Wednesday, March 22, 2017


It's been almost 5 years since I last posted about the Monte Sarmiento ship, which brought my grandparents and other immigrants from Hamburg, in Germany, to Brazil in the 1930's. Since then I have been trying to get a list of passengers of this particular trip, but have not been successful. I contacted the ship's factory in Germany, the Hamburg port and naval museum, researched immigration records and so on. I eventually gave up, conformed by the fact I would never know who travelled with my grandparents. If I knew that, I could try to get in touch with descendants of the other passengers and understand more about the trip. It would help me get a picture of this relevant past event.

But I have recently found out other things about the ship, used by the Germans in World War II and sank in a bombing. I found out I'm not the only one fascinated by it and that Monte Sarmiento has a history that obviously surpasses my own grandparents' trip.

In 2017 I was contacted by three people, from three different places: Germany, Norway and Brazil.

The German person sent an extensive pdf regarding a trip his parents took from Germany to Norway in 1937. I reproduce the first page here. It's hard not to notice the swastika and the "heil Hitler" at the end of it. I feel uncomfortable to add this here, but sense it's historically important.

The Norwegian sent a copy of the menu that was on board in 1936, when the ship reached his hometown of Eidfjord.This time, the swastika was covered over by a black square, on top.

The Brazilian provided something closer to my quest. A copy of the registry entry of my grandmother, Rachel Tolpolar, into the country. For some reason he could not find my grandfather's. This document, in Portuguese, states the exact date and port of entry.

I'm pretty sure that in 1931, when my grandparents took the ship, there were no swastikas around and they probably did not eat what is described in the menu. It is just historically ironic that they fled Europe and escaped the Holocaust on a ship that would become a nazi leisure, and then later, a war instrument. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2016


It's a little bit over 8 years since I went for the first time to Moldova. Many things happenend since then: I finished Mamaliga Blues, discovered new relatives, made new friends, and my perception of the world evolved some. Well, a little bit over 8 years ago, on November 2016, I received a new e-mail from Alla Chastina, our researcher at the National Archives in Chisinau.

Alla has not forgotten me and my family, and that is very dear to me. She has recently sent her new findings on the Tolpolars: 1920's documents from a certain "Sarah Tolpolar", asserting she had a grocery store in Oliscani, at the Orhei district. Sarah Tolpolar = Surke Tolpolar, my grandfather's sister. Although we already knew this, any historical proof of something orally transmitted in our family is welcomed. And I'm amazed that Alla still finds documents related to us, almost 100 years after the Tolpolars left Bessarabia. What tells me there is still a lot to be uncovered.

Thanks, Alla!

Monday, April 4, 2016


Everyone should go to Recife at least once. Especially if you are into History, Judaism, tropical beaches, exotic food, friendly people and a unique cultural melting pot. Recife is all of these, and in less than 3 days in this Brazilian Venice, as the locals call it due to its many cannals, I was able to experience a very special adventure.

I went there invited to screen Mamaliga Blues, so was in direct contact with the Jewish community. I was particularly interested in its Dutch ancestry and in knowing more about my great uncle, who was born in Bessarabia and had lived there until his death in 1968.

The Dutch came this way.
Recife is 479 years-old, one of the oldest Brazilian cities, and it´s past is mingled with Dutch and Jewish colonization. Many of the Dutch who arrived in 1630 and left 31 years later were of Jewish descent. Recife was forever influenced and benefited by this brief stay, which includes an advanced sewer system (used until today), religious tolerance, and the construction of the oldest synagogue in the Americas, the Zahar Zur Israel, established in 1635. The Jews, fleeing persecution in Europe, found a prosperous enviroment until the land regained Portuguese control. The Dutch Jews then left and stopped in an island which they called New Amsterdam, and we call it today Manhattan.

The Recife of today is a melting pot of Dutch and Jewry influence, Indian and African past (due to slavery). You see it and feel it in the architecture, food, landscape, arts and crafts, music and in the physical appearance of the people. It is far from being an homogenous place. 

