Monday, December 17, 2012


I went to a friends' house for a Hanukkah dinner in Long Beach. The place was packed, great food, children running around (including my daughter), nice conversations... Until I met a woman, named Dina, who said she was from Russia. I asked where and the answer was "from the South" - with a face like "you would never know where it is so I won't say the name of the location". Insistently I asked again where. The answer was Moldova.

Just the name "Moldova" opens up room for a lot of conversation. But ours was fast. When I mentioned my grandmother was from Orhei, Dina called her husband right away and put me in contact with him.

To make the story short, we found out I am related to Emil, Dina's husband, through a common relative: Fima Tolpolar. Dina invited me to her house the next day. 

Dina and Emil
Dina and Emil are a very nice couple. Dina is a pianist and Emil was a journalist in the extinct Soviet Republic - and turned out to be a computer programmer in the States. Amongst homemade latkes and mamaliga, we exchanged stories and information, and talked to relatives in Miami who knew more about our connections - and even sent us some rare pictures I had never seen before.

It so happens that Emil's grandmother was the sister of Fima's mother! Her last name was Davidovich - and I also found out that there was a Davidovich in Brazil who was married to my dad's uncle - and was also Fima's cousin.

One of the pictures sent to us from Miami opened up multiple interpretations of what could have happened in 1930 between Tolpolar and Davidovich cousins. A mystery that, if solved, can help us picture the past.

More in the next post.

Sunday, December 2, 2012


2012 was a year of progress for our dear documentary project Mamaliga Blues. Many things have happened:

- We managed to go back to Moldova and finish shooting the film.
- The Historians Irina Livezeanu and Vladimir Solonari have joined the project as consultants.
- The great Brothers Landau will be composing the music for the film.
- There are many updates and a new section ("Press") on our website, please feel free to explore it:
- As part of the Six Points Fellowship for Emerging Jewish Artists, I was selected as a participant in Asylum: International Jewish Artist Retreat, in NY, March 2013. Mamaliga Blues was a pivotal part of the application.

Hope 2013 will bring us more great news - and the completion of the film!

For donations (ANY amount is helpful!), just go here:

Thank you all so much!

Cassio Tolpolar

Join us on Facebook:

Monday, November 12, 2012


If you look closely, every corner of Chisinau offers a visual experience. My wife Lara is the kind of person who spots the little urban details of a city most people take for granted, or simply neglect it. I took the liberty to post some of her pictures of Chisinau. There are much more, and maybe she'll write more about it later.

Saturday, October 27, 2012


When we returned to Chisinau on April 2012, our guide Natasha warmly welcomed us with a champagne bottle from Milestii Mici, the famous Moldovan winery.

Lara and I didn't drink it right away. We chose to bring it back with us and keep it for a special occasion. It so happened that my father came to visit us in Los Angeles, and flying 10,000 km is a special occasion.

We opened the bottle on October 2012, and it was still delicious.

Thanks, Natasha!

Saturday, August 25, 2012

CHISINAU-PORTO ALEGRE (and vice-versa)

My grandparents lived in Chisinau, Moldova. I was born and lived in Porto Alegre, Brazil.
I have recently traveled to both cities in 2012 and strangely noticed they share some similarities:

1) Dwindling Jewish community
Brazil never had a big Jewish community, but in Porto Alegre's state, Rio Grande do Sul, it has diminished from 12 to 7 thousand. Nobody is sure of why, but some point out that many young people are leaving. The same goes for Chisinau, that once had a huge, vibrant community, destroyed during the Holocaust and just now trying to get restructured. But it's still small.

2) Struggling economy
Brazil is one of the new leading countries in world economy, part of the "BRIC" (Brazil, Russia, India, China). But it has many political and social problems, and its vast resources are not yet being shared with most of the population. Chisinau is Moldova's capital, the poorest country in Europe. People are overwhelmed and tired by political corruption.

3) Urbanism
Both cities have sidewalks with cobblestones, twisted alleys, local and small grocery stores, old abandoned buildings, and a small (almost) international airport. The geography and architecture is a bit similar.

4) A predominant leftist ideology
Leftist politics have been popular in Porto Alegre for a long time, as well as Chisinau, which has a ruling communist party.

