they are the stories of people coming to this country to make a better life for themselves and their family. One woman whose story has impacted my life in such a tremendous way is not a boxer. She isn't an actress or an author, and she doesn’t work on the top floor of the Trump Tower. She is a person who you may see everyday, but never wonder what her life has been like or the amount of sacrifices she has made in her life. She is not only an example; but in her own existence, defines the term, "The American Dream."
Sophia Kulich was born and raised in the former Soviet Union. As a young girl, it was not easy growing up behind the "Iron Curtain." In school she loved learning about Geography, Literature, History, and Art. They were her passion. However, at the time, it was better to have a more practical education so Sophia went on to college and earned her Masters degree in Civil Engineering. Although she worked hard to earn this degree, she did not feel that working on a construction site was a career that would fulfill her dreams, so just as she always did, Sophia followed her dreams. During her college years she met and married her first love and college sweetheart, George Kulich. They have been married for the past thirty years. Times were tough and as a young married couple, getting by was not easy. Sophia supplemented their income by using a skill that she had been mastering since a young age; she became a professional chess player.
As a Jew living in the Soviet Union, it was hard to get a look at the outside world. Soviet Jews were not allowed to travel, and the media was controlled by the government, portraying everything the citizens of the Soviet Union saw from a biased socialist point of view. However, Sophia would always look forward to watching her favorite T.V program called, "The TV Travel Club," which showed exotic places all around the world. Sophia would watch with pure fascination.
In 1980, due to the pressure for human rights from the West, some Jews were allowed to emigrate from the Soviet Union. The process was extremely difficult because it was designed to keep people from applying for an emigration visa. The KGB were all over people that were applying for visas. Many Jews were refused. Unfortunately, Sophia, George, their young son Edward, and her other family members fleeing persecution from the Soviet Union fell into that category. They lost their jobs and waited 3 1/2 years until receiving their visas. Finally in December of 1982, Sophia and her family were given permission to leave. They only received two weeks notice. Today most people bring 2 - 3 suitcases with them for a 5 day vacation. Sophia and her family of 6 left everything they had and with only 6 suitcases, and they embarked on a journey to start a new life in the land of the free.
When Sophia and her family reached a small border checkpoint in the Ukraine, problems arose. The customs officer claimed that Sophia's 5 year old son, Ed, did not have the correct paperwork and was not able to leave the country. The customs agent told Sophia and George that the boy would have to stay but the rest of the family could go ahead. To go back to Odessa was not an option. She and her family waited until the next morning and returned to the checkpoint. With a different shift working, Sophia provided the same documents rejected the day before and they were accepted without a problem. Sophia and her family however, were still harassed by customs bureaucrats who forced them to leave even more suitcases; including her father-in-law's priceless violin. Finally, on December 27, 1981 Sophia and her family crossed the border into Vienna. There, they were met by Austrian soldiers armed with machine guns (due to the history of terrorist attacks targeting Jewish refugees).
Vienna was beautiful and the people were friendly. The Opera Theater was the same design as Odessa’s Opera Theater. The culture was something Sophia had never experienced before and the music, museums, and beautifully dressed people left her speechless. The store windows were fascinating, especially for her 5 year old son Edward. He did not even ask for anything from the windows because he did not know that these things were for sale.
Vienna was in a sense a large holding area for refugees that were fleeing the Soviet Union. Refugees who decided to seek their new life in Israel were quickly transported, while the rest of the refugees waited to relocate to Italy. Once in Italy, the refugees would wait for admission approval to other countries. A few of Sophia's family members fled to Israel. She would not see them again until 20 years later.
Sophia and her family eventually arrived in Rome. It was chaotic and exciting, packed full of energy. People were a lot more friendly and animated than Austrians. Termini station was busy. The first Italian word Sophia learned would be “chemodano,” meaning "suitcase." They were forced to wait while formalities regarding their documents were sorted out. Eventually they had to decide what country they wanted to start their new life in and they had to wait to find out who would take them. Out of all their choices (Canada, Australia, NZ, South Africa), they had an open invitation from their relatives who had already settled in New York, so that’s where they decided to go.
After a week in Rome’s pension, they rented a cheap apartment in Rome’s suburb, Ladispoli, where there was a Russian emigrant community. There was a center, and the ORT Organization was running a school for kids and English lessons for adults. They had a very limited allowance from the Jewish Organization HIAS (which was a loan the family later paid off once they found jobs) and whatever was left of their savings. To save as much money as they could, they rented an apartment which was only one room for all 6 of them
They lived there through the winter and life seemed to move by very slow because they were anxiously awaiting a decision from the U.S regarding their visas. Although hard to relax, the family of 6 made the best out of the situation. The refugees could not find any work while waiting in Italy so many of the Jews would gather in the piazza to discuss their immigration progress. Sophia and her family would end up selling whatever belongings they could part with to the Italians because they desperately needed the money.
