Thursday, October 23, 2008


Natasha and Sergei, our driver, met us at the hotel at 10AM for our tour of the Jewish Chisinau: Jewish holocaust memorial, the Jewish cemetery and historical sights related to the (in)famous 1903 pogrom, including the house number 13 where Jewish families were slaughtered by the ravaged mob.
Alla, our researcher, had found a street address in Chisinau where a certain Shabsa Tolpolar used to live. We went there first, but the new tenants knew nothing about it. An old lady who had been living there for 10 years said that everything there was changed and rebuilt.

Aftewards we went by the house number 13, where many victims perished in the 1903 Jewish pogrom.

Jewish Holocaust Memorial (Ghetto Prisoner’s Memorial)

Stadium where Jews were executed, in the old Jewish neghborhood.

We went by the stadium where Jews were executed in the pogrom and by another synagogue, also orthodox, that belongs to Agudat Israel. We drove by a blue church in the same place where the 1903 pogrom started. We saw a few buildings related to Rabbi Tirilson, very active at that time.

The Jewish cemetery is huge and wildly beautiful. We walked a lot there and found a few graves, not of Tolpolar, but of Nisenblat, my grandmother’s maiden name.
After the cemetery, we had lunch in another fancy restaurant, Vatra Neamului, worth the visit. The food and service were excellent. I had the famous mamaliga with tocana, something like a cornmeal/polenta with bryza (their special goat cheese), sour cream and slices of meat. Besides that, the place was decorated like a museum of national history, with ornaments and paintings, and every room had a different theme. They also had a wine tasting area.

We came back to the hotel to rest a little before our late afternoon trip to the Museum of National History. That night was museum night, and all museums were free and open to the public until midnight. Mauro stayed in the room for a nap, Kerley and I went to the Odeon Theater, where the only Moldovan Film Festival, CRONOGRAF, was taking place.

I found that in my walks in Chisinau, the stray cats were not afraid of people, on the contrary. They come to you if you call them and seem pretty comfortable. Here in the States, and also in Brazil, stray cats run away by the sight of humans.

The Odeon Theatre is small, but clean and well put together. They told me is a typical soviet building, but I didn’t notice a lot of difference from the art houses in America, for example. Except for the fact that the seats are not very comfortable.
We were looking for Dumitru, one of the Festival’s organizers who I got in contact via e-mail beforehand. He was very busy, but took some time and took us to the outdoor cafĂ© next door.

Then we met people from Russia, Georgia, Armenia and even Moldova on the table. All very friendly. I soon connected with Roman, the Russian, who said wanted to move to Brazil.
My sister had to leave soon to meet Natasha and Mauro to go to the Museum, but I decided to stay, and even watched some films. The CRONOGRAF festival is small but organized. I never imagined finding such an international crowd in Moldova: Germans, Austrians, Russians, Armenians, Serbians, Romanians… Nobody from the US or Latin America though.