The oldest synagogue of the Americas
I was warmly welcomed by an exciting but dwindling Jewish community  comprised of a total of 350 families. There is a lot of assimilation and the youth is somewhat indifferent, and a lot have left to the economical centres São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. For my surprise, most of the elders still remembered my great uncle Bernardo (Baruch) Tolpolar. His story is quite unique. He was an older brother of my grandfather and came first to Brazil, settled in Porto Alegre and for some mysterious reason, left suddenly to Recife, 3.000 km (1,865 miles) away. Some say he was going to get married to this girl, but she fell ill and lost an eye. Not wanting to marry a one-eyed person, he escaped the wedding. But this is just a supposition. There are other stories which try to justify the reason of his isolation from his close family. But I guess I'll never know the truth.
In front of Bernardo Tolpolar's old house

He was regarded as a special character, always wearing a dark blue suit and a red bow tie. "I thought he was like Chaplin when I was a little girl" said one of the members of the community. Bernardo could easily be spotted sitting in a chair in the street having a conversation in the Jewish neighborhood of Boa Vista. Today, Boa Vista still keeps its old architecture, but it is in evident decay and abandon. 
Square in Boa Vista, the old Jewish neighborhood

I got to know about the "marranos",  descendents of the conversos who are trying to return to Judaism. I also met an Israeli who was born in the countryside of Pernambuco (the State where Recife is), and adopted by an Israeli family. He was now back in Brazil trying to find his real mother. It was touching to see the word "mãe" (mother) tattooed on his wrist. He was there with his Ukrainian girlfriend. Another contribution to the visual mixture of people and cultures that Recife is. 

The film screening was amazing, a full house. From the many stories I heard, one was particularly funny. This lady said when her father arrived in Recife from Bessarabi ain the 1930´s, it was carnival. He loved it and thought nobody worked here, only partied. 

I was given a package of rolled cake ("bolo de rolo"), a typical and delicate guava cake. After visiting my grand uncle in the cemetery, I headed for the airport. Coincidentally, I met this Brazilian woman married to this Dutch guy who had converted to Judaism. Would that be a synthesis of what Recife is? And furthermore, the uncle of this lady´s mother is buried just next to my grand uncle Bernardo.

I took the plane back trying to settle my senses that were bombarded with different stimuli in this fascinating trip. I haven't told half of it. You have to go and experience yourself. And maybe when you come back home, days later, sitting and eating a rolled cake you bought there, you will begin to understand what had happened in Recife. 

Tuesday, March 1, 2016


The first thing I wanted to confirm was if Bronya and Frima were really buried in Philadelphia, as they had passed away in New York. Joseph confirmed that their graves were in Philly. So I flew there with a plan: my dear hosts Avivah and Gabriel Pinski would pick me up at the airport and kindly take me to the cemetery and then Joseph's house. And that's what happened.

During the 45-minute drive from the airport to Shalom Memorial Park cemetery, Avivah, Gabriel and I introduced ourselves to each other. I soon understood that my hosts were very much into genealogy, and that Gabriel also had Bessarabian ancestry - which always helps.

 As we approached the cemetery, I feel uneasy. Following the map and directions sent to me by the cemetery's office, it took us about fifteen minutes to find the location of the plot. Soon after I located the back of the grave with the inscription "Fishteyn". I gasped instead of saying "found it!. Avivah and Gabriel followed me. It's not a small tombstone and was all written in Russian. Luckily Gabriel can read some Cyrillic and told me their sad, and somewhat sardonic epitaph: "That's it..."   Frima was born in 1928 and died in 1997. Bronya was born in 1929 and died in 2001. I put a stone on the grave, took some photographs, and headed for Joseph's house. I noticed that another stone had been placed on the Matzevah. Later, I found out it was Joseph himself who had placed it there.