5) Atmosphere
No, not the quality of air. It's rather something you feel and see. People walking in the streets, cars, stores, buildings, humidity, heat, cold. I don't know if I'm dreaming of all these connections, but to me they seem true.


Wednesday, August 1, 2012


A few contacts I made in the past months didn't help me much to put some pieces together in this genealogical puzzle that can never be totally solved - only improved. But gave me more information to investigate.

The first was Francisco Wexler, descendant of Jewish Bessarabians who settled in Brazil, like my grandparents. In a conversation with my father, he said that in the village of Oliscani, in order to keep warm in the harsh winter, the houses were built with double walls. People would light the fireplace and the heat would be stored in the space in between walls - hence warming it up.

Jackie Talpalar in Israel shares an extremely similar last name, but we haven't found a connection yet. However, he said when he saw the picture of my great-grandparents grave in the Mamaliga Blues website, it was the only time he's read "Tolpolar" written correctly in Hebrew. And that is actually "Talpalar". Am I a Talpalar now...?

I don't know, but when I spoke to Semion Hinkis, also in Israel, he convincingly explained that Talpalars and Tolpolars are not directly related, coming from different villages in Bessarabia. A long time ago, Jews didn't have a surname. When the time came that the Tzar obliged them to have one, it was just a coincidence that two different families chose similar - and very uncommon -  last names. The same way all "Stein", "Kaufman", etc. may not be related. And in addition, he said "Talpa" in Romanian is not related to the shoe sole as we thought, but to a bat. Yes, the animal bat.

So it's possible that my family liked the flying rodents?

More food for thought.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

"We are Bessarabians!"

Through one of the Historians attached to Mamaliga Blues, I was able to reach Mr. Levit in New York. In his 90's, he didn't speak any English, so his son helped us out. Mr. Levit is a scholar originally from Chisinau and knew that 613 people were exterminated in the Edinitz area in July 19, 1941 - among them was Yeshaya and Sioma Tolpolar, direct relatives. He also knew of a Tolpolar in the Philosophy department of the Academy of Science of Moldova, in Chisinau in the 70's-80's. This Tolpolar was a short, young man, Mr. Levit could not remember the first name. I wonder if this could have been Volodya Tolpolar, who passed away few years before we went to Moldova in 2008.

Both Mr. Levit and his son were excited to talk. I told them about the film project, and because neither one of them has access to e-mail, I'm supposed to mail some material.

When we were saying good-bye, his son repeated several times "we are Bessarabians!". What did he want to say? I thought about it for a while. That didn't only mean they were from Bessarabia, that I knew very well. It meant, I think, that we shared a common History, me and them. They were born in Bessarabia, but I was from there as well.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

REVELATIONS (The last Jew from Oliscani?)

That's how it works: one person leads you to another person who leads you to another... it goes like that until you reach a very important person who can give you invaluable information. That's how I reached Mr. Rosenthal, who was born in Oliscani, like my grandfather and his family. Mr. Rosenthal, born in 1922, now lives in Israel. He left Oliscani when he was 10 or 11 years-old. He came back in 1954, but there was no Jewish life in there anymore. Like many other villages, Jews either left or were killed during the war. 

Mr. Rosenthal said Oliscani was a large village,
with two churches, about 7-10 thousand people. The Jewish community was small, about 25-30  families, each with a minimum of 3-4 kids, and lived primary in one street with four rows of houses. At the end of the street was a synagogue with a Yiddish Seder. There was no cemetery, people were buried in Rezina. (So why my great-grandparents were buried in Vadul Raskov???)

There was a good tradition in this village kept for years. The land was divided for housing and for agriculture, the main culture being tobacco (my great-grandparents planted tobacco). Outside the village there was reserved land, used for the newly married couples. The whole village would get together for a day of hard work and build them a new house. This helped to keep young people living in the same village, as well as increase the population.

Mr. Rosenthal remembered the Tolpolars, he said that they had a house with a big garden.

One more coincidence: in 1909 three brothers of Mr. Rosenthal's mother left for Brazil, their last name Weksler. They were very poor and all they had with them was a small bag of tobacco seeds. At that time it was possible to get in Brazil a big peace of land (1 hectare) for $1. They planted the tobacco seeds and become very successful. The place of their residence was... Porto Alegre! It so happens that my father is friends with one of the Weksler's grandson in Porto Alegre! Amazing how like has its cyclic turns.

