Wednesday, October 4, 2017


A few years ago I liked a post on Facebook and almost immediately was reprimanded by a friend, who was very angry I had agreed with a pro-Israeli opinion. It was then a discussion started. Facebook is the worse place for this kind of thing, since people use words that can be easily misinterpreted and usually it doesn't go anywhere. People never change their minds on Facebook. But there I was, surprised, confused and upset, trying to understand my angry friend.

After a lot of back and forth she came up with this "I hate Israel but not the Jews". How could I reply to this? It made me even more confused. Could you really hate a country? And furthermore, question its existence? Could I be against Canada, France or India? No, I guess. I could be against their political decisions and government views but not against their proper existence, that would be absurd. Right?

My friend's repulsion of anti-semitism but Israel hatred kind of steered me away from the discussion and it made me think on my own. It was then much later that I understood her words. I understood by reading, reflecting and talking to other people. Little by little, a couple of things became very clear to me and helped me in my logical thought.

The first one is that the Jewish people were persecuted for thousands of years, name the slavery in Egypt, inquisition, pogroms, etc, the most relevant and recent event being the Holocaust. Anti-semitism always existed. When the Holocaust started to happen and Jews were being murdered, NOBODY intervened. War did not erupt to save the Jews, communists, gypsies people with disabilities or hommosexuals, but because countries self interests were being threatened.

Then Israel was created, the only safe haven for the Jewish people. Now they would be persecuted no more because they have a nation to defend them, something they can rely on, which never existed before. Israel is not perfect but it is, amongst the 196 nations, the only one Jewish State in the world .

Because of that, the second thing clear to me is that if Israel ever ceases to exist, all the Jewish people will fall along with it, becoming endangered and left at the mercy of sheer luck once again. The pogrom era could come back, anti-semitism would flourish even more, other nations could do whatever they wanted with their Jewish population, like they did many times. 

So now I could go back to my friend and resolve the contradictory sensation I had. I wished I could have said at the time: "My dear friend I'm sorry to tell you this, but if you hate Israel and question its existence, you might not even realize, but deep inside, somewhere in your uncousciousness, you do hate the Jews as well." 

Saturday, September 2, 2017


I think I've met about 7 people whose family came from Oliscani, or Oleshkon, or Olishkany. I know there might be more, but I believe only a handful know about their origins. There are no more Jews in Oliscani. There is NOTHING Jewish in Oliscani anymore. Like all, or at least most shtetls in Europe, its Jewish past is vanished, only alive in a few memory moments. 

I was recently contacted by Elvira Volcu, who said her family came from Oliscani as well. She said there were approximately 80 Jewish families there initially. Elvira lives in Chisinau, but she was able to send me some actual pictures of the shtetl, and its former Jewish sites. Below is the proof of what pogroms did over the years and the Holocaust finally concluded.




Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Ruhl and Shoura - two surprises in one day

I love the internet and social media. I understand there are many not very nice things about it, but it is thanks to it that I was able to find my long lost relatives in Argentina, Ukraine, Luxemburg, Israel, Germany and most recently the US and Canada.

It was one regular working day to me, and I was expecting no surprises. Days like this one happened before, where I was expecting nothing and all of a sudden, Shlomi Tolpolar from Germany calls me on Skype saying he is my cousin, or Mikhail Tolpolar calls my phone from Ukraine and we can barely communicate because I can't speak Yiddish or Russian. Well, a few days ago it happened again, now through Facebook. I got a message, out of the blue, from Alik Oshmiansky. Through his profile was writing somebody named Rachel (or Ruhl) Tolpolar, from Los Angeles, saying she was a cousin. A few hours later I receive a message from Shoura Canmore., from Calgary, saying she was my cousin as well! I was dumbfounded. You would be too. I needed some time to digest it and, mostly, ask my dad about these possible relationships.

Ruhl and us - on Skype
Shortly, this is the story: 
Ruhl and Shoura's mom was Miriam Ludner, whose maiden name was Tolpolar. Miriam's father was Velvl Tolpolar, Meyer's brother. Meyer Tolpolar was my great-grandfather. How did Ruhl knew this? Because her mom would always tell her the story of her uncle and aunt's murder. Miriam knew all of it, just like we do! Ruhl said the Tolpolars were not rich, but had a good life, had cows and got milk and cheese from them.

Miriam was born in Oliscani, a small village in Moldova, like all Tolpolars. She had 2 brothers, Haim and Shlomo, and 3 sisters. One of them was Betty, killed in a war bombing in 1941. Haim wanted to leave Oliscani and ended up in Iasi (Romania). Miriam followed her brother's footsteps and also moved to Iasi in 1931, the same year where her uncle was murdered and my grandfather left to Brazil. It was heard that Shlomo tried to move to Brazil as well, but was killed in trying.

Miriam was evacuated to Kazakhstan, and that's how she survived. In 1943, when the allies started to win the war and German power started to dwindle, Miriam was able to go back to Oliscani, but there was nothing there for her to find anymore. So she went to Orhei, where Ruhl and Shoura were born. They left Moldova in 1977 to Israel, and then North America.

Ruhl showing a picture of a cousin - looks just like my dad!

Ruhl's family was much closer to all atrocities committed in the war and suffered much more with immigration and family displacement. Speaking to her, I had the feeling that my grandfather found a haven in Brazil, and had the best life he could have imagined outside Europe. 

Miriam always tried to find the other Tolpolars, but was unsuccessful. Until one day Ruhl was on the internet and accidently stumbled upon Mamaliga Blues homepage. So thanks again for the internet and social media, and I believe more surprises are to come. They always do.

Monday, May 1, 2017


Due to my latest film project, A Trip to Philippson, I've been researching about this Jewish colony in Brazil, actually the first one in the country, established in 1904 by the JCA (Jewish Colonization Association), which had been helmed by the late Baron Hirsch. I was there three times between 2015 and 2017. The place where 38 families were placed after a long trip from Bessarabia to become farmers and consequently save themselves from the violent pogroms, is now a peaceful farm. The Philippson Farm has been reduced in size comparing the original 4,472 hectares, but it's still hauntingly beautiful, with its rolling hills, vast green fields, secret rivers and water ponds. It eerily resembles the Moldovan countryside landscape. 

From the old colony days, only a few things remain. The cemetery has been recently renovated and is one of the most important historical monuments of local Jewish history. And at first sight, that's it. The houses, railway, school and synagogue have vanished. But with the help of a guide, we could locate some foundations of the school and synagogue, and then later we heard there is still the mikvah somewhere around.

Philippson is now a profitable example of soy and corn harvesting farm, and no more a colony. One can read stories about it in books, but cannot be witness to its memories. Only a few photographs of that time remain. In A Trip to Philippson, much of these images will be shown.

I was glad to be there and will never forget it. It is there that modern Jewish life in Brazil began, and like most immigration stories, it was not an easy one. The settlers suffered from all kinds of issues, but were successful in surviving and moving onto a new life. 

Philippson was not alone. Experiments like this were held in Argentina, Uruguay, the US, Canada and Turkey. Thanks to the Baron Hirsch and the JCA, many Jews were able to flee persecution in the old World to start anew in a land that was not theirs, but that would soon become their descendants'.

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.