Joseph welcomed me like family (although we never discovered if Arianna is related to me; she may be related to the Fishteyn side of the family after all). His five grandkids played in the house as the rest of the family slowly started to arrive. At some point, there was a full house.  Soon a table and chairs were opened up and we all sat down to a generous spread of Russian food, going from herring to shish kabob - and cognac and Bulgarian wine. Delicious, to compensate what I was about to hear.

Joseph's wife, Arianna, was the only relative Frima and Bronya had in the US, so they came to her as soon as they got there in 1990, with the help of HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society). However, Joseph already knew them from Czernowitz, so he could tell me about their life there. They lived in a small house, one went to college and studied accounting. Frima had a chance to get married, but her father disliked the financial position of the groom to be, and forbid the wedding. Frima and Bronya never got married. They survived the War just like Joseph's family, fleeing east to Mid-Asia. Their mother, Surke Tolpolar (my grandfather's sister), is buried in Czernowitz.

Bronya and Frima managed to sell their house before leaving for the US. The buyer asked for two days to give them the money, but they had to leave immediately. The sisters asked a friend to receive the money for them and send it to America. That never happened, as we know from Raia's testimony.  

Joseph also confirmed they never received their belongings from Czernowitz and that they indeed lived in a basement for five months - his basement. But it turns out this place was made into a comfy room with beds and a bathroom, and Joseph's own family had lived there before. Joseph gives me some new facts: Bronya and Frima had a relative from Caracas, Venezuela, a lawyer with the Barsky surname. Upon their arrival, already in their 60's and penniless, they asked for his help. He sent them a US $ 1,000 check with a note: "this is my last mail, don't count on me anymore".

Bronya and Frima never learned English, never worked, and lived in poverty, with financial aid from SSI (Supplemental Security Income), and they could barely get enough to eat. Nevertheless, during their ten years in Philadelphia, they managed to save a little. And they spent it all on only one thing: a place in the cemetery. But why did they die in a nursing home in NY? Because, at the time, it was the nearest Russian speaking nursing home.

At some point Frima was in a coma and on life support for years. Arianna and Joseph would visit them about once every 2 months, but at some point, Joseph could not see her anymore. "They didn't let her die" he said, referring to the impossibility of turning life support off.

Joseph finished the way he started: "The sisters were very unlucky, never had anything good in their lives". And then he showed me their picture. It's the first time I saw Bronya and Frima, and to my surprise, Bronya hauntingly resembles my father. 

It's already 7:00 PM, I'm tired and trying to digest this unfortunate story about my cousins. Would their lives be better had they stayed in the Ukraine? I feel bad, I feel like hugging them if they were still alive, I can't take my eyes out of their faces printed in the photographs. I go to bed thinking of them and about Joseph's latest concern. He feels the youth of today is losing connection with family, he sees his grandchildren in their kindles/computers/iPhones all the time, unable to establish a human, more direct, relationship. He tells me "Cassio, you should not spend so much time and energy with the dead. You have two kids, you should think more about the living." 

Well, that is the closest I will ever get to these two direct cousins. And the funny thing is that it probably never crossed their minds one day somebody from Brazil would make the effort to look for them, that a relative thousands of miles away was actually thinking of them and giving value to what they were and represented.

Next day I have the Mamaliga Blues screening at the Main Line Reform Temple. I thank Avivah and Gabriel for following me into this journey of family discovery. It's been a very busy weekend.

Joseph, his lovely family and me.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

THE PHILADELPHIA PUZZLE PART I: a "Ukraine/Bessarabia-Brazil-US" connection

"One thing leads to another" should be a synonym for genealogical research. For those who are puzzled by mysteries of the past who seem impossible to be solved, I have one piece of advice: persistence. The facts below are a summary of the events I was confronted with recently.

As my father was getting married in Brazil, in the 1970's, he started receiving letters from Czernowitz, Ukraine. Two sisters, Bronya and Frima, daughters of Surke Tolpolar, my dad's aunt from Bessarabia, were asking him to sponsor their immigration to Brazil. My dad was young, about to have a baby (me), and had no money - he could not afford
to support a family plus two people in their forties with no knowledge of Portuguese or Brazil (that is, unable to get a job). The relatives in Ukraine and my family in Brazil lost contact over the years. 