It was hard to fall asleep the day I talked to what is probably the last Jewish living man from Oliscani.

(I would like to acknowledge the great help of Alla Feldman and Diana Gurten who helped with the translation and telling the stories.)

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


I was thinking about it when I posted something on the Mamaliga Blues Facebook page and accidentally wrote "Kishinev". There was an immediate response from a reader: "It is Chisinau, not Kishinev". True, how could I have made such mistake? But it didn't just happened. The Russian name of Moldova's capital is still very much alive in the memory of many who live there and those related to it somehow. Often when I talk to somebody about Chisinau, they refer it as Kishinev.

I think is is because this is still a new country, looking for an identity. A region that belonged to Romania and Russia across History now it's its own nation, but people haven't changed.

Maybe the response I got was telling me "hey, we are now a sovereign republic, please make sure of that". Kishinev belongs to the past. But still intrinsically connected to the present Moldova.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Do we have anything else in common besides genes?

After years researching your genealogical tree, spending a lot of time and effort, you finally find a long lost relative - now what?

You find that you both speak different languages, you were raised in different countries and you have different interests. The only thing in common is family. Is that enough?
If sometimes even direct known relatives in a family are strangers to themselves, what to say of somebody who, after so many years, connects with you? A new family member, who can be so distant but at the same time so close.

To me, it is all a learning experience, about yourself, your family, your community and ultimately, about History. Because families were separated for a reason, because of something that nobody wanted to happen. In many cases it was war, economic difficulties, persecution, etc.

Every reunion is worth it and it represents a little miracle. Because a reunion with a long lost relative is not only about finding a common ground, but also knowing more about life.

Friday, May 18, 2012


April 10th consisted of a morning walk around Chisinau, a few more footage shooting and a meeting with the folks at KSAK, the Art Center. 

street fair in Chisinau

Melina stares at Moldovan dolls
On this day, Natasha could not be with us, so she sent her son Grigory, who did a great job replacing his mom.

In the afternoon we headed to Cricova, one of the amazing underground wineries, where besides having wine tasting, we saw the one of the oldest wine in the world (1902), from Jerusalem. Its actual price is 300 thousand dollars. They said the France prime minister wanted to buy it, but at the end Cricova's winery did not want to sell it. They have an amazing collection of old wines, it's like a museum.
Jewish wine

Our Moldovan tour guide at Cricova sat next to us and asked where I was from. When I said "Brazil", he said he had a friend from Brazil who used to live in the US, he was from Porto Alegre and was an Internacional fan. What are the odds: same hometown, same soccer team fan. Small world.

In the evening we went to the Seder at the Jewish center, and blended a little with the Jewish community. We were happy to see Marina Shraibman once more. The Jewish community struggles for a revival of its once vibrant past, but as some said, it is nowadays less spiritual, more about business - and divided into different interests groups.
Marina (to the left) at the Seder
The short trip ended at the same restaurant where my father, sister and I ate in our last night in 2008. It's a small and simple place, but with great food. I had cheese and honey pancakes, Lara had varenikes, we shared it with Melina.

Our plane was leaving at 6AM the next morning. We came back to the hotel to pack and organize ourselves. That was it. Goal accomplished. Vadul Raskov, Chisinau, interviews, etc. It was fast, difficult, but worthwhile.

We arrived in Los Angeles exhausted. It's time to continue working on the documentary.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012


We started April 9th by driving around Chisinau and going to spots related to its Jewish history that we hadn't been in 2008: the Chuflinksii square, where the riots that culminated in the 1903 pogrom started, the old Jewish hospital, where the wounded were taken in the same 1903 incident, the Jewish school and the once known Milk synagogue, an old temple built in the middle of the 19th century but that now belongs to the Catholic Church. They use it for religious events. Olga from the Jewish library came with us. We ended our journey in front of the pogrom memorial.