My new friend Roman, from a region close to Siberia, brought me some home made wine he had store somewhere in the theater. It was my first contact with the famous Moldovan wine. Since then I didn’t know almost every person in the villages has their own little winery and makes his/her own wine. I remember it was night already; I was sitting in the stairs in front of the Odeon with my friend Roman drinking one of the softest and most delicious wines I had ever tasted, in a plastic glass.
I had gotten a message that somebody else I had contacted through e-mail, a local filmmaker named Viorel, was going to meet me there. (The wonders of cell phones!). So I waited, and drank a bit more, until he arrived. We went to the same bar I was before to meet some of his friends, a very different crowd then. They were very nice as well.
In the same bar, another “internet friend”, Alecu, was having a beer with his friends. He signed me to sit with them. Alecu doesn’t speak English, but we could communicate somehow. For my surprise, one of his friends, Boris, was speaking Portuguese to me. He’s from Moldova and lived in Sao Paulo for 2 years. I could never imagine I was going to find a Portuguese speaker in Moldova! That was nice. They reminded me that this TV station wanted to make a report on our journey. I gave them my sister’s cell number and supposed to wait for a contact. Alecu had already told me about this through e-mail. Funny, because Viorel and his friends wanted to make a short film about our journey.
Viorel invited me to an outdoor concert, I promptly joined his group and said bye to Alecu and Boris. The local band “Snails” was playing in front of the Museum of National History, funny coincidence, right where my father and sister were a few hours ago. We watched the concert for about 5 minutes and then Viorel, who’s very agitated, took us to a bar across the street.
There, I became acquainted with a lot of interesting stories from the soviet era, but from a modern perspective. Viorel told me when he was going to school, I think about 12 years old, everybody was a “pioneer”. A pioneer means you had to wear a specific soviet uniform, be impeccably clean and obey/admire the soviet ideology. I guess something like a scout boy. I asked what would happen if a kid was against it, he answered that nobody really thought about being a rebel. Not that they felt oppressed, but it was such a common thing, like having breakfast or using a hat, that nobody really questioned it. He said that one time his brother forgot a bandana they had to wear, and he was considered the shame of the school for months.
I also learned that once Moldova became independent in 1991, there was a huge backlash against the Russian influence. Nationalistic ideas started to rise, and some people even wanted to ban the Russian language. Nowadays, people in Moldova speak Russian and “Moldovan” (more like Romanian with a Russian accent) and there is little adversity between Russian and Romanian ethnicities. However when Moldova became independent, some wanted to ban the Russian influence, other wanted to stick with it. So a region called Transnistria self-proclaimed its separation from Moldova in order to be like in soviet times. I found that Viorel and his friends were much more proud to have a Romanian heritage than Russian.
Before Viorel and his friend gave me a ride back to the hotel, I learned that Moldovans love Brazilian soap operas and every Thursday night there’s the “Salsa night”, where people can dance to Latin rhythms.
My dad and sister were asleep at the hotel room. Kerley was actually very worried about me. I should have called her, but got so entangled in the conversation I ended up forgetting it. We catched up a bit.
Kerley said the Museum of National History is kind of poor, there are not a lot of visual resources or installations, but it was good to be in a cultural event in Chisinau. Each room has a different theme according to a specific age: Middle Ages, 19th century and so on. There were people in traditional old costumes serving typical food. The best thing was the Diorama, a mix of painting and installation about the battle between the Russian and the German army during the World War II. The weapons and tanks exposed were real. There were also relics, vases, from 4 thousand, 6 thousand years ago.
After hearing their adventures, I went to sleep. I was exhausted and knew I needed to rest. The next day would be our first time on the road.
Next: Driving to Yedinitz and vicinity.

Thursday, October 16, 2008


Breakfast at the hotel was fair. Bread, butter, three types of cheese, salami, tomatoes, some cookies, milk and cereal. Sometimes they would have eggs or this delicious Ukrainian yogurt. My sister had to mimic a lot to explain she wanted aspartame instead of sugar.
I had an early appointment at KSAK, to meet up with the director and curator of this art institute. I managed to contact them through Jon Davis, who worked at the San Francisco Art Institute, where I took my masters in Film. Kerley and I got a cab to the “Botanic” neighborhood, where the Institute was. The driver didn’t say a word the whole trip, but waited for us to get inside the building, just to make sure we were in the right place, I guess.
We first met Igor, a teacher, Lilia, director, and then at last Stephan, artist and curator. They asked about our visit there and we asked about the country’s situation, we talked about the soviet age and the idea that the communists had to build a Moldovan identity. According to Stephan, this was an illusion, because Moldova has many different ethnicities. They were surprised to hear that it took almost 2 years to finally travel there. They were all really nice and asked me to give a presentation about my work towards the end of our trip. I gladly accepted. Igor, one of the teachers, sadly confessed he earns US$ 100 a month, that there are no Apple computers in Moldova, PCs crash all the time and food and cell phones are very expensive for Moldovans. That was our first contact with their reality.
We had lunch at a fancy and touristy restaurant, called Old City, recommended by our hotel receptionist. I was a bit embarrassed to be there, felt like a rich tourist taking advantage of the fact that most locals could not afford that place. But later on my father-in-law said “You should feel good, at least you gave them business.” They charged my dad twice for the salmon and then later explained they charged for the fish weight and my dad had a big fish. Weird. But the food was very good.

In the afternoon, we walked with our guide Natasha to the Jewish Community Center (JCC), where we met Alla Chastina. We hired Alla to research documents at the Moldovan National Archives and we were meeting for the first time to talk about her findings (mostly census information, school and other documents related to the Tolpolars). She had started the research a year prior to our trip and was always very nice and supportive.

