Wednesday, December 29, 2010


I recently received the latest book from my Swiss friend Simon Geissbuhler, "Like Shells on a Shore". It briefly covers abandoned cemeteries in Bessarabia, including Botosani, Bucecea, Dorohoi, Rezina, Vadul Rascov and others. Although it's a short book (107 pages), it is at the same time deep, sad, beautiful and contains very nice pictures. I was particularly interested in the Vadul Rascov segment, with pictures and description I haven't seen before.

But more than just a research and collection of abandoned Jewish cemeteries, Simon wanders in a past that is slowly disappearing, as its monuments that attest the passage of time and are the proof of a big Jewish existence in these areas, are in decay.

He writes: "The Jewish cemeteries and the synagogues are often the sole testimonies of what once was. They are powerful memorials to a civilization that was wiped out in the Holocaust, fragments of a shattered world, and reminders of an enterprising Jewish existence."

Friday, October 29, 2010


Sometime in March this year I received an e-mail from a Swiss diplomat posted in Bucharest who is extremely interested in Eastern European Jewish history, especially old abandoned Jewish cemeteries. Simon Geissbühler even published books about the subject. He had found this blog and contacted me with a few questions about Moldova, his next destination. It was then that we initiated our e-mail exchange about, amongst many other things, Vadul Rascov.

Simon heard of the city for the first time in this blog and ended up going there. His descriptions just made me more curious about it, since it’s the place where my great-grandparents are buried.

Here are a few words from Simon:
"I'm back from Moldova. We enjoyed the stay there a lot. The highlight of our visit was the Jewish cemetery of Vadul-Rascov. I have visited dozens of Jewish cemeteries before for my research, but Vadul-Rascov beat everything.
…we turned onto to terrible dirt roads to Vadul-Rascov. I have a good car, otherwise it is not advisable to drive there... A villager showed us the cemetery. The villager told us that there are almost never visitors who come to see the cemetery in Vadul-Rascov. Between October and March it is almost impossible to even reach the village. (If you have a horse, you can make it...). As it was already quite late (approximately 5 PM), we couldn't stay for a long time. I just tried to take as many pictures as possible and suck up the unique atmosphere."

And here are excerpts of his very well written paper "Rediscovering Yiddishland in Romania: Bucecea, Mihăileni, Vadul-Rashkov, Carei", presented at the Yiddish(er)Velt Festival 2010 in Bucharest on September 3 2010:

There is only scarce information about Jewish Vadul-Raşcov. Vadul-Rashkov was “a typical Bessarabian shtetl” with a majority Jewish population. In 1930, there were nearly 2,000 Jews living here. The Yiddish writer Ikhil Shraibman was born here. Aged 93, he died in 2005 in Chişinau, “obscure and underappreciated.” Shraibman created the literary Vadul-Raşcov, a poor Jewish shtetl, “unlucky in everything”, and a powerful “symbolic landscape.”

I was unable to find any definite information about Vadul-Rashkov during the Holocaust. But it is certain that a few Jews survived and settled again in Vadul-Raşcov. However, there are no Jews left in the village today. The Jewish cemetery is one of the most impressive you can find in Eastern Europe. It is incredible that it is neither on the list of the International Jewish Cemetery Project nor on the one of Lo Tishkach.

Like in other regions of Eastern Europe, the picture of Yiddishland in Moldavia, Bessarabia and Northern Transylvania is one of death and extinction. The preservation of what small evidence of the Jewish presence in these parts of Romania and the Republic of Moldova is left must be the highest priority. Not everything is lost yet; there are still wonderful, magical places of Jewish heritage. These synagogues and Jewish cemeteries form together with the Yiddish language, the literature and the music the last traces of Yiddishland. We do not need to build new, costly, architecturally sophisticated memorials. The memorials are already there: the
Jewish cemeteries and the synagogues. They are powerful and real.

Saturday, August 14, 2010


Beginning on January 2009, about 6 months after our trip to Moldova, I started to receive occasional e-mails from a certain Pavel Tuev, up to this day. The only thing was that all e-mails are written in Russian, but with help of some people, I was able to find out that the main subject was grave restoration in Moldova.

It made sense, after our guide Natasha discovered the partially destroyed grave of my great-grandparents in Vadul Rascov. Restoration was something that never occurred to me, until I started to get e-mails from Pavel.

The first e-mail was a list of services and prices. The following ones were just happy holidays’ e-mails, until the last one, which was an update on their services. Unfortunately my understanding of written Russian is zero, so I’m not able here to describe it here in detail. However, they have a website:

Who knows, maybe in the near future I will be able to go back and besides visit this grave, make an attempt to restore it to its past.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


When my father, my sister and I went to Moldova 2 years ago, I already had the intention of documenting the trip and turning it into a film (given my filmmaking background). I didn’t have any idea of what the outcome would be, but even though I took a camera, a bunch of tapes, 2 microphones and a few other paraphernalia.

