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.