Later the same day we were interviewed by Radio Free Europe. Here's more about it:
Many other things happened that day. We were invited for a Seder event at the Jewish center for the next evening, observed more about Moldova's capital, a few interesting things for tourists coming from America: parking is free and there is not much regulation, so cars are parked everywhere, including sidewalks, front of businesses and restaurants, governments buildings, etc.
Going to the supermarket I was impressed by huge bottles of beer being sold, like over 2 liter plastic bottles. And another unseen curiosity: pizza on a cone! Unfortunately we didn't try it.

The whole crew having lunch at La Placinta
At the end of the day, I was contacted by my sister, saying she found a certain Cristina Tolpolari online, who said not to be Jewish, but that her father had discovered his grandfather was Jewish and seemed to have relatives in Brazil. We called her father in Chisinau, Natasha spoke to him, but it all looked like misguided information. We did not follow this lead.

To end the night, exhausted, Lara, Melina and I went to a restaurant for some pizza and wine. The wine was delicious, and from Orhei, the birthplace of my grandmother. It was the most relaxing night since our arrival.

Monday, April 30, 2012

CHISINAU - 4 years later

We arrived in Chisinau on April 6th, but were only able to see the city on the 8th, after Vadul Raskov. I felt many things have changed. First, I saw more businesses and even two big shopping centers. For example, next to our hotel in 2008 there was an abandoned house - now there is a travel agency. But as people told me, more businesses does not exactly mean economic progress. Moldova's economic stagnation seems a constant, as the country primary source is agriculture and there is no real industry per se. Political problems also don't contribute much. The country didn't have a president for two years, and now the political direction is towards getting closer to Romania, creating a "Romanification" of Moldova. For some, it isolates the Russian speaking population, especially job-wise. For others, it means a political opening towards democracy, running away from (still) authoritarian Russian influence.

As an outsider, it's difficult to have a correct assessment of the situation, but it's clear that Moldovans are still very much divided.

On our second day in Moldova, we drove over Chisinau for some city footage I needed, and had lunch at Marina Shraibman's place. 

Marina cooked us delicious mamaliga, fish and salad. Lara especially loved the tea made from a dogwood tree. Melina played the piano and fed the birds outside the kitchen's window. 

We drank homemade wine and celebrated our arrival. Marina talked about Ihil Shraibman and showed us her private library of Yiddish books.

Marina is a very special person, generous and passionate. She belongs to a Jewish community that is also struggling for survival, as we later observed.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

VADUL RASKOV - reminiscences

Our main goal in this trip was to get to Vadul Raskov and see the long lost grave of my great-grandparents Meyer and Ene Tolpolar. After 4 days and 5 planes we couldn't wait any longer. We arrived at Chisinau on April 6th at 5:30PM and the next morning were in our way to the abandoned cemetery. Our guide Natasha coordinated everything, and together with the grave restorer Pavel Tuev we were also accompanied by Marina Shraibman. Marina is the widow of the last Yiddish writer in Moldova, Ihil Shraibman, who was originally from Vadul Raskov. We were glad to have her company not only in this day, but on the next days in Chisinau as well. Marina cherished us with her passion and sympathy. She automatically bonded with Melina as well.

The 3 hour trip was good to catch up with Natasha and coordinate the next 3 days. We have missed 2 days in Frankfurt and now there was a lot to do.

The weather channel showed rain for all days we were in Moldova. Luckily this first day it didn't rain. Had it rained, we would not be able to reach or leave Vadul Raskov (at least for a day). At some point, the paved road gives place to sand, and once we get to the village, there are windy tiny roads made of rocks and gravel, going up and down. The cemetery is a difficult place to get to, but once you see the graves from the distance, it's touching. I felt like we were in the corner of the world, isolated from everything, in the brink of the Dniestr river. The cemetery is indeed completely abandoned. We got off the van and a few goats followed us. We could see horses and cows in the distance, and a few locals.

Natasha could not remember where the grave was, so we started on the top of the slope, going down towards the river. However, from the top, I saw it. It was right there, easy to spot as it is much bigger than the others and the last one before the river.
I cannot express how tough it was to coordinate and shoot the scenes we wanted, plus take care of Melina, plus absorb everything that was happening. I only was able to digest what happened on this day before going to sleep, hours later. It was then I understood it. For the first time I understood a feeling that my grandfather had when his parents died. It's a big grave, where a couple is buried, a rarity at that time. Most graves were for singles only. Being at Vadul Raskov I understood that my grandfather and his siblings loved their parents and tried to honor them the best way they could, and more than that, they wanted this monument to be remembered.
The last Jewish presence in Vadul Raskov was in 1957.