I came back from Moldova with about 20 hours of footage and still no idea of what kind of footage I had and what I would be able to turn this into. This is because although I contemplated the idea, I did not hire any cameramen or anybody to help me. So I spent the whole trip with the camera in my hands, and experiencing it through its lenses. The camera was basically my eye. A very difficult task, to pay attention to your surroundings, to the framing and audio quality and at the same time understand what’s happening and be able to interact with it. And 5 languages were in place: Portuguese, English, Romanian, Russian and Yiddish.
Although I loved the trip, it was a lot of hard work. I must acknowledge my sister helped me with the second microphone, getting images’ authorizations/release and so forth. But in any case, I didn’t have any idea of the material I had. In my mind, I thought I was going to be able to edit a 5 or 10 minute promo to try to get some funding and go back with a proper crew and shoot a “real” documentary.

Two years later, two years of editing, I have to admit I have much more than a promo. I’m still putting pieces together, combining this puzzle into a film that can entertain people other than my own family, but much more confident that I have an almost completed documentary here.

There is still a lot of work to do: finishing the editing, composing the music, creating all the subtitles for the multiple languages, tightening the narrative/structure, etc. But after having directed a few shorts, this could finally be my first feature-length film. And I’m very excited for all that it represents, for everything I care, rediscovering the past, investigating your identity, feelings and perceptions of memory, possibilities for the future, understanding history and its consequences.

When the documentary is more put together, I should post some clips here. Stay tuned!

Next: Grave restoration in Moldova.

Saturday, July 17, 2010


It was a few years ago when somebody told me one could go to any library in the US and access their genealogy database – for free. It was only a few weeks ago I did that. On a Saturday morning I walked in the building and went to the computer that was booked for me. I sat down and looked for Tolpolar, Nusinkis, Fleck, Fishman and Leizarov. The most relevant result I got was for Jankel Tolpolar.

Jankel Tolpolar was the brother of my grandfather, the first of one his family to come to Brazil. For some reason, he moved back to Moldova and died there during the war. And that is the only information we ever had of him. No pictures, no other stories, nothing. When was he born, was he married, had kids, why did he go back to Europe, where did he die, how? Jankel Tolpolar was almost an unknown to us.

But that day at the library, the genealogy website shared a little bit more of this mysterious Tolpolar. In the database there was a passenger list of a ship named Konig Friedrich August, that left Hamburg in 1913, in Germany, and went to Boulogne, Southampton and then Rio de Janeiro. And in this passenger list there was the name of Jankel Tolpolar.

But it says more. Jankel was Russian, born in 1889 in Olishkany; he was single, was a businessman and travelled in a “zwischendeck” accommodation type. I asked a friend who speaks German what this word meant and he explained “between decks – probably not the best accommodation”.

This little piece of information was more than we ever had. Jankel was 24 years old when he decided to move to Brazil. He had to go to Rio de Janeiro by ship and then from there went to Porto Alegre (where my grandfather moved to in 1930). From there, he called on the other Tolpolars, probably said “this is fine, come over”. And then, one by one, advised by Jankel, some brothers and sisters moved to Brazil. And then Jankel moved back to Europe to die there, most likely single and with no kids.

The same list had another piece of information that puzzled me. It also said that in 1912, a year earlier than Jankel, another Tolpolar took the same ship but this time to Buenos Aires. His name was Herschel Tolpolar, Russian, born in 1893 in Palenesky.

I have never heard of this man before. My first inclination was to research Palenesky, but this location is nowhere to be found in the Internet. I tried different spellings, Talenesky, Palanasky, etc. but nothing.

A research always leads to another research, and there we go, endlessly looking for information that can explain more about our family and about ourselves.

Herschel Tolpolar, who were you?

NEXT: A documentary shot in Moldova.

Friday, May 28, 2010


When my wife Lara told me she was pregnant, I immediately got 2 books from the library: Pregnancy for Dummies and Economics for Dummies. Besides the usual concern for a healthy pregnancy and how we’d be able to support a little one, I was exhilarated.

I have to admit I don’t know exactly how many Tolpolars, direct relatives or not, are out there in the world, but it can’t be many. I’m happy to add it up.

Our baby is due August 29, it’s a little girl and part of the future of the Tolpolars, the continuation of our family and surname. Things like that may seem dumb, but were always in my mind, since I was little. I felt responsible for keeping the family moving on, to kind of honor the struggle of my relatives for survival and searching for a new way of life in the New World.

Now this responsibility became real.

