Monday, June 1, 2015


The random happy events in our lives are one of the things that makes us thrill with excitement and vibrate. These events are rare, and we often feel they're arbitrary, unless there's really a mightier power above us. Who knows?

In any case, I consider random personal connections part of these events that make our lives more special and divert from daily mundane things. I met my wife on a bus by accident, and couldn't even think one day I would date her, and moreover, get married. I ended up studying at the San Francisco Art Institute also by this kind of fate's "invisible" hand. It was basically one phone call that convinced me applying there. And I never spoke to that person again.

What I'm trying to get at is that the world is incredibly small and we, humans, can, at any given moment, establish a random personal connection. This connection could or not change our lives, but the impressive thing is that it really happenned.

As I posted before, I've been meeting many people with the same ancestry as mine during the several screenings of Mamaliga Blues. These screenings have proven to be a melting pot of Bessarabers: a Moldovan girl who had a Tolpolar neighbor, an Ukranian gentleman who saw his father in one of the many old photographs shown in the film, and, more recently, a lady from Edinitz who used to live in front of my great-uncle's house in Moldova.

Surely the internet and new technologies help to make the world smaller, but it's always been this way. A small world makes us feel more human - and gives us comfort.

Sunday, May 10, 2015


Audio and image recorders were only invented in the late 1800's, but it took many years since we could actually have these at home and use them to document ourselves, family and friends. When I look at pictures of my ancestors, some from centuries ago, I can try to imagine how they looked like in a daily basis, how they walked and moved. But it's impossible to know how they talked, how were their voices like, if they spoke Portuguese well (being Yiddish/Russian/Romenian their native languages) or had any accent.

It's a challenge to try to depict my grandparents and their parents' lives. And in this journey into the past, it's even more difficult to figure out sounds, more than images. It's easy to have a song or tune in mind, but when we talk about sounds, it's a different thing. Somebody can try to describe a kind of voice, but it's still hard. Sounds gives depth, meaning. And in getting to know our ancestors' voices we could have a more complete picture of their personalities and characteristics.There's so much we can learn from it. 

Documenting not only your relatives' images, but also audios, will help to keep a more reliable memory alive. 

Wednesday, April 1, 2015


Several topics in one post this time.

First one is that I was recently asked about recommendations on books in English about Moldova. There are actually not many as far as I could tell. I came up with three on the top of my head:

- Easter in Kishinev (about the 1903 pogrom)
- Jewish roots in Ukraine and Moldova: pages from the past (from Miriam Weiner)
- Playing the Moldovans at Tennis (I didn't read this one, but watched the film)

And talking about books, I donated one to the Jewish Cultural Institute in Porto Alegre, my hometown in Brazil. The book is from Ihil Shraibman which I acquired in my last trip to Moldova entitled "Creation and love: short stories." It is a rarity, and even more so in Latin American lands. Ihil passed away in 2005 and was the last Moldovan Yiddish writer. His books tell stories about the old shtetls, but were never translated into English, therefore remain only for Hebrew/Yiddish/Russian speaking audiences. What secrets these books may be holding from us...?

Ihil Shraibman and one of his books

I also made another donation recently: Mamaliga Blues is traveling to Israel on very particular hands. Rabbi Daniel Pressman is taking a bunch of kids to Poland to the renowned March of the Living event. Afterwards, they all go to Israel and, amongst many other things, visit the amazing Yad Vashem museum. And what better hands to take the film to its Visual Center than Pressman and his pupils? I feel honored that the film's DVD is in their hands in such a fine mission. The DVD will be in the Yad Vashem's Visual Center's archive for anyone to watch it. 
The Yad Vashem, in Jerusalem

These donations are a tiny bit of what I can do to help disseminate Bessarabia’s Jewish History and culture. It's a meaningful experience to me. As it were many things that happened in the past. I was remembering my 2 trips to Moldova, the Mamaliga Blues' screenings I presented and all the wonderful people I met, and it occurred to me that some of what I experienced didn't seem important or was mundane at the time. And it's only now, months or even years later, that some of these experiences revealed themselves with full of meaning and importance.

What I want to say is that be mindful of the people you meet. Something you live, a regular happening that nobody would care or a person that you barely talked to - later on these can come back and turn into something very important to you. And although only time could tell, you can still do your part and keep in your heart and mind the little happenings of daily life.