I will save more thoughts about this day for the documentary, but the feeling of being there, knowing that my ancestors had been there as well, was indescribable.

I can't thank enough this wonderful group of people who made this day so unforgettably special. I wanted to acknowledge the police officer from Soldanesti Vladimir Drutsa, who, after Natasha, found the grave as well. And Melina was also fantastic. I think she knew that place was sacred. Before we left, she bowed down and picked up two rocks. As I did it when on Oliscani in 2008, we brought these rocks back with us. They are part of our reminiscences.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012


If the flap of a butterfly's wings might create atmospheric changes on the other side of the world, what to say of a tornado in Dallas? It created big changes for my wife, daughter and I.

It all started on April 3rd, 2012, the beginning of our trip to Moldova. We were supposed to catch a plane from LAX to Dallas at 6AM. When we get to the airport we find out the flight had changed to 9AM! Better safe than sorry, but we could have used a couple more hours of sleep.

Still at LAX

The flight to Dallas eventually happened, and everything was going well until the pilot announced that a severe tornado had hit the city, destroyed part of the airport and some aircrafts. We were then rerouted to San Antonio and had to wait in the plane for an hour. Nobody knew if we would continue our flight to Dallas or had to stay in San Antonio. We finally were authorized to get off the plane to soon learn that actually we were boarding again - now finally to Dallas. Needless to say that the airport was chaotic, many flights were delayed, people were nervous, shouting, families with babies like ours were also exhausted - not an easy situation for anybody.

It took us 9 hours to get to Dallas, we missed all of our subsequent connections, causing unforeseen consequences to us.

First, there were no more flights to Frankfurt that evening. We had to fly to London and then Frankfurt. That alone was tiring. When we got to London, the security officials took out all of Melina's medicine, saying we couldn't had those, but we could buy substitutes in the local drugstore. It so happened that the local drugstore didn't have the medicine we needed!

We arrive at Frankfurt in the evening of the 4th, missing our flight to Moldova. I was getting ready for that, but to my surprise our luggage was nowhere to be found. Being unable to book a next flight to Moldova and needing to wait for the luggage to arrive, we were forced to go to a hotel. To make things worse, Melina had threw up on us during the flight to London, so we were stinking and unable to change clothes. But glad to have a bed to lay down.

Next day, the 5th: we find out the next possible flight to Moldova is only on the 6th and that our luggage may be coming to the hotel by 4PM. Great, we now just need to wait, relax, eat some real food, etc. But at 4PM, nothing came. 5PM, not a word from British Airways. I called them and the lovely lady says: "your luggage was sent to Moldova" No!!!! And then she said "let me actually try to contact them and see if they can still retrieve your bags and send it over to the hotel".
"Where is our luggage???"

To make a long story short, the 5th was not all about relaxing, but a lot about waiting for a response on our luggage - that finally came at 10:30PM! I felt utterly happy, almost crying. Now we had everything and we knew we were going to Moldova.

Need some hot coffee!!!

Several times during the flight to London, and especially when Melina got sick, I thought of returning to our home in LA. "Maybe it's not this time", "What was I thinking, taking a baby in this crazy long journey?" But no, it was meant to be. All of our misfortune were meant to happen - it was only because we had to stay 2 days in Frankfurt that we got to meet for the first time our long distance cousin Alla Malamoud, who lives in Frankfurt and whose mother was a Tolpolar. It was an amazing meeting of two generations of Tolpolars that finally got together after 85 years.
Alla and Melina

Next day, the 6th: we boarded the plane to Moldova. During the check in, I see what it looked like a convicted man being escorted by two policemen. I pointed it out to Lara. And what were the odds? The prisoner sat next to me in the plane to Chisinau! It was all fine, but I was so exhausted by then that imagined him sticking a knife into my neck, and could not relax during the flight.

It took us 4 days and 5 planes to get to Moldova. I will tell everything about our time there. But needed this big intro so you can understand that this was no usual trip. Much more was yet to come.