A Trip to Oliscani — memories and impressions

By Cassio Tolpolar

Abram Moshe Tolpolar, my grandfather, born in Oliscani in 1895

My grandfather, Abram Moshe Tolpolar, was born in 1895 in the village of Oliscani (Olishkany or Oleshkon, in Yiddish), in Bessarabia, Soldanesti region, now Moldova. His parents were Meyer and Ene (Spiegel) Tolpolar, and his grandfather was Chaim Tolpolar. Abram and his wife Rachel Nisenblat, my grandmother, moved to Brazil on a ship called Monte Sarmiento, which left from Hamburg, Germany, in 1931. My father, Mauro Tolpolar, and I were born in Brazil.

Meyer and Ene Tolpolar, had a grocery store in Oliscani

Meyer and Ene Tolpolar, years later

My grandfather had 7 brothers and sisters. Baruch, Rebecca and Mordechai also moved to Brazil. Yeshaya, Surke, Iankel and Nechome stayed in Eastern Europe, Nechome and Yeshaya perished during the World War II. Nechome and Surke used to live in Chernowitz, now Ukraine.

I never met my grandparents and never knew much of Oliscani, and not a lot of people did. The only reminiscences I had belonged to a few memories from the daughters of the Tolpolars who moved to Brazil. Not even my father knew anything about the village. I wasn’t even sure it could have once existed. Clara Tolpolar, daughter of Rebecca, mentioned her mother used to remember when it was snowing in Oliscani and, when they were children, they would go sledding. One day, when I was a teenager, a man came to Brazil from Los Angeles. His name was Zelman Kaufman, he was from Oliscani and knew the Tolpolars. He was the one who told us the name of all the brothers and sisters. He said my great-grandfather was an intellectual and a great cantor. It was then I was sure Oliscani was not only the place my grandfather was born, that many other Jewish families also lived there. But that was all. So in order to find out more about it and about my own roots, on May of 2008 my father, sister and I traveled to Moldova in order to see Orhei and Oliscani, the birthplaces of my grandparents.

Abram and Yeshaya beside their parents’ grave (Transcription and translation)

The gravestone in 2008

Abram’s parents, Meyer and Ene, harvested tobacco and had a little grocery market. They were killed by their own employees in 1930, who wanted to steal from them. According to my father, the killers were arrested. We have a picture of my grandfather and his brother Yeshaya beside the grave of their parents. It’s black and white, you can read the Hebrew inscriptions, but we didn’t know where the cemetery was. In the grave is written: “Here resting in peace husband and his wife that were killed in their own house Enia-Raisa Efrayim’s Daughter and Meyir son of Chayim Tolpolar, that were buried on 6 January 1930”.

Victoria Stoiciu, whom I contacted through the internet and born in Oliscani (but now lives in Bucharest), told me Jews from Oliscani used to be buried in Rezina, a village close by, and there never was a Jewish cemetery in Oliscani. So we headed to Rezina, to try to find the grave. But the old cemetery in Rezina was in such a bad shape, (most graves are partially broken, encrusted in the ground, torn, impossible to identify. The grass is tall, covering everything; it’s even difficult to walk around.) that even if my great-grandparents had been buried there, there was no way to know. So we kept driving to Oliscani.

Finally there

From left to right: My father, I, Constantin Biroe and my sister

The 91-year-old local and his wife

When I was researching about the trip, the tourist agent that provided us with the invitation to get the visa said Oliscani didn’t exist. Was it all part of our imagination? As far as I could understand, the Tolpolars came from there. Before that, I don’t know, maybe Poland, or even Spain. But Oliscani was the farthest reference in time of my ancestors. And all of a sudden I was taking a picture with my father and sister in the entrance of the village. In the back, a plate with the sign “Oliscani”. I was sure it existed. And we were there.

On our way, we picked up Vladimir Drutsa, a police commander from the Soldanesti region, who helped us in our quest for the Tolpolars. There are 4 thousand people living in Oliscani today, the last Jewish family left in 1954. Our first visit was Constantin Biroe, who worked as the mayor’s secretary for 36 years. He had just lost his wife, but welcomed us to his house, served home made wine and some sweets. For the first time I saw the little underground cellar most villagers have at home. And the wine was extremely delicious and sophisticated!

Constantin didn’t know of any Tolpolars, but he was glad to show us the neighborhood and help us out. So we all got in the van, and went straight to a 91-year old man’s house, a World War II veteran, who could be able to remember something. At first, the policeman Vladimir didn’t find him, so he had to interrogate a few people to discover the old man’s whereabouts.