In the area there were Christian missionaries who tried to convert Jews into to Christians. They never really succeeded but they were friendly to the refugees. They always had snacks, tea and cookies so their room was also popular during Italian winters. They were nice - whether or not you converted. It gave Sophia and her family the chance to practice English, and watch Christian movies in English. In addition, their ORT English teachers were surprisingly excellent quality in Sophia's advanced class. Besides just being able to practice conversation, they were also introduced to American culture, music, and books.
Italy became Sophia's first real transitioned country. It was the first part of the world she had seen after leaving the Soviet Union. It was the gateway to her dreams and it became the love of her life. Sophia told me, "I love Italians, I love real authentic Italian food, I love the sound of their language and their people. I love everything about it." Italians were very kind to Sophia and her family when they did not have any money. She specifically remembers a taxi driver, Giovanni, who was driving them around in his Mercedes for free (“due machina, no problema!”). He did not speak Russian or English and they did not speak Italian but somehow they were able to communicate. He took them to small tavernas and showed them around. Sophia also met another man who was working as a teller in the Vatican museum and he invited Sophia and her family there for free. She was fascinated by the magnificence of the Vatican.
Upon arriving at JFK International Airport in New York, Sophia and all of the members of her family traveling with her, only they had $42 between them. To the family's horror, Sophia's husband George gave $10 of their money to a porter. Sophia was finally reunited with her family, and was filled with excitement to start her new life in the free world. Sophia and George both got jobs for large corporations specializing in Computer Technology and worked as hard as they could to save money for vacations, for they still remembered the exotic places they had seen back in the Soviet Union on TV.
The way Sophia became involved in travel was the result of her first vacation in the U.S. Sophia wanted it to be an amazing experience for her son Ed, her husband and herself because they had worked so hard to save up for it. Sophia and George decided that their first vacation would be to Florida. She thought it would be nice to bring Ed to see Disney World and also get some good time on the beach, considering it was an April vacation. Sophia trusted her travel agent and didn't really do any research. It would turn out to be their most memorable vacation ever.
The travel agent booked them to stay at Daytona Beach, which she said was only 1/2 hour from Disney World. Upon their arrival at Daytona Beach, Ed, now 7-years old gazed at the beach with an enormous smile as if he had found heaven on earth. Sophia quickly covered Ed's eyes with her hand. Their travel agent had booked them on a family vacation on a beach, packed with spring breakers. If their MTV spring break experience wasn't bad enough, they found out that Disney World was actually a 2 1/2 hour commute from Daytona Beach. Not wanting to give up Ed's hopes of exploring Disney, they made the commute. When they finally reached Disney World, it was too crowded and way to hot to stand in line. Although not what they expected, Sophia claims "In retrospect, it turned out to be our most memorable vacation ever. We made lemonade out of lemons. We rented scooter. We also drove our car on the beach where it got stuck. A crowd of spring breakers helped raise the car and get it out of the sand. It was fun."
For her next vacation, Sophia did not go back to the same travel agent. Instead, she started researching everything herself. Sophia and George had their second child, Mike, and a few years later returned to Disney World. This time she did it herself and she did it right. They stayed in Disney at the Polynesian resort, made their own restaurant reservations, visited all the attractions they wanted, and did everything they had planned.
Sophia started planning their next trips and later on, joined a local travel agency. She loved every minute of it but finally decided to follow her dreams and branched out on her own. That’s when she came up with E&M Travel (named after her two sons Edward and Michael). Later on, her agency would become "Sophia’s Travel."
Sophia dream was that one day she would be able to return to Italy as a tourist, and not as a refugee. Her dream would in fact come true. Sophia has returned to Italy many times since her 1982 stay in Rome. One time on a business trip, the next time with her husband and youngest son Mike, then with her husband for their 25th wedding anniversary and then a few times later. Sophia recalls her favorite memory of Italy as this - "Enjoying romantic evenings in Piazza San Marco where you sit on the Piazza and listen to competing classical orchestra music. . A bottle of Pellegrino and cup of tea cost the same as dinner in other places, but you are in Venice, hey, who is counting? Live it."
Sophia's emphasis in travel is in specialized independent itineraries all over the world, specializing in Europe and Asia. She also has special expertise on Jewish Heritage, and special interest itineraries such as tours surrounding Harry Potter, The Da Vinci Code, The Beatles, and many others.
Sophia and George have two amazing boys.
Ed, now 28, and a graduate of Cornell University and St. Georges Medical School, is a pediatrician in New York. He lives happily with his beautiful wife Jaclyn and has a baby Jason born March 22, 2006.
Mike, 19, also followed his dreams and is studying to become a District Attorney. He moved to California to be with his beautiful girlfriend Lauren. He will graduate from college in June of 2007.
Sophia has traveled numerous times for leisure and business in the Caribbean, Mexico, Europe, Costa Rica, Panama, Israel, Thailand, Hong Kong, USA and Canada.
Sophia Kulich: the true American Dream and an inspiration to us all.
This article was written in 2006.
On November 4, 2007, George Kulich suddenly passed away. This site is dedicated to loving memory of Sophia's business partner, husband and best friend.