Cut to 40 years later. I'm invited to screen Mamaliga Blues in Philadelphia. I then remembered a conversation I had with Boris Nusinkis, a relative from New York, who said Frima and Bronya had, at some point, finally left the USSR and immigrated to America - more specifically, to Philadelphia - and they might be buried there. But by then neither I nor my dad were sure of their last names, as the letters were apparently lost. Boris said it might be "Fishman." 

By that time I was visiting my wife's family in Atlanta, Georgia. Before I started calling all the Jewish cemeteries in Philadelphia, I tried to discover their last names. That was the most difficult part. Nobody knew for sure: Bernstein, Vaisman, I was told. So I started calling all the Jewish cemeteries in Philadelphia, trusting on the "Fishman" possibility. By the sixth call, and no success, I thought to myself "this will never go anywhere if I don't know their exact last names".

At the same time, five thousand miles away, in Brazil, my parents happened to be cleaning the house. By chance, my mom found the old letters from Frima and Bronya. Their last name was "Fistein". I immediately created an account on, but found nothing, except for "Fishteyn". And there was Bronya and Frima -  from Philadelphia, immigrated from "Russia". It had to be them!  But there was no information about the place of burial, only that they lived in Philadelphia and that their last residence was in New York.

My next step was to call Irina, the wife of  Boris Nusinkis, who is also from Czernowitz. She called Raia, another immigrant from Czernowitz, who had taken care of Boris' father in NY when he was old. However, Raia remembered Bronya and Frima as she had helped them with immigration papers and visited them when they were in a nursing home. Raia has a sick husband at home in Brooklyn and was reluctant to speak to Irina (I never communicated with Raia).

Raia told Irina that Bronya and Frima had a tragic life. They could not leave with money from Czernowitz, so bought all they could and shipped it to the US. Upon their arrival, all their stuff was gone. Some suspected the person who sponsored them had stolen it. This person had a sick mother and she thought Bronya and Frima would take care of her, but right before they arrived, the mother passed away. So the sponsor didn't care much for them. Bronya and Frima slept in the basement, recollected Raia. To make things worse, they sold their house in Czernowitz to get some money, but the lady who bought it never paid for it. And she was a very religious lady, said Raia. 

Frima and Bronya were robbed twice from all they had. Practically alone in the US, they didn't have much luck and spent their final years in a nursing home in New York City. They lived a frugal life, were starving most of the time and had terrible nightmares every night. Bronya ended up with some mental illness and Frima had her feet amputated due to diabetics complications. Bronya died in 2001, Frima some time earlier.

Raia had kept all their mail for 28 years. One year ago, her son asked her to burn it all. And so she did, except for one envelope which contained some important information: the place of burial. Although they died in NY, they were indeed buried in Philadelphia. Raia raised the hypothesis that there was some money left from the deposits that were made for the nursing home, and Irina also asked if we shouldn't locate their house in Czernowitz and require the money they never received.

In Raia's envelope the sender's name was Arianna Yaffa from Philly as well. Who was this person? Nobody knew. I tried to locate her online, found a couple of phone numbers, but all lead to a dead end. I asked Mark Halpern, a member of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Philadelphia (which was hosting the film screening) to help me, and he came up with more numbers according to an address posted on But the numbers did not work. I tried some neighbors, the owner of a place she might have lived in, her daughter, her son-in-law on Facebook, people who might have known them, google,, us search... Nothing.

I told Mark, and I don't know how, he sent me more numbers. The first number I called, an old man with a strong Russian accent answered. It was Joseph, Arianna's husband. I explained who I was and my quest. He said Arianna had unexpectedly died two months ago. She was a cousin of Bronya and Frima and knew everything about them. Nevertheless Joseph invited me to his house. Would his stories confirm Raias'?

The things I would discover and see would impress - and sadden me.

More soon.

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.