At some point the staff of the JCC unexpectedly told us that a certain Valodya Tolpolar used to be an active member of the community and had passed away a few years ago. Was he related to us? We had never heard of this name. He never married nor had children, and his brother came from Ukraine for the funeral. We showed pictures of Meyer (my great-grandfather) and they thought it looked like Valodya. They told us he used to say his family was very far away. Was he referring to us? We arranged to come back there to see a video of him, the only image they had. Very interesting.

The Jewish Library is attached to the JCC and opened in 1991 as an initiative of the Moldovan Jewish community. It is the only Jewish library in the former Soviet Union that also works as a community center. It has documents and books about the 1903 Kishinev pogrom, and books in Russian, Romanian, English and French about the Holocaust. Only in St. Petersburg they have books like these. Before it was a children’s library, but when they closed, drug addicts and homeless started to come there. Today it’s part of the Municipal public library, so they don’t pay rent. They have rooms used for dance, pilates, theater classes, etc.

We left the JCC and crossed the street to the next building, heading to the Museum of Besarabian Jews. The keeper of this museum knew a lot of the History and stories, and it was a pleasure to hear her talk. She IS the museum itself. She told us about Jews in Moldova, past and present. She said because Jews were different, they called attention to them. Different because they didn’t have the same costumes, ate differently (kashrut), didn’t work on Saturday but worked on Sunday, the children had education even if the family was poor, they didn’t accept invitation to eat at the neighbors' house (because of kashrut), what made them look not nice. The museum is small and simple, but worth the visit.

Then at 6PM we walked to the Organ Hall for a concert in homage to a Jewish composer who would be completing 80 years that day. In the program, songs in Yiddish, Russian and Romanian. It was nice to seat and rest before going to Shabbat at the Glazier’s synagogue (from Beit Chabad).

People at the synagogue were very friendly and one of the religious men knew everything about Brazilian soccer. He said it was better than Argentinean, which made me smile.
The Shabbat was a special experience, with people from all ages, including children. The synagogue is small and looks old, but it’s charming and has a very unique ceiling painting. I recently heard they are refurbishing it. Kerley sat separately from us, at the women’s section. Later she said the woman by her side was very nice and was trying to explain her everything since the sidur (pray book) was written in Russian and Hebrew, impossible for us to follow. It was 9PM and we felt we needed to leave, to go to eat and sleep. They invited us to eat with them, but it was only for men, so Kerley couldn’t stay.
So we ended up going to the Irish Pub, close to our hotel. Mauro and Kerley had the saddest hamburgers I’ve ever seen (why do you wanna have hamburgers in Moldova anyway?): grey meat, falling apart. I had a delicious lamb stew. The waitress charged twice for my bottle of sparkling water, and then explained the price in the menu was for the glass. Because a bottle contains two glasses, she charged twice. So I asked her what would she do with the bottle if I had drank only one glass, given it to the next costumer, a half-emptied bottle? She groaned at me and we paid twice.
Walking back to the hotel there were the same group of stray dogs we would encounter every night. They barked, but were harmless.

Mauro didn’t snore, and I slept like a baby while my sister was writing in her diary.

Next: more Jewish Chisinau: the cemetery, the holocaust memorial, historical sights related to the (in)famous 1903 pogrom and attending the CRONOGRAF Film Festival.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008


I left my home in Los Angeles at about 6:00 AM on May 14th, 2008. Since last week I couldn’t sleep well, just thinking of things that could go wrong, having strange dreams, but also with the hope of having a great time. My mother said nothing could go wrong with such a tight planning. She was right; there was no room for any accident, only for improvisation. So with a heart beating faster than usual, I boarded on the plane that would take me to Frankfurt, and then Moldova.

Probably almost at the same time, my dad and sister were having similar thoughts at the other side of the world, in Brazil. Sitting at the plane that would take them to Sao Paulo and then Frankfurt, my dad said “It’s the beginning, our adventure is beginning.” Later on he said “I don’t know what to expect, I hope all is going to be fine, I don’t have a precise idea of things”.

My father, sister and I were supposed to meet in Frankfurt in order to take the plane together to Moldova. I arrived 3 hours before them, so had the time to look for the Air Moldova booth and check-in. For my surprise, it was not easy to find it, even with the organizational skills of the Germans. After walking around and asking people, I finally located the booth and checked in.