Oliscani as it is now, still a small remote village

What was once a purely Jewish street

Old Jewish neighborhood

As we were entering his house, geese were fleeing out. In front of the home, his wife was sitting. Due to an illness, she couldn’t stand up to greet us. The old man was excited to receive visitors, talked a lot about women and flirted with my sister. Vladimir was taking his job very serious, and vigorously interrogated the man, but he couldn’t remember much of the Jewish community of that time, only the names of the last Jewish couple to have lived there: Basha and Avrum Starosta. There are no more Jews in Oliscani. In front of the old man’s house, I got a rock from Oliscani’s own earthly and sandy ground, and put the souvenir in my pocket.

Before going to our next visit, we stopped by the old Jewish neighborhood. There’s not much there, but Constantin showed us where once was a synagogue, where once Jews lived, etc.

Running out of time, we rushed to Victoria’s parent’s house. Victoria is a very nice lady whom I met in the internet, as I mentioned before. She gave me the address of her parents and we felt like paying them a visit. Although the dogs couldn’t stop barking at us, Maria and Ghiorgi Thimofte were very nice. One more time we had some placinta and homemade wine.

Victoria once sent me an e-mail saying her aunt had said that her grandmother (Alexandra Odobescu, born in 1912 in Oliscani) was frequently mentioning in her stories a family which was a neighbor and friend, a certain Mrs. Tolpolar. According to her, this lady, Mrs. Tolpolar, was at this time very upset, because she had a daughter, which got married in Craiova (this is a city in Romania, but at that time Romania and Moldova were one country) and she was not very happy with this marriage. She said: “Oh, as long as you have small children, you have small troubles, once you have big children, you get big troubles!”.

This same aunt also mentioned to Victoria some terrible stories with the Jewish people from Oliscani that have been killed by the Nazi. She also remembers that her grandmother never ate the fish from the Nistru, she said that many Jews were drowned in this river after being shot, therefore the fish was impure, because it was feeding himself with human flesh.

I don’t remember exactly when, but at some point we got the information that Oliscani Jews could also be buried in Vadul Rascov, a town an hour from there. So we felt like going there to try to find the grave of my great-grandparents. Because of little time, we had to rush out again, this time from the Thimofte’s house.

We left Constantin at his place and headed for the police station. With a picture of the grave in his hands, Vladimir and his colleague were trying to find out where that place could be. Another information was that Jews from that region could also be buried in Floresti, a place farther away. At that time, we were completely exhausted. It was 5PM, and we had to decide quickly if we wanted to go to Vadul Rascov or not. Sure we wanted to go, but did we have the energy for one more hour driving to a place even farther from Chisinau? And possibly to find nothing, like in Rezina? So we didn’t go.

It was only 3 months after the trip, that our wonderful guide Natasha Alhazova discovered the graves in Vadul Rascov, a finding that still touches me. The graves are partially destroyed, but you can still read, in Hebrew, the words “Tolpolar”.

Coming back to the police station in Soldanesti, Vladimir, the policeman, worked hard for our cause and we wanted to give him some presents from Brazil. He said “If you want to give this to my kids and to me, you have to come to my house”. So we surrendered one more time to the Moldovan hospitality and warmth. Vladimir, who had a serious expression on his face all the time, as if he was in his most daunting police task ever, completely changed once we got to his place. He opened up this most friendly smile and introduced us to his wife and two little boys. We sat by the table outside and had…guess what? Food and homemade wine.

Vladimir told us about their life, he feels that a person shouldn’t leave its birthplace; he/she should stay, build a family and help its town. We really enjoyed the time we spent with them, a very warm and welcoming family.

Vladimir’s photo

Vladimir wanted to take a picture “his style”. What would that be? He left the table and went in the back of the house. We waited a little and saw him coming out with three bunnies, one for my dad, one for my sister and one for me. And that was the picture. This closed our trip to Oliscani with a “golden key”, like we say in Brazil.

About our trip to Oliscani, it’s just incredible how a shtetl that was inhabited by Jews in the past now there is no reminiscence at all of this past, nothing. No buildings, no synagogues, no people, nothing. Still, the houses, streets, people in Oliscani are fascinating to a foreigner’s eye. You don’t see cars, you see horses. There’s no pavement. In front of every house, a well. In every house’s roof, a different ornament. Progress hasn’t reached it yet, and things are as authentic as they can be. Oliscani stopped in time, but its memories were engulfed by time as well.

Content last updated Wednesday, April 01, 2009 at 03:47 PM Mountain Daylight Time