Next: Who is Jankel Tolpolar? (a visit to the library)

Sunday, May 2, 2010


During my research of the man from Briceni, I ended up getting in contact with Fabio Koifman in Brazil through my sister. It happened that his family came from Briceni. He couldn’t help me much in pinpointing who this “mysterious” man could be, but suggested something I had never thought about: looking up in the Brazilian archives for the naturalization papers of my family members who came from Moldova. That for sure would enrich my roots research. Fabio used to work at the Archives and was able to guide me through.

Around October of 2009, I received the notice that they only found one record: the naturalization of Mordechai Tolpolar, brother of my grandfather, my father’s uncle. It was amazing; since the information we had from his daughter was that he never got the Brazilian citizenship.

I promptly ordered the documents. They would be ready in the city of Rio de Janeiro in a couple of months and then would be sent to my father in Porto Alegre and he would send it to me in Los Angeles.

It took some time, but it finally arrived in Porto Alegre. I was very excited to put my hands on it, so my father quickly mailed me the documents. “It’s a bunch of pages” he said. That got me even more excited.

It so happened that the package was sent on November 2009. It was already February 2010 and I hadn’t received anything. To make a long story short, the documents seemed to be lost somewhere and I was only able to finally see them when my aunt came to the States in April and brought it with her. Actually, the post office is still trying to locate the package at the moment I am writing this.

OK, so finally now I have the documents in my possession. I went through them as I was savoring a chocolate cake. It is amazing the amount of work Mordechai had to go through in order to get his papers, similar to my journey to get the American citizenship. But in those years (1934), they didn’t have computer and internet; things probably took much longer and were more laborious.

The document consists of copies of papers that Mordechai had to submit to get his citizenship in 1934: birth certificate, translation of his passport, affidavit of good faith, proof of no criminal antecedents, marriage certificate, pictures and fingerprints. There is also a letter from the local government office, granting him the citizenship.

I must admit the documents do not reveal anything special, but do present some curiosities. Almost everything is hand written and not very easy to read. There are a lot of misspellings and small mistakes, when attesting that Mordechai was born in “Obiscani” (and not Oliscani) in one page, and another saying he was born in Bucharest. He was also son of “Anna” Tolpolar (it should be Ene).

I guess the most interesting fact is in the passport translation. There, it says that Mordechai came to Brazil in 1923, at the age of 26 years old. It is not clear, but it looks like he came through Czechoslovakia and Germany. And lastly, what really amazed me were his pictures, taken when he was very young. My father said it’s the youngest pictures he’s seen of his uncle. I think he even looks a little like me.

It is nice to collect this kind of documents that actually do not reveal any surprise or exciting news, but attest and confirm facts that could be easily lost in time – and in the post office!


Monday, March 29, 2010


I'm sorry for not writing in such a long time, but I'm still waiting for Mordechai's papers to arrive. It seems the mail got stuck or lost somewhere on the way from Brazil, but hopefully I'll be able to get it sooner than later and keep the blog moving forward...

Saturday, February 6, 2010


When we were visiting the Zonis, Grischa gave me a tip. He said: “If you want to learn more about the murders in Cepeleutz, there is a man in Los Angeles who can tell you. I can’t remember his name now, but I know he is originally from Brichany, used to work in a farm in Cepeleutz and now lives in LA. – if he hasn’t passed yet.” So with this little information, I decided to follow Grischa’s lead, in an effort to know more about Cepeleutz, the place where Sioma Tolpolar and his wife were killed.

In order to make my search easier, I was set to find any survivors or their families who were born in Brichany and lived in Los Angeles. It took me some time.
I took advantage my sister was volunteering at the Simon Wiesenthal Center/Museum of Tolerance and asked her to see if there was anybody there who could help. She was directed to Adaire Klein, whom after a few e-mails and calls, we set up a meeting with.
Ms. Klein was very nice, we met at the Center’s library and she gave us a lot of books to research on. It wasn’t exactly what I was hoping for. What I thought she could do was to put us in contact with the survivors’ community in Los Angeles. However, the books were interesting. After rummaging through them, we left. She said to get back to her if we didn’t find anything.
After a couple of weeks, we told her we needed more help. She suggested getting in contact with Mark Katrikh, who was said to have contacts at the Builders of Jewish Education. I sent him an e-mail, but no answer. So I decided to contact the BJE myself. I e-mailed them and then called. They were a bit surprised, because at first there was no relation between them and the Russian community (that was what I started to go after), but they said I could leave a message to Alla Feldman.
I went to the internet and found out Alla was from Moldova, and then I became excited. Next day, she returned my call and was very nice. She couldn’t help much, but gave me the contact of the Soviet Jewish Association in LA. I called them right away and left a message.
Next day, a woman named Sabina returned my call. She said she was going to do some research and would call me back. Later the same day she gave me the number of a man named Simon, whom could help me. I called him and, struggling with his Russian accent, arranged to meet. He told me to meet him at his office on Monday morning.
To my surprise, the address he gave me was from Plummer Park. So I entered the building and noticed many people speaking Russian. “It must be a community center”, I thought. I asked a guard about Simon. He said nobody with this name worked there. I insisted, saying a man named Simon had arranged for me to meet him there. He asked me if the man was a Holocaust survivor, I answered positively. He told me to go to a certain room and ask for Semion. Sure: Simon = Semion.
When I entered the room I saw an unusual configuration of tables, chair and people. Three tables were separated. In each of them there was some kind of leader, who was organizing and distributing documents and information. A small line of seniors were waiting to be attended for in each table. Everybody was speaking Russian and reading Russian newspapers. I stood there for a few minutes, trying to understand what as happening and where my man could be.