Well, now I had plenty of time to wait for Shlomi. Shlomi is the grandson of Fima Tolpolar, my father’s first degree cousin, who was also born in Moldova, survived the II World War and moved to Israel with his family. A trip “back to the roots” is not the same if you don’t meet your kind.

Shlomi studies near Frankfurt and took this rare opportunity to meet us. He was as excited and nervous as us, and was extremely nice and generous. We hung out for about 3 hours before we had to take the plane to Chisinau. What can you do in a first meeting with a person that comes from afar, but is a close relative? We all tried to do everything. We laughed, hugged each other, talked about our families, and ate lunch. Shlomi is 31, so we share similar interests from our generation. He was very touched to see Mauro resembles his grandfather, and later on confessed he felt a strong connection with my father.

Shlomi also told interesting stories, like the one that his grandfather came back to Moldova years after leaving it and took revenge on the killers of his father. But he thought that also could be just a story.

My first “Moldovan experience” was actually a little misunderstanding in the plane. My seat was 6F, but when I get in the plane, there were no seats with the letter “F”. The flight attendant said I could seat anywhere, so I joined my father and sister in the same row, until somebody came over and claimed that was his seat. The flight attendant noticed that and told him there were more empty seats in the back. It worked pretty well.

Moldova from above looks beautiful, full of green hills and slopes, going up and down, like a wave.

After 3 hours we arrived in Chisinau, I could see it written in the airport. The bus took us from the plane to the arrival gate, a 30 second trip, as the airport is fairly small. I think we could have walked. The immigration area is packed with people and nobody is queuing. When I was researching on how to get the visa, some people told me I shouldn’t worry and that I could get it at the airport. That could have been true if the visa booth wasn’t closed. I was glad I had it done beforehand.

I was a bit nervous. We heard many stories of the immigration police being rude and weird, asking you stupid questions and wanting money. This was not true. The woman in the booth was actually nice and even said “Welcome”. I was finally in the country of my grandparents, a long anticipated feeling. The first thing I see coming out of the airport is a beautiful hill. The landscape is different here.

With a sign that reads “Tolpolar Family”, the cab driver is calling us; he looks like the driver from “Everything is Illuminated”. He was very tall and thin, with a big chin and almost no teeth (and the ones remaining were bad), could barely speak English and had this “special welcoming” attitude – a grin in his face and a rude feeling of annoyance. I felt like I was in a movie.

“Stop, car”, the driver would say, I guess expecting us to wait until he gets the car. He was always at his cell phone. Our first look into Moldovan streets was accompanied by a Slavic song playing in the car. But soon the regional song was followed by a well known “Come together, right now…” Beatles are Beatles anywhere…

Driving into Chisinau for the first time was an interesting experience. You see it’s a poor place (they call it the poorest country in Europe), with really old buildings. I wonder if Cuba is the same, but my dad said it’s worse. From a foreign perspective, the buildings looked extremely attractive. I had never seen such a soviet architecture in person.

The hotel is small but cute; it’s been there for only 2 years. The receptionist, a very nice tourism student called Natalie, was there to greet us. But there was nobody to help us with the luggage. At least the room was pretty spacious and nice. The beds had great mattresses, and later we learned the hotel was in a very good area in town. Time went by fast and it was almost time to meet up with our guide and translator, Natasha Alhazov.

Natasha arrived punctually at 7:30PM at the hotel for some orientation; she brought some balloons with the colors of the Israeli flag to my dad. We spent a considerable amount of time talking to her, asking questions and so on. Natasha went out with us in downtown to show where to exchange money, where to buy groceries, get a SIM card and so on.

In order to save energy, the streets are pretty dim at night, giving a peculiar atmosphere. Most of the light comes from the buildings around. After several blocks, walking by some administrative buildings and theaters, we arrived at N1 (Number 1), the grocery store. We got some beverages, cream cheese, bread, and the local delicacy “placinta”.

We came back to the hotel by ourselves, a little bit suspicious, trying not to speak Portuguese too loud, but all went well. Everything is written in two languages – Romanian and Russian – and we don’t understand either of them. We were happy to be in Chisinau.

Next: Walking around, first impressions, the first Shabbat and more pictures.