Sunday, February 1, 2015


Mamaliga Blues toured around a few cities in the US and the screenings were so inspiring that I decided to dedicate a post about them. It was not only because we shared an exhibition date with Nancy Spielberg (yes, HIS sister) or that I was interviewed on Miami local TV that made it all  so unique and special. It was the people in the audience I met between December and January that made the 9 years of producing the documentary worthwhile. The crowd was diverse: students, genealogists, Moldovans, Brazilians, Americans, Colombians, Canadians, Equatorians, film lovers, artists, Jewish and non-Jewish. 

Here are some interesting things learned during the screenings:

- first of all, an unknown fact to me: one of the audience members told me there is a town called Mamaliga in Ukraine, bordering Moldova. What are the odds...?
- I met a Colombian lady with ancestry in Moldova as well. After watching the film, she told me she was the first cousin of one of the people we interviewed and, moreover, said that her grandmother was the first girlfriend of Sioma Tolpolar, my cousin. 
- There was also a Peruvian gentleman who said, after chatting for a while, "you know, I think you are in my genealogical tree"
- In New York, after the film played, one Moldovan lady said her neighbors were Tolpolars and is supposed to get me their contact information
- In the same screening, another Moldovan made an assumption on the reason why my great-grandparents were not buried in their hometown or closer to it. She said that in the 30's, the situation for the Jews was especially difficult and it could be possible that the sinagogues were being disconnected, as well as the Rabbis moving to other more Jewish populated cities. So the burial services were being largely suspended.
- yes, some did cry, but I was surprised with the fact that a non Jewish lady came to me apologizing for what her Moldovan fellows had done to the Jews during World War II.
- And lastly, one man revealed that a boy shown in one of the many archival photos, was actually his father.

So we, Bessarabers, may be a few, but we are very much connected. And the screening room can be a communal space where people share stories and try to find closure. The sense of being around people like you, with the same roots or interests, made me feel a bit hopeful about the future. Knowing about your history and keeping memory alive gives you perspective but also bears responsibility of relaying it to the young/next generation. As long as there are people who understand this, we are not alone - at least for now.

Thursday, January 8, 2015


This is a continuation of my previous post on genealogy trip tips.

Part II: During and after the trip.

Tip#1: Write everything down: once you set foot in the foreign land you’re visiting, there will be a multiple array of stimuli entering your eyes and ears. With so many things happening at the same time, it’ll be very easy to forget it or confuse it with something else later on. Even if the information sounds obvious, write it down. If you can, maintain a travel diary with all the contacts you make during the trip.

Tip#2: Be flexible: Follow your schedule, but be flexible to unforeseen circumstances, and try to take advantage of them.

Tip #3: Document it: take many pictures and/or video.

Tip#4: Enjoy it: Try to have at least one day without any plans. This day can be used for a day’s work if something goes wrong and you need it - or better than that, it can be used for sightseeing and enjoying yourself. In Moldova, I had booked one entire day to visit the wineries.

Tip#1: Keep in touch: Don’t disappear. Make sure to write back to all your contacts and let them know how much you appreciated their company and their country. Keep them posted.

Tip#2: Share your experience: write a blog, tell your friends, post on Facebook. People will love to know what you've done and your discoveries, especially the genealogy buffs. Don’t let your trip go unnoticed!

And good luck!!!

Monday, December 8, 2014


I’m not an expert on genealogy trips, but the fact that I went twice to Moldova to search for my roots - once with my father and sister and the latter with my one-year daughter and wife, and both times with camera gear – makes me feel like if I share some of my experiences and give some basic tips your own trip may be smoother (I hope so!). Basically some do’s and don’ts that may help you in case you’re thinking about going to Eastern Europe to look for your ancestors. This is like a detective job, so you better be organized!

This is a 2-chapter post: before the trip and during/after the trip.

BEFORE THE TRIP – be as much prepared as possible. You invested a lot of time and energy on this and you don’t want to miss anything!

Tip #1: Research within your reach.
Do all the research you can before even buying plane tickets. This means talk to your family, get data, search online (, jewishgen, yad vashem, google, etc.), read books (it’s always useful to learn some history to understand the context of immigration and uncover hidden clues), investigate old pictures, go to museums (if available in your town) and talk to other people who have done what you want to do. Write all the information down and try to draft a plan of attack: places you need to go, people you need to talk, how long you may need to stay in the city/cities, etc. Make a list of important questions and family/town names to locals so when the time comes you don’t stutter or forget stuff.

Tip#2: Research out of your reach.
There are lots of information not located online or reachable from where you are. That is why you are traveling. But before you catch a plane, it is worth it to contact some professionals and people in the country where you will be visiting. That can include a professional researcher that can look into doCuments in the local archives, community centers that can give you some practical information, a guide/translator that will work with you before and during your trip. Do this in advance, in some places people take a lot of time to answer e-mails.

Tip #3: Plan your trip.
Collect all the information you found. Now add some more variables into your travel. These include:
-          When to go: take into account the weather and try to avoid holidays (I was once stuck in Germany because I missed the plane to Moldova on Easter and everything else was already booked, besides the fact that airports in Europe were kind of a mess).  Be generous on the itinerary as well; try not to have many layovers, especially if you’re taking film equipment or your kids with you.
-          Things to learn: don't be a stranger, it won’t hurt learning a few sentences on the local language (take a phrase book) and more than that, the culture of the country you are traveling to. By doing this, you make the locals your allies – and you will need them! Besides that, at this point you have a natural curiosity for the place where your ancestors came from, and will want to be as close as possible to its characteristics. And be aware you will be in a different time zone (and sometimes a complete different reality!).
-          Hotel: get as much information as possible before you make your choice. Take into account localization, price, comfort, etc. I booked a 3 star hotel in Moldova, not even considering it wouldn’t have an elevator. When we got there, the 3 star hotel was more like a 2 star – and no elevators. I was worried because my father had just undergone heart surgery and would have to go up and down stairs; we were on the 3rd floor. But all went well.

Tip #4: Build a realistic schedule of your trip. Leave room/time for the unforeseen events that will most likely happen.

Tip #5: What to take.
Think about all the things you will need. Some items:
-          Power adaptors
-          Usage of cell phone (will yours work there? Will it be expensive? Is it worth buying an international cell phone or a local SIM card?)
-          Medications (try not to rely on medication you’re not used to): the ones you normally take, plus painkillers, some Tylenol, cold and cough medicine, band aid, Imodium, etc.
-          Travel insurance, including health insurance
-          Copies of passport and other key documents
-          How to use money? Take some cash with you, see if ATMs are common, see if most places accept credit card, etc. Warn your bank you will be using your cards overseas.
-          Take some presents to the people you have previously made contact and showed interest in working with you. These will be greatly appreciated. In some cultures, they will be waiting for these. But more than that, it’s just a nice thing to do. These little gifts can be as simple as chocolates, hand crèmes or peculiar things from your hometown.
-          Take some snacks; think about your dietary necessities. In Moldova it was hard to find diet coke, for example. I also took some energy drinks in case we got stuck in the middle of nowhere for hours without coffee.
-          Make sure you will have internet access, at least in the hotel.
-          Photo camera/video camera/microphones (if you are recording interviews or making a film)
-          Make large prints of historical family photos to show to locals – you never know if somebody will recognize your relatives, and if someone will, they will probably be old enough not to see very well.
-          Take your own toiletries, plus sunscreen and chapstick.
-          If you will be in an old cemetery, take a cloth to clean the gravestone as it will probably be very dirty.
-          A leatherman ( can be extremely useful.
-          Earplugs.
-          Think about the worst things it could happen in your trip and prepare to avoid them. This will surely make things run smoother.

Next: during and after the trip

Thursday, September 25, 2014


Dear friends,

We have been screening Mamaliga Blues in a few places around the globe, organizing new screenings and looking forward to new opportunities to show it. The next screenings will be in Rio de Janeiro, Atlanta, New York and Miami. Please stay tuned at our facebook page for showing dates or just contact me. I hope that we'll have some DVDs to sell and online viewing possibilities in 2015.

If you are interested in helping us share the film and spread the word around, I have a press release that I will be more than happy to send you, just let me know.

And as a special treat, I would like to announce the return of our dear 90 year-old grandma Amalia! She has previsouly taught us how to cook a Bessarabian mamaliga, and now she's back to show us how to make varenikes. 

I hope you are all well!
Cassio Tolpolar