I then approached a table and asked for Semion. The woman just pointed out to the other table – there was him. He gestured for me to wait a little. I then sat and observed what was happening. I never understood it, but it looked like some kind of survivor community activity, maybe dealing with bureaucracy.
After sometime, Semion approached me and gave me the numbers of two people who were from Brichany, Anna Vanshtein and Polya Kiselynk. I saw him getting the names form a list and asked to take a look at it. It was the list of all the Holocaust survivors from the former Soviet Union who live in LA. Besides their name, there was their ghetto information. I felt I was holding pure gold. I vividly went through the list a couple of times, but could not find anything familiar.
I thanked Semion and left.
Next day I called Anna and Polya. It was not easy to communicate because they could not speak English, only Russian or Yiddish. For Anna, I had to wait for her husband to come and then he helped me translating my questions. For Polya, her son luckily happened to be there and helped me as well. Unfortunately, they didn’t know about the Cepeleutz killings.
Well, at least I tried. Not sure if it’s worth taking more time for this matter. Maybe the man from Brichany has already passed. Or maybe he doesn’t live in LA anymore, who knows? Without a name, it’s difficult.
In any case, just looking for him was worth it. I made valuable connections that I hope to keep.
Next: The naturalization of Mordechai Tolpolar

Monday, January 4, 2010


It was the day my sister Kerley and I were in NY to meet with Dina Zonis. A few hours before we drove to her apartment, my sister received a phone call on her cell. She seemed a bit bewildered, and I could see that was not a normal call. Kerley was trying to communicate with the person on the other side, at some point she gave me the phone and said: “Cassio, you know a little German, right? Talk to him, I don’t know what he wants. The only thing I can understand is ‘Tolpolar, Tolpolar’…” I was a little skeptical, didn’t want to get the phone at first, but she insisted and then I got it.

The caller sounded also frustrated for not being able to communicate. I understood “Russian… Yiddish..?” I don’t speak Russian or Yiddish, but I learned some German a while ago, and that could help. So I went ahead with my poor German, better than my non-existent Russian. I don’t know how, but I was able to understand this man was Mikhail Talpalar, from Kiev, who was calling us. The communication was very difficult, but I managed to get his e-mail and he mine and we promised to e-mail each other with more details later on.

Needless to say how confused and excited we were. Whereas the call was totally unexpected, it was not purely magical. It happened that when we were in Moldova, as some of you may have read, we discovered the name of Volodya Tolpolar, dececased, but with a brother in Kiev. More than that, this Tolpolar had a cousin in Philadelphia, Zefira Parnas. Months later after our trip, I used US Search to get Zefiras number and then gave it to my sister who was living in Pittsburgh. If they needed to meet, it would be easier, I thought.

So Kerley called Zefira, who said was going to get in contact with Mikhail for us. And then many months later Kerley got this call, like this, all of a sudden. Zefira had given Mikhail my sister’s number. And then a whole new Tolpolar connection started right there.

After we returned from New York, Mikhail and I started to e-mail each other information and pictures (see two of them here: 1-Mihail’s father and mother 2-His mother and siblings) to try to find a connection between our ancestors. We talked on skype once, and he had his grandson next to him to help with English. But it wasn’t enough. However, Mikhail sent me basic information about his family and I could not find a solid connection. The cities where he and his parents were born are in the same area as my grandparents (Orhei), so besides having the same family name, there must be a relation. It’s like a puzzle that I’m still trying to solve.

A man named Aaron found out this blog and to my surprise e-mailed me saying he knew Volodya and can get in touch with Mikhail for me. Having this valuable supporter of my cause, that can communicate both in Russian and English, I will try to put some pieces together and see what I can do.

OK, the family names are not exactly the same, Talpalar-Tolpolar, but there can be something else behind it, some association, some correlation to be established with some time and research. I do hope so.

Next: The